The Crime Readers' Association

‘Witness for the Prosecution: Jumbo Saves the Day’ by JC Briggs

13th July 2022

I am always astonished by the interesting and extraordinary stories which turn up during my research for the Charles Dickens Investigations. Some things can’t be used and remain in the memory just as curiosities, but some so appeal to the imagination that I can’t help wondering how I might develop a little twist or turn in the plot to include them.

I wasn’t looking for elephants, or any beast of the field or bird of the air. (I was browsing The British Newspaper Archive for cases of forgery, the forgery of banknotes, in particular.) But there they were, arrived from India into St. Katharine’s Dock on 24 November 1851:

‘a brace of gigantic young elephants, a male and female, purchased in India. They will be put into training immediately and make their debut as soon as they will be accomplished in the novel roles they are to sustain.’

They were destined for Astley’s circus which was situated in Lambeth on the south side of the River Thames and famed for its equestrian performances. Shakespeare’s Othello was performed on horseback, it seems – an idea I can’t quite get my head round. There were ‘zoological spectacles’ as well, featuring leopards and lions and tigers, even zebras. In 1853, Mr William Cooke’s elephants were advertised to appear in an entertainment entitled The Magic Gong – my elephants, I wonder.

Dickens wrote about Astley’s in Sketches by Boz and The Old Curiosity Shop. He was all for entertaining the working people whose lives were generally poor and pretty miserable. Dickens didn’t comment on the treatment of the animals at Astley’s, but he did protest against the practice of feeding live animals to the seventeen-foot-long boa constrictor at Regent’s Park Zoo. The practice did not end until nearly twenty years later.

However, there is evidence of the devotion of some keepers to their exotic charges. Jumbo, the elephant, arrived in 1865 in a very poor condition. His keeper, Matthew Scott, looked after him with constant and loving care. Alice also arrived in 1865 and was walked from the dock all the way to the zoo, accompanied by several hundred dirty, ragged urchins.

Aside from the natural revulsion I felt as a modern reader at the idea of performing elephants and elephants enduring such long sea voyages – as much as five months – as a writer I couldn’t help being tempted to ask how I might squeeze – perhaps not the right word – them into the story. In October 1850, an elephant escaped onto the quay at St Katharine’s Dock and went on the rampage – good for him, I say. He was eventually caught and tethered and went on his way to Regent’s Park Zoo where he lived a blameless life. Now I had invented a scene at St. Katharine’s Dock – could I simply mention them in passing as they were walked to Astley’s? Local colour, as it were.

What I had not realised until I continued my browsing into elephants was that there were so many elephants about in Victorian London. I thought I had discovered something amazing, but there were elephants all over the place, in the Regent’s Park Zoo, in private menageries, on stage, in travelling circuses, even a ‘Wonderful Performing Elephant’ to be seen at the Adelaide Gallery. This was a huge automaton, I was glad to discover. A stuffed elephant, loaned by a museum in Saffron Waldon, appeared at the Great Exhibition in 1851. Saffron Waldon! What? How? Why?

On 27 April 1828, the Regent’s Park Zoo opened to visitors who were admitted only with a member of the Zoological Society. Elephants could be seen in a special paddock. In 1828 there was a picture in the Mirror of the Indian elephant in his bath. Jack came in 1831, bought from a Captain Smith for £420. He was very popular, and a stall sold cakes and buns, especially for his consumption. Jack lasted almost twenty years despite his unsuitable diet and died on 6 June 1847. Another elephant, Betsey, and her infant, Butcher – who turned out to be a girl – were brought from Calcutta with another elephant intended for Jamrach’s.

Johann Christian Carl Jamrach was the most celebrated animal dealer in London – his shop was on the Ratcliffe Highway just opposite the London Docks into which, of course, the animals came, just as my two elephants came on the day Dickens and Jones are pursuing their murderer.
It was Jamrach who first imported the budgerigar into England. The artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, bought his wombat from Mr Jamrach. Rossetti was devoted to the creature which slept in the bowl of a hanging lamp. You could buy anything from Jamrach. The most famous story about him was that he rescued a child from the jaws of a runaway tiger. Charles Dickens rescuing an urchin from the jaws of a tiger? What a cliff-hanger, but going a bit too far, perhaps.

Reader, I married them – well, Dickens did. He insists that they must be Mr and Mrs. I did squeeze my happy couple in, and they play an important part in the plot. Without them, the Jaggard case might not have been closed. Who’d have thought? A chance encounter with two elephants and all became clear.

The Jaggard Case is the tenth instalment of the Charles Dickens Investigations, which will be published later this year by Sapere Books.

Read more about Jean here.

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