When wild beasts roamed the UK

Travelling menageries brought exotic animals to English towns and cities
Image caption Animals were often not treated according to today's welfare standards

The Victorian period witnessed a huge surge in the number of exotic beasts in the towns and cities of England - as creatures were imported from the far reaches of the British Empire. But Victorians' enthusiasms for wild and dangerous animals had some very unpleasant consequences, says Prof John Simons.

If you were born in rural England in 1837 and never travelled more than a few miles from your home, you would have been surprisingly likely to see a hippopotamus before you died.

The reign of Queen Victoria saw a surge in the construction of all manner of places where exotic animals could be viewed.

And as well as formal, educational settings - private and public zoos, natural history museums - the period brought animals for entertainment to the masses. Travelling menageries would tour towns and cities, featuring performers and their animals.

Or, if you were sufficiently interested (and wealthy), you could simply buy your own tiger or boa constrictor in a shop.

Most exotic pet shops were in London - by 1895 there were 118 wild animal dealers in London alone - but there were also shops in Liverpool, Bath and Bristol.

People could walk into a shop and purchase anything, from an elephant to a bear to a kangaroo.

And the greater politics of the British Empire drove this burgeoning industry into the rest of Europe.

Before the Suez Canal was built, for example, almost every ship coming from Asia or Africa touched land first in England. After it was built, Germany steadily overtook the UK in "the scramble for elephants".

One incident in particular became something of a legend in Victorian England. In 1857, a tiger escaped in the East End of London and prowled down St George's Street, picking up a small boy named John Wade as it went.

It was not even the first time that a tiger had been loose in that very street - one had escaped from a travelling menagerie some years earlier.

This tiger was being delivered to a shop owned by Charles Jamrach who was, at that time, the pre-eminent wild animal dealer in the world. He had a network of agents all over the globe.

Jamrach stocked all manner of exotic beasts - elephants, lions, tigers, bears, tapirs, armadillos - pretty much anything. And he claimed to be able to get his clients any animal they wanted through his network of agents.

On at least one occasion he sourced a rhinoceros.

Contemporary accounts of his premises also speak of thousands of parrots and exotic birds packed so tightly together in cages that they couldn't move.

But this particular tiger, it seems, was not content to be put on display.

As it was being delivered, it put its feet against one side of the all too flimsy wooden crate in which it was being transported, and its back feet against another side. Pushing with all its strength, it managed to burst out and make off down a busy London street.

Not willing to lose his quarry, Jamrach set off after the tiger.

In an extraordinarily incongruous street scene, he grabbed the tiger by the throat.

His account of the event, entitled My Struggle with a Tiger was published in the Boy's Own Paper - an illustrated magazine, which carried a mixture of factual and fictional stories - in February 1879.

In it he describes what happened next:

"My men had been seized with the same panic as the bystanders, but now I discovered one lurking round a corner, so I shouted to him to come with a crowbar - he fetched one and hit the tiger three tremendous blows over the eyes.

"It was only now he released the boy. His jaws opened and his tongue protruded about seven inches. I thought the brute was dead or dying, and let go of him, but no sooner had I done so than he jumped up again.

"In the same moment I seized the crowbar myself and gave him, with all the strength I had left, a blow over the head. He seemed to be quite cowed, and turning tail, went back towards the stables, which fortunately were open.

"I drove him into the yard and, and closed the doors at once. Looking round for my tiger, I found that he had sneaked into a large empty den that stood open at the bottom of the yard.

"Two of my men who had jumped onto an elephant's box, now descended and pushed down the iron-barred siding of the door; and so my tiger was safe again under lock and key."

In spite of saving young Wade, Jamrach was sued for damages by the boy's father and had to pay £300 pounds - equivalent to more than £30,000 today.

But he had one other consolation - he sold the animal to Wombwell's menagerie for the the same amount where it was exhibited as "The Tiger that Swallowed the Boy".

In 1857, England was in the grip of a panic caused by the Indian Mutiny and so a tiger - the symbol of India - was an especially frightening thing, especially when it was loose in the heart of the Empire's capital.

One contemporary newspaper account linked the event explicitly to what was going on in India.

The event is also memorialised in a strange sculpture placed in the defunct shopping centre at Tobacco Dock.

England was a clearing house for the animals of the world and they poured in by the thousand - both alive and dead.

The trade in these wild animals was unregulated - there was only the most rudimentary consciousness about the idea of endangered species.

The very first animal welfare laws had been passed by this time and, although there were concerns about the extent of the fur trade and the conditions suffered by animals undergoing live export for slaughter, there was not the systematic legislation there is today nor any international framework to protect wild animals.

Demand was high, and it persisted at the end of Queen Victoria's reign. One Indian based taxidermy company, Van Ingen & Van Ingen, stuffed roughly 43,000 tigers and leopards between 1900 and about 1950 to supply the European and Indian demand for trophies.

They moved from fair to fair with the travelling menageries, they underpinned new scientific research and they sat glumly in architect-designed cages in the grounds of the most fashionable country houses.

The capture, trade and display of exotic animals was one of the many ways in which the British Empire made its influence felt.

John Simons is executive dean of the faculty of arts at Australia's Macquarie University and author of The Tiger that Swallowed the Boy

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites