On London’s notorious Ratcliffe Highway, in search of tigers and dragons

Jamrach's Menagerie on the Radcliffe Highway 1896

Sometimes the most remarkable stories can be found right under our noses. Nowhere does this appear to be more true than in London, where every other street hides an intriguing tale from the city’s fascinating past.

Visit The Highway in east London and you’ll be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t much to trouble the historians here. It’s a soulless dual carriageway, noisy with the flow of non-stop traffic and lined with car showrooms and run-down flats. Yet the Ratcliffe Highway, as the road was known in Victorian times, was the undisputed centre of depravity and debauchery in 19th century London, and a few clues of the area’s lurid past remain for those willing to dig around.

Ships would end their lengthy voyages at nearby Wapping and when their work was done the seamen would collect their pay before finding the nearest source of entertainment. The Ratcliffe Highway had everything a man who’d spent months at sea could want, with ale and gin houses, brothels and opium dens all set up and ready to relieve sailors of all nationalities of their hard-earned cash.

This old song perhaps paints a picture of life on the Ratcliffe Highway as well as any words alone could do:

The area was home to countless fights and regular riots, so much so that the newly formed Metropolitan Police had to take special precautions in patrolling the Ratcliffe Highway, with few policemen daring to walk the street alone.

Among all the seediness and crime the road was also home to the more curious side of London life, perhaps best exemplified by the strange goings-on at Jamrach’s Animal Emporium at number 180. The Jamrach family were among the world’s leading animal traders of the 19th century and when Charles Jamrach took over his father’s business and set up shop on the Ratcliffe Highway in 1840, the rich and famous would come to him to order their exotic pets. Lions, tigers, rare birds were popular purchases and Charles had a network of suppliers around the world who could get their hands on pretty much any species.

It was from Jamrach’s shop in Ratcliffe Highway that a Bengal tiger escaped in 1857 and picked up a curious young boy with his teeth, carrying him off before Charles Jamrach wrestled the unharmed boy from the tiger’s mouth.  This remarkable story forms the backdrop to the novel Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch, and it is as a direct result of reading this wonderful book that I was keen to explore the site of the old Ratcliffe Highway and see what I could find of the characters’ colourful world.

To my delight I found there is even a statue of a boy and a tiger to commemorate the famous episode in the street’s history. It’s in Tobacco Dock, a busy unloading spot in the Victorian times of Jamrach and now a cavernous events venue; it’s marvellous how history and fiction so easily merge.

Jamrach's Menagerie


As for the Highway itself, there is the occasional old-fashioned sign but little else on the surface to offer any clues as to its previous notoriety; the city planners and the Luftwaffe did a good job in clearing up this part of London’s dirty past.

Walk along today’s Highway and you might find yourself keen to move on to somewhere more appealing with more obvious places of interest. But if you read Carol Birch’s book I’ll guarantee you’ll want to dig around to find the streets, the bars and the shops that feature in her Victorian adventure novel. Now that, for me, is the real power of a good book.


Top image of Jamrach’s Menagerie bought from Look and Learn 


Author Information

Freelance travel writer

2 Responses to “On London’s notorious Ratcliffe Highway, in search of tigers and dragons”

  1. Jen #

    Learn something new everyday, great post. I like your blog too :)

    November 27, 2012 at 4:43 am
  2. Nice post Andy, you’ve also inspired me to give Jamrach’s Menagerie a read. So much to discover about London.

    November 27, 2012 at 6:20 am