Friday, 27 January 2017

Elephants, Tigers, and Teeth! Oh My!

London has a longstanding reputation as being a city of global trade. From the Romans to the present-day, shipments of exotic goods have been making their way to this historic city from the Mediterranean, Asia, or even further afield. One site that illustrates this global outlook is Tobacco Dock, a Grade I listed warehouse located adjacent to London Docks in East London. Whilst there were a number of interesting finds on site, today we're going to be focusing on faunal remains and rather unusually a find from an undated deposit.

Fig. 1: Elephant tooth

Fig. 2: Elephant tooth

Generally speaking, bones from undated deposits are usually ignored or at best, briefly mentioned in animal bone assessment reports. This site, however, provided a rather unusual element from the topmost machined levels - an elephant tooth. PCA's animal bone specialist, Kevin Rielly, stated that 'this is clearly from an Indian rather than an African elephant, as noted by the compressed rather than diamond shape of the lamella'. Now, given the site and surrounding community's close connection with foreign travel and trade, it isn't exactly surprising to find the remains of such an exotic animal. The question is, how did it get here in the first place?

Well, there are a number of possible explanations. Perhaps it was a keepsake brought back as a souvenir from travels further afield or even a traded item. The latter stipulation could be expanded with the possibility that this item may in fact represent the remains of an imported elephant, as part of the well-known 19th century trade in exotic animals supplying various zoological collections. This would have included the zoological gardens in Regents Park, which was founded in 1829 and opened its doors to the public in 1847, charging the princely sum of 1 shilling admission. 

Fig. 3: Shipping Wild Animals in the London Docks
The Illustrated London News, 1864

Fig. 4: Bronze statue of boy and tiger

Chief amongst the companies profiting from this trade was Jamrach's Animal Emporium set up by German businessman, Charles Jamrach, operating in the East End of London in the latter part of the 19th century and followed by his son up to the outbreak of the First World War. Their premises, close to the docks and also within a short distance of the Tobacco Dock excavations, included offices and menageries in St Georges Street East (formerly known as Ratcliffe Highway) and Betts Street, as well as a warehouse in Old Gravel Lane. The arrival at the London docks of such exotic animals is shown in Figure 3, depicting a disembarking elephant as shown in the pages of an 1864 edition of the Illustrated London News. Today, a 7 ft tall bronze statue of a boy standing in front of a tiger commemorates the incident where a Bengal tiger, having escaped from its cage upon delivery, 'trotted out.... down the main street' when a curious eight year old boy, having never seen such a large cat before, reached out to stroke it.

Fig. 5: Jamrach tackling the tiger
The Strand Magazine, 1891
'A playful tap of the great soft paw at once knocked the child upon his face, stunned ; and, picking him up by the loose part of the jacket, the animal was proceeding up the next turning, when Mr. Jamrach, who had just discovered the escape, came running up. Empty-handed as he was, he sprang at the tiger’s neck from behind, and, grasping the throat with both hands, drove his thumbs into the soft place behind the jaw... at his scientific grasp the tiger, half choked, let his captive fall, when a couple of heavy blows across the eyes from a crowbar thrust into the naturalist’s hands by an attendant thoroughly cowed the great beast, who turned tail and meekly trotted back straight into the lair prepared for him, the door of which stood open for his reception. The little boy was without a scratch...'

Whilst neither the tooth nor its story are quite as dramatic as the above, they offer a unique snapshot into 19th century London and its connection to the wider world.

Join us next time as PCA continues to #DigDeeper.

Hahn, D, 2004 The Tower Menagerie, Penguin: New York
Larsson, E, 2015 Charles Jamrach’s Exotic Menagerie and the Victorian Wild Animal
The Strand Magazine, 1891
London Illustrated News

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