Victorian London - Shops and Shopping - Types of Shops - Jamrach's



LONG before "Ratcliff Highway" had been refined into "St. George Street, E.," Jamrach was a familiar name there. Indeed, for a much longer period than that, it has been a familiar name with the sailors and naturalists of many nations. The father of Mr. Charles Jamrach, the head of the East-end firm (a naturalised British subject), was the chief of the Hamburg River Police, who, through boarding vessels manned by mariners from far countries, who had brought foreign birds, beasts, &c., over with them, acquired a liking for natural history and a knack of making it pay. Both taste and trade he handed on to his son, who has been settled in St. George's for nearly half a century. His establishment consists of a bird shop and a museum in St. George Street, a menagerie in Bett Street, and a warehouse in Old Gravel Lane. They are dingy enough outside and cramped within - full of  dark comers. The plumage of some of the inmates makes sunshine in very shady places. But a good deal of money is turned over in the course of the year in the dusky little office, on whose shelves the museum begins. To both museum and menagerie drive members of the English Royal Family and nobility to make selections for themselves. Mr. Jamrach receives orders not only from the Maharajah we have settled in Norfolk, but also from many of the independent princes in India. For them to order wild beasts from England seems at first sight like ordering coals from London for Newcastle, but it is African and American specimens the rajahs require for their menageries. Zoological gardens in Europe and America, aristocratic owners of aviaries, and ornithological clubs on the continent are Mr. Jamrach's other chief customers. In England, it seems, the fancy for keeping foreign birds is not nearly so prevalent as on the Continent, but it is extending, especially, as might be expected, among the wealthier classes. The animals, &c., are collected in various ways. Sometimes collectors are sent out to India, Africa, and America; but this mode of collection is far more "risky" in a pecuniary point of view than the purchase of specimens delivered in Europe.
    Runners board vessels at Gravesend and in all the London Docks, which are likely to have brought anything which Mr. Jamrach might wish to purchase; and he has agents at Liverpool, Southampton, Plymouth, Deal, Bordeaux, Marseilles, Hamburg, and other ports, who telegraph for instructions to purchase on the arrival of likely commodities. Masters of merchantmen, again, before sailing, call on Mr. Jamrach for a priced list of animals, &c., required, and bring back as many of the things ordered as they can lay their hands on. In one transaction they very often make more than their whole year's pay. Five thousand pairs of cockatoos, &c., have been brought home in one vessel. A master sometimes receives as much as £1,000 for the produce of one voyage.
    When I was last at "Jamrach's," I was shown some china and three black panthers which had been brought over by a ship· master, who had brought over at the same time the Sumatran rhinoceros (priced at £1,000), at present lent to the London Zoological Gardens, for which, as she is a popular favourite, she will probably be bought. How queer, if her sea-voyage had not dulled her senses, the huge beast must have felt when she found herself in Ratcliff Highway.
    Another of the "Zoo's" rhinoceroses, the hairy-eared "Begum," captured by elephant-hunting British officers in Burmah, was bought from Mr. Jamrach for £1,250. On my last visit to his place, he had only a stuffed elephant in stock; but I may mention here that he "quotes" live elephants at £300 a head. Of the other animals of his ever-varying stock which did not happen to be on hand at that time - his slack season - may also as well jot down the prices:-

Zebras £100 to £150 each.
Camels £20
Giraffes £40
Ostriches £80
Polar Bears £25
Other Bears from £8 to £16
Leopards £20
Lions £100
Tigers £300

The rations in Ratcliff Highway for full-grown lions and tigers are eight pounds of meat each per diem. To show that the above prices are calculated according to popular taste as well as others afterwards to be quoted I may add that having struck a pecuniary keynote for my children, and then read out to them a list of Mr. Jamrach's .animals, they guessed the prices at which he had appraised them in the majority of instances very closely in some cases exactly to a pound. They were out in the case of the giraffe; and, indeed, £40 seems a low price for that fleet creature, of which fifty years ago there was only one live specimen in England, a present from Mohammed Ali to George IV., which soon afterwards died at Windsor. An American, wishing to exhibit it, offered £20,000 for the Ratcliff Highway museum, but the money was refused. The museum includes tropical beetles glorious with shards of green and gold, and tropical butterflies like tropical blossoms, or costliest satin and velvet embroidered with creamy lace, and be-dropt with precious metals and precious stones. The collection of shells contains some not to be found at the British Museum. Dr. Gray, of that institution, has named a rare volute after its discoverer Jamrachi. Amongst his treasures of the deep he has another rare shell from the Pacific - the Cypraa aurora if I remember rightly - which, when found, is reserved for the decoration of the chief. With East-end dust instead of South Sea sand upon them, those many-coloured shells with their whorls, cones, spires, and spines, and linings of iris-shot mother-of-pearl, have a very curious effect. The muddy bustle of the squalid Highway rumbles and rattles past them instead of
    "The league-long roller thundering on the reef."
    A French professor once gave 6,000 francs for a Spondylus regius, and then, to his horror, sat down upon it, as Sir Walter Scott did upon the royal wine-glass, which his, in this case, snobbish loyalty had induced him to put in his pocket. I do not know whether any single shell at Jamrach's would now cost so much, but you might soon get rid of a good bit of money in a very unpleasant way by making shell-purchases there, and then sitting down on them. The museum contains also the stuffed elephant mentioned before, which died in the menagerie; two bisons' heads and an eland's; African antelope horns; skins of the almost extinct owl-parrot, and the apteryx, or kiwi, that queer bird which looks so much like an old gentleman, with a very long and "picket" nose, tucking in a scanty Inverness wrapper between his knees. The museum has, moreover, a Maori's model, in wood and glass, of a Great Exhibition building; a mummy found in a saltpetre mine; Peruvian pottery - water "monkeys" with very small apertures, and porous, so as to have had the property of keeping their contents ice-cold - found in the tombs of the Incas; clay masks, with projecting chins and hideously grinning teeth - - very like little death's heads - found in the tumuli of Mexico, and supposed to be likenesses of a primeval pigmy race; repoussé work; implements of war with which the Crusaders and the Saracens banged and hacked and prodded each other; Japanese swords, with stone-ray handles, and "happy dispatch" supplementary daggers; waddies, nullahs, boomerangs, spears, womeras from Australia; more implements of war, and curious cloths, and podgy little idols - dropsical-looking divinities - from Fiji, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, &c.; Sevres ware in satin-lined cases at £5 a plate; old bronzes; quaint and dainty ivory carvings - some of pagodas; grotesques carved in tea-root; droll, unperspective screens; porcelain Chinamen laughing from ear to ear; porcelain dragons with dimmed gilding; old China ware of all kinds from Kaga, Satsuma, &c.; vases in porcelain and in metal, some inlaid in curious patterns with ground turquoise, others that once belonged to the Great Mogul adorned with texts from the Koran, running from a foot to six feet in height; the price of these blue grenadiers being some £200 per pair.
    The museum is the depth of a house and the height of two floors, a gallery fringing it midway up; but it is so crowded that progression as discreet as that of a cat walking among broken bottles on the top of a brick wall is necessary on the part of a traverser of its alleys of curios. Mr. Pardiggle would be in agonized dread of bankruptcy if his spouse were to find her way there, even in these days of figure-fitting skirts.
    "What for plunder!" a stranger is apt to meditate, like Blucher although, of course, with non-personal reference as he looks upon the fancy-priced riches of the show. But the proprietor professes himself quite free from apprehension on this head. No burglar ever tried his premises; it is a vulgar error, he says, to suppose that any professional robbers are to be found in the district of East London, frequented by the modem mercantile Ulysses and Calypso. Perchance a salutary dread of being gobbled for supper by a lion or a tiger, or dark-chokered by a boa-constrictor, may have had something to do with Mr. Jamrach's immunity from depredation. On my last visit there was only one snake on the premises a python snugly coiled up for the winter in his blankets. His Longness's price was £3.
