Monkey versus Dog in fight to the death

This weekend I found an astonishing print of a fighting pit where animals were set on each other in the back streets of London in the 1820s. The picture features a monkey that became a sort of celebrity and was known as Jacco Macacco. He was a small ape who was matched against dogs at the Westminster Pit – while onlookers placed bets on the outcome.

Jacco Macacco
Jacco Macacco fights Puss the dog

The Westminster Pit was a notorious animal fight venue, not far from the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. In those days, the back streets of Westminster were a notorious slum. The Pit was in Duck Lane, Orchard Street – which now has the far more respectable name of St Matthew Street.

Jacco Macacco’s life story varies a bit. One account has the monkey landing at Portsmouth where he distinguished himself by maiming a few dogs in the local pits before being taken to London. There, he continued to entertain bloodthirsty crowds at the Tottenham Court Road pit before being sold to the owner of the Westminster Pit.

Jacco Macacco
An advert for a Jacco Macacco fight

Now, I should say that these venues were not universally liked. There was already a movement in respectable society to have them shut down. More because of the immoral behaviour that they were believed to encourage than the rights of the animals – though some people pitied the plight of these creatures.

The print I bought this weekend comes from a book by a sports journalist of the early nineteenth century called Pierce Egan who has two roguish gentlemen called Tom and Jerry visiting the pit to see Jacco Macacco. The book is a fictional work about this duo experiencing all the delights of the capital city – both in high and low society. And yes, that is Tom and Jerry like the cat and mouse characters that followed over a century later.

In real life, things went badly wrong for Jacco Macacco. He was pitted against a dog called Puss (ho, ho!) and was savaged so brutally that he died later. Puss was owned by Tom Cribb – who was a celebrity bare knuckle boxer of the time.

Tony McMahon and his library
Me and some of my books on London going back 300 years
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The most disgusting job in Victorian London

Collecting dog dung for a living has to be about the most revolting job ever created. I’ve been re-reading the works of a Victorian Londoner called Henry Mayhew who, in 1851, published a book describing the appalling ways in which people were forced to make a living. The scraping of “Pure” (the slang word for dog excrement) from the streets has to be the worst.

Why on earth, you may reasonably ask, was dog dung referred to as “Pure” and what possessed anybody to go out and collect it? Well, it’s all to do with turning animal skins into leather. In the Victorian period, this would be done at a tannery. That would be a workshop where animal skