Whilst doing a little research about the Regent’s Canal, I came across the following story which is relatively unknown compared the Jamrach and the Tiger incident illustrated above that happened in 1857 on Ratcliffe Highway. Well before Jamrach set up his emporium, George Wombwell was the undisputed King of the Menageries and he had a base in Commercial Road near to the Regent’s Canal.
From there he travelled all over the country to the many fairs to exhibit his wild animals, however he also used his base in Commercial Road to buy animals bought from all over the world by sailors who berthed in the local docks. He would then sell the animals on to Zoo’s and other interested parties.
The following newspaper report is from 1839 and is interesting for more than one reason, the local characters such as Mr Thomas and the Irish Coal Whipper are particularly entertaining.
Escape of a Large Bengal Tiger – 1839
Escape of a large Bengal tiger from Wombwell’s menagerie at Limehouse, near the Regent’s-canal Dock-bridge. It appeared that the animal broke loose from its den about half-past seven o’clock, and found its way into the Commercial-road, where it was first seen leisurely walking along by Mr Thomas, a boot and shoe-maker in Ratcliffe Highway. He first observed the animal near the White Horse-gate. and, supposing it to be a bear, called out to a female who was near him, ” Stand back. here is a bear coming ” The young woman immediately threw off her pattens, and ran away down an adjoining street leading towards Shadwell, and was not seen again.
Directly afterwards the tiger passed Mr Thomas who had sought refuge in a doorway. After the tiger had passed him. Mr Thomas, lost no time in communicating the circumstance to all the policemen in the vicinity, who proceeded in various directions, and warned the passengers of the locality of the dangerous beast. The tiger in the meantime continued his course along the Commercial-road, the people flying in great terror on his approach, until he met a large mastiff dog, which he instantly attacked, striking the dog on the back with his paw and crushing him with a single blow, and seizing the poor animal with his teeth threw him into the air. The dog fell lifeless on the ground, and the tiger then continued to amuse himself with the carcase for some time, running up and down the road with it until he reached a house near the bridge. The gate of the garden having been left open, he entered with his prey and laid down to devour it. The only person at-home was a servant girl, the family being absent at church. Hearing a noise in the garden she took a light, and went to the door to ascertain the cause. upon opening the door several policemen called out to ‘her to close it directly, and keep within the house: and it was fortunate she did so, for at that moment the tiger, attracted by, the light, was about to spring upon her.
The tiger remained in the garden for some time, busily engaged in devouring the dog, until a policeman, more bold than the rest, advanced towards the spot, and closed the gate upon it. A stout rope was immediately procured, and a slip noose having been made It was thrown across the animal, which made a sudden spring towards the railing, about six feet in height, separating the garden from the foot path. In doing so, the noose fastened itself round it, and the tiger remained with its head towards the ground, and loins on the rails for some time, roaring tremendously and alarming the whole neighbourhood.
The mob, which had kept at a respectful distance while the animal was at liberty, now advanced; but although the beast was under some restraint, it struggled violently, and made use of its fore paws. One man, an Irish coal whipper, who got too near, had his cheek torn open and his belly severely lacerated. So great was the curiosity of the populace, that the police had great difficulty in keeping them beyond the reach of danger! and some fool hardy, half-drunken ballast-getters and coal whippers were with some difficulty, restrained from making an attack upon the tiger.
The keepers of Wombwell’s menagerie were soon apprised by the police, and brought ropes, which they fastened round the tiger’s neck, and after a good deal of resistance led him back to his den. One of the keepers was severely injured while securing the animal, which tore his hand, and put him in great pain. It was some time before the neighbourhood recovered from the alarm which this event occasioned. It appears that the door of the tiger’s den had been incautiously left open, and it broke a chain by which it was secured to the side of the cage or caravan, and got out.
The aftermath of the drama was Mr Wombwell was bought in front of the local magistrates who had been told there had been other occasions when an animal had escaped. Apparently a Polar Bear had escaped a few months previously which had nearly killed a passer-by. Mr Wombwell’s defence was that all the animals had been trained to appear on the stage and were docile, he claimed it was the dog that had frightened the tiger and led to the incident. Amazingly he got off with the recommendation that he should make sure there was no reoccurrence.
But even if Mr Wombwell kept his promise, the people of Limehouse , Shadwell and Wapping were not safe from attacks from wild animals. In 1857, a large tiger escaped from Jamrach’s menagerie and attacked a young boy, Jamrach himself wrestled with the tiger and eventually rescued the boy.
To celebrate this event, there is a statue now in Tobacco Dock that show the incident between the tiger and the little boy.
Jamrach’s and Wombwell’s were not the only menageries on Commercial Road or in the area, thankfully by the twentieth century these type of establishments were dying out and people could walk down the road without the possibility of facing a tiger or a polar bear.