    As for birds, one room was full of cockatoos, cackling and fussing about in their white robes like a lady's school alarmed by a cry of fire. A bird-Shop needs no shop-door bell. To those who have seen the white cockatoo flying free in flocks, like rooks at home, making the dusky creekside roosting-tree suddenly burst forth in milky or rosy-snowy blossom, when the circling, screaming flock has at last settled in the westering sunbeams, it seems at first hard to find Pretty Cocky in captivity; but he grows such a familiar, saucy fellow when his wings are clipped so ready to "show his blanket" and to bite his master's imperfectly-slippered heels that the pity cannot last long.
    "Leadbeaters" were priced at £3 each, a "Nosecus" at £2, grey parrots at £1 each, a white-fronted Amazon at £2, a "cut-throat" parrot at £1, a masked parrot from Fiji, a funny-looking, black-faced fellow, at £10; a pair of Australian king parrots, looking very much like pompous flunkeys in their green coats and red waistcoats, at £4; forty-two Yendaya parrakeets at £3 each; bloodwing, Nanday, macaw, ring-neck, half-moon, blood-rump, blue-bonnet, and Pennant's ditto, at prices varying from £1 to £6 each. Two blue and yellow macaws were set down at £5 each, and a red one, like a flame of fire, at the same price.
    For a wonder, there was not a single specimen in the shop of the budgerigar, or betcherrygah, as the zebra, or shell parrakeet is also called, a name which, however spelled, means simply, l believe, the "good" or " beautiful" bird. Most certainly these tiny parrakeets, sometimes confounded with love birds, are little beauties; plumage the colour of spring com, striped and speckled with yellow and bloomy black, a yellow forehead like a golden fillet, and purple beauty-spots upon the cheeks. The dainty little creatures have also a fitly dainty little voice. In Australia they sometimes swarm about the gum-trees, with whose dull bluish-green, verdigrised-metal-like foliage their bright plumage so piquantly contrasts; but they had never been seen alive in England until Mr. Gould brought home a specimen about forty years ago. Now, however, Mr. Jamrach sometimes buys a thousand pairs at a stroke, and exports them at once to Paris, Antwerp, and other places on the Continent (where, as well as in England, they will breed), at 8s. a pair, instead of the high prices they once commanded. In South Australia the little beauty sells for 6d., and is bought, heu, infandum! for shooting matches; 8s. a pair is also the price of the zebra finch, of which there were flocks at Jamrach's on the occasion to which I refer. The air of one room, with a sloping platform of perches, whirred with the Butterings of the pretty little fellows. In another room stood a pile of tiny cages, in which a number of small birds, priced at 4s. a pair, had just arrived from Africa. Amongst other late arrivals were a coop of painted grouse, the first ever imported, and a big-headed, bright-eyed, Australian night jar, almost as innocent of body as a cherub, known as the morepoke or morepork, from the cry it utters as it floats about on silent, unflapping wing.
    For £20 I might have bought two squashes, for £3 a hen bird of paradise, for £12 a pair of fruit doves from Coc:hin China, for £10 a green·billed toucan, for £15 a black and white hornbill (both of these birds having a disagreeable suggestiveness to a visitor at Christmas time), for 5s. a pair of St. Helena waxbills, and for £150 five vulturine guinea fowls from Zanzibar, which, in spite of their high price and haughty look, were very contentedly pecking at some wilted cabbage.
    Black swans, with their red ceres, white pinion feathers, and musically fluting voices, are no longer rara aves in our lands, or rather ornamental waters. Those sprawling in their straw at Jamrach's were priced at £5 each.
    There were also there a fine Australian cassowary, £50; a native companion, so called from the readiness with which, although a very wary bird when wild, it can be tamed, an Australian blue crane with no tail to speak of, a red hood, and a black comforter, £20; eight piping crows and three white-backed ditto, from Tasmania, at £2 each.
    The goose was represented by one homed one, £6; three barheaded, £4 each; and two Sebastopol, £2 each: the duck by a smart Mandarin drake, £4; and Carolina ducks at £3 a pair. The price of the pair of crowned pigeons from New Guinea, more heavily plumed than hearses, was £40; of the Nicobar pigeons, £5; and of the harlequin doves, £1 per pair.
