Discover more from Histories
How much for an elephant? 1875
I suppose that there is no other place in the world where a domesticated parson could ring his bell and send his servant round the corner to buy a lion…
Last week I told the story of the wild animal trader Charles Jamrach and how his escaped tiger attacked a boy. While any animal lover couldn’t fail to be concerned at the conditions these creatures would have been kept in, it’s hard not to be fascinated by this whole business. In fact, numerous journalists of the time were equally intrigued, and newspaper reports abound with eager reporters visiting Jamrach’s various East End premises.1
Another enthralled observer was the local vicar for the parish of St George’s-in-the-East, one Reverend Harry Jones. I’m indebted to the parish website for details of his life: he was born in Suffolk (his father was a vicar too) in 1823, studied at Cambridge, and was a vicar in Westminster before moving to St George’s in 1873 – a transition reflected in the title of his 1875 book East and West London. A 1912 account describes him as “a broad-minded, generous man, big and strong, and of imposing appearance, and he was also a man of peace”. As well as his London memoir, he wrote travel books about the Alps, America and the Middle East – and even some children’s books. He died at the very end of 1900.2
In East and West London, Jones gives us a lively account of “Mr. Jamrach, whose beasts are my parishioners” and his emporium from the perspective of a near neighbour, and here it is…
Histories is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
…I suppose that there is no other place in the world where a domesticated parson could ring his bell and send his servant round the corner to buy a lion. Had I a domestic capable of discharging such an errand, and a proper receptacle in which to put the article when brought home, I could indulge the whim for a lion at five minutes’ notice. My near neighbour, Mr. Jamrach, always keeps a stock of wild beasts on hand. Anyhow, if he happened to be out of lions, I should be sure of getting a wild beast of some sort at his store. A little time ago one of our clergy, who knows of almost everything going on in the parish, happened to remark to me that Mr. Jamrach’s stock was low. He had just looked in, and the proprietor said he had nothing particularly fresh then, only four young elephants and a camelopard, beside the usual supply of monkeys, parrots, and such small deer.
The wild beasts are kept in Betts Street, within a bow shot of my door, but the shop in Ratcliff Highway is always full of parrots and other birds. The attitudes and gestures of those exposed for sale are always curious and sometimes comical. I was much struck the other day with the pose and expression of a posse of owls on view. They sat side by side full of thoughtful silent wisdom, with just a twinkle of possible humour in their eyes, like judges in banco; while in an oblong recess within the shop beyond them there were twenty-four large and perfectly white cockatoos standing in two precise rows, shoulder to shoulder, and giving out their best notes, exactly like a surpliced choir. In another room were two thousand parroquets flying loosely about, or clustering like flies upon the window frames in ineffectual attempts to get out. The incessant flutter of this multitude of captives filled the air of the apartment so thickly with tiny floating feathers that they settled on our coats like flakes of snow. We came out powdered. The twitter in the room was, of course, incessant and importunate. There is a great demand for talking parrots. Mr. Jamrach always has orders in his books for more than he can supply. The parrots kept in stock are all young and unlearned. They look like the rest, but education marks the difference in the world of birds as in that of men.
The selling value of wild beasts varies very much. You must pay about £200 for a royal tiger, and £300 for an elephant, while I am informed you may possibly buy a lion for £70, and a lioness for less. But a first-rate lion sometimes runs to a high figure, say even £300. Ourang-outangs come to £20 each, but Barbary apes range from £3 to £4 apiece. Mr. Jamrach, however, keeps no priced catalogue of animals, but will supply a written list of their cost if needed. He does not, moreover, ‘advertise,’ so much as royally ‘announce’ his arrivals. Certain papers in London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, occasionally contain a bare statement that such and such beasts and birds are at ‘Jamrach’s,’ no address being given. He has customers in all the Zoological Museums in Europe, and the Sultan has been one of the largest buyers of his tigers and parrots…
Mr. Jamrach has great and, I suppose one might say, mystic power with beasts. His business, though, is not confined to the animals of the earth and the air. You may find curious products of the water in Mr. Jamrach’s back-room. I especially recollect a vessel of telescope fish from Shanghai, queer little creatures with eyes starting out of their heads like the horns of a snail. These were on their way to the Brighton Aquarium.
Besides the store of birds, beasts, and fishes, there is a collection of all sorts of heterogeneous things from all parts of the world—armour, china, inlaid furniture, shells, idols, implements of savage warfare, and what not. Mr. Jamrach not only collects in comparative detail, but does not overlook the promising purchase of a whole museum. Some time ago he brought one in the lump from Paris. No wonder that the Ratcliff Highway is visited by many with money in their pockets for the purchase of antiquities and curiosities. From what I have seen I fancy that sometimes a good judge of these things can pick up a bargain here.
Beside that of Mr. Jamrach’s, we have divers shops for the sale of birds, especially parrots, and I imagine that many a sailor turns his collection of foreign curiosities into money within the limits of St. George’s.
Apparently Jamrach charged at least £1000 for a rhino. If you’d like to compare that with a rhino sale nearly 200 years earlier, here’s something I prepared earlier…