Johann Christian Jamrach was born in Hamburg, Germany, in March of 1815. His father was chief of the Hamburg river police but established a thriving trade as a dealer in wild and exotic animals because of his contact with sailors. In 1840, when Jamrach’s father died, Jamrach immigrated to London and took over his father’s business, which is why he was sometimes called the “wild-beast man.” His animal business then became the largest in the world and included a shop and museum.
Jamrach was known as Charles Jamrach in London and had one close rival named Edward Cross. He was the owner of a menagerie at Exeter Exchange on the Strand. Jamrach’s Animal Emporium, as it was known, was located in the East End on Ratcliff Highway (later known as St. George Street), and he also maintained a menagerie on Betts Street and a warehouse stuffed full on Old Gravel Lane.
Jamrach’s profitable business sold and displayed a variety of animals. Selling prices for these exotic animals ranged from £1,250 for a Sumatran rhinoceros to between £8 and £16 for ordinary bears. Some of the animals available for purchase included black panthers, rhinoceros, elephants, zebras, camels, giraffes, hyenas, pumas, elands, tapirs, ocelots, deer, antelopes, ostriches, polar bears, ordinary bears, leopards, lions, and tigers. Among the creatures displayed in the museum were “tropical beetles glorious with shards of green and gold, and tropical butterflies.” These appeared to be created from the “costliest satin and velvet embroidered with creamy lace, and be-dropt with … metals and precious stones.” There was also a stuffed elephant, horns from an African antelope, an eland and two bison heads, with “skins of the almost extinct owl-parrot, and the apteryx, or kiwi, the queer bird which looks so much like an old gentleman.”
Birds were also plentiful, and buyers could purchase almost any kind or type of bird they desired as Jamrach sometimes purchased as many as one thousand birds in a single deal. One visitor noted how one of the rooms was crammed with “cockatoos, cackling and fussing about in their white robes like a lady’s school alarmed by a cry of fire.” There was also an endless variety of other birds, such as parrots, parakeets, macaws, grouse, doves, toucans, hornbills, swans, cranes, geese, ducks, pigeons, owls, eagles, and cassowaries. There were so many birds, it was maintained that “the air of one room, with a sloping platform of perches, whirred with the fluttering of … pretty little fellows.” One visitor to the room stated:
“A large trellis-work of perches runs across the room, and on this, as well as on the window, the pretty little creatures sit in clusters, billing and cooing, or alight upon the floor to pick up the seeds with which it is plentifully strewn. A constant whirr of wings and a dazzling sheen of brilliant plumage every in motion, and reminding one of some pyrotechnic display.”
The museum was the same size as a house. It had two floors with a gallery and it was stuffed from floor to ceiling with treasures and so crowded it was practically impossible to traverse. This caused one person to state “that progression as discreet as that of a cat walking among broken bottles on the top of a brick wall [was] necessary on the part of a traverser of its alleys of curios.”
Some of the other museum’s treasures were shells so rare they were claimed not to be found even at the British Museum. Some came from the Pacific and many examples had “whorls, cones, spires, and spines, and linings of iris-shot mother-of-pearl.” The shells were also sometimes worth more than the animals or the birds, which is illustrated by the fact that “a French professor once gave 6,000 francs for a Spondylus regius, and then to his horror, sat down upon it.”
The animals and birds usually arrived by boat and were transported from the docks in crates or cages. With all the animals, Jamrach was lucky that during his lifetime there was just one alarming incident. It occurred on 26 October 1858 and involved a Bengal tiger. Apparently, the full-grown tiger was being moved in a rough wooden cage from the docks to Jamrach’s shop, and when Jamrach and his men turned their backs to prepare the cage for the tiger’s reception, the tiger “set his hind quarters against the back of his temporary receptacle, and, using all his strength, managed to burst out the boards.” Then without anyone noticing, he trotted down the street. You can imagine the reactions of people on Ratcliff Highway, they “skedaddled.”
One 8-year old boy saw the tiger and having never seen such a fabulous animal decided to pet it and extended his hand. The boy’s stroke was returned with a playful tap that “knocked the child upon his face stunned; and, picking him up by the loose part of the jacket” the animal was proceeding up the road with him when Jamrach discovered the tiger’s escape.
Jamrach was a powerful man and when he saw the animal with the boy in its mouth, he attacked the tiger from behind grasping its “throat with both hands, [and driving] his thumbs into the soft place behind the jaw,” which caused the tiger to choke and loosen its hold, letting the boy fall. Jamrach also delivered several heavy blows with a crowbar. One paper published this report of the incidence:
“[T]he savage beast was … soon captured by Mr. Jamrach and his men. The former acted in the most daring and determined manner by seizing the tiger by the head, while the others secured the animal with ropes, after relinquishing its hold of the boy. It was then dragged into a warehouse yard, and placed in a den well secured. The nose of the animal is much bruised and broken by the blows inflicted on it by Mr. Jamrach with a crow-bar.”
The child was greatly frightened and did not speak for four hours after the attack. He was also taken to the hospital, where he thought he might die, but he fully recovered physically in 8 days. Unfortunately, despite his physical wounds healing quickly, his mental state was greatly affected and he suffered emotionally. One newspaper reported:
“When he came home from the hospital he was placed in a bed with his little brother, but had to be removed in consequence of turning upon him and biting him as if he were a tiger. His mother removed him to her own bed, where he acted in the same way towards her, calling out, at the same time ‘The tiger! The tiger!’ At school he also conducted himself in a strange manner, and appeared to labour under an apprehension that he was exposed to some danger.”
Because of the tiger’s attack, Jamrach was brought to trial. One newspaper printed the results:
“Lord Campbell said the simple question was whether the sum of £10 paid into Court by the defendant was a sufficient compensation for the injury sustained by the child. There was no imputation upon Mr. Jamrach, who behaved with great courage on the occasion in grappling with the tiger. The jury conferred together and returned a verdict for the plaintiff — damages £60 being £50 more than had been paid into Court.”
After the incident, Jamrach sold the Bengal tiger for £300 to George Wombwell, a famous menagerie exhibitor in Regency and early Victorian Britain who founded Wombwell’s Traveling Menagerie. He then exhibited the tiger throughout England and thanks to exaggerated reports was able to claim it was “the tiger that had eaten a boy alive in Ratcliff-highway.”
-  Good Words, Vol. 20, 1879, p. 166.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 167.
-  Ibid.
-  “Jamrach’s Menagerie,” Evening Telegraph, 20 May 1879, p. 4.
-  Good Words, Vol. 20, 1879, p. 167.
-  Ibid., p. 166.
-  Ibid.
-  George Newnes, The Strand Magazine, Vol. 1, 1891, p. 433.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  “A Poor Dear Tiger,” in Chester Chronicle, 7 November 1857, p. 2.
-  “The Tiger and the Boy,” Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 11 February 1858, p. 3.
-  Ibid.
-  George Newnes, 1891, p. 434.