    The Rev. Harry Jones, rector of the parish in which Jamrach's is situated, has said in one of his books that he believes he is the only clergyman in England who, if he wanted a lion before breakfast, and had money to buy it, would only have to send round the corner to get one. But this does not always hold good. There were no lions, or tigers either, in the menagerie on the occasion of my visit. It had, however, four black panthers, £150 each, which growled and sprang at the bars of their cramped cages as if they would like to make a meal of one. Since Jamrach's was established there has been only one alarming escape from confinement I there that of a tiger that got loose some years back. A striped hyrena, £10, also regarded all passers-by with a very unamiable I expression of countenance. But, on the other hand, a pair of pumas, £50, and a pair of cheetahs, or hunting leopards, £80, allowed their keeper, a little man very like Phil who waits on Trooper George in " Bleak House," to fondle them, and in return rubbed their heads against him, just like domestic cats. The caracal, £12, Indian or African, notwithstanding its reputed wildness, put up its back as it walked to and fro, looking very like a long-shanked domestic cat, as if it would like to be tickled when the little man went by. He was on excellent terms, also, with a Persian greyhound, £25, and a handsome eland, £60; and two male South American tapirs, £40 each, let him twist their long, lithe snouts about as if they had been bits of indian-rubber. The spotted ocelot, £10 seemed fierce, nor did the civet cat, £2,appear to covet caresses. Long-haired Persian cats like locomotive rugs, were priced at £3 each. An Asiatic deer was priced at £15. I forget the variety, but it was not, I think, the elegant wide-antlered one, whose coat, like the earth, changes from dull neutral tint in winter into summer's glorious gold. A Boubaline antelope was priced at £40; a ram moufflon the wild sheep not only of Asia Minor and Cyprus, but of Corsica and Sardinia, a favourite quarry of Victor Emmanuel's, at £6.
    The menagerie is largely supplied from Australia. It has often held wombats, a somewhat badger-like burrower, except that it has none of the badger's fierceness; but Mr. Jamrach tells me that, although he has given order after order to ship-masters, he has never succeeded in procuring a live specimen of the koala, or native bear (Phascolarctus cinereus). Either from cold, or failure of its favourite food, fresh eucalpytus leaves, the poor constrained emigrant has generally died when about three days out at sea. This curious creature wears a grey paletot, with a white cravat, and a white patch on the other extremity of its person, which looks like a shirt-tail hanging out, and on this it carries its young, tiny chips of the old block. It has a hairless face, beaded with black eyes, and no tail.
    Her bats are other of Australia's curious animals - flying mice, flying squirrels, and frugivorous flying foxes. One of these last frightened a man of Captain Cook's a Cook's tourist of the period into the belief that he had seen the devil; and, indeed, they have not a much better reputation now with Australian owners of gardens and orchards, when they come floating down at dusk, like fallen cherubim, to feast upon the peaches hanging from the standard trees like apples in England. Of these queer things - the flying foxes, I mean - Jamrach's, at the time of my visit, had fifteen young ones, hanging up by the heels like hams, and priced at a pound apiece. It also contained a "boomer," or rather boomah, kangaroo, £25, a marsupial famous for its size and the savoury soup made out of its tail; a doe black wallaby, £12; a kangaroo rat, £2 - a kangaroo in miniature, which prefers running on all fours to hopping; and an Australian phalanger - less learnedly, a possum £ 2, a good deal sleepier than it would have been if at home on that hour of the twenty-four. In that case, instead of snoozing in frost-foggy London daylight, Possy would have been scampering, growling, up and down a gum-tree by silvery Australian moonlight, swinging from a bough, or seated on it embossed upon a gold-dotted onyx sky; or, if a domesticated pet, opening cupboard doors in midnight burglary, and abstracting the contents of the sugar-basin.
    Two Spanish donkeys, 12½ hands high, were priced at £40 each; a Japanese ape at £15; and a black-and-white shaggy Iceland bull and cow, 32 inches high, at £15 each.
    I have nothing further to state, except to assure my readers of naturalist tastes that, for whatever they want, from a hippopotamus to a humming-bird, Jamrach's is the very place to go to; and to thank Mr. Jamrach and his son for their courtesy in allowing me to inspect their curious place of business, and giving me information concerning it.

Good Words, 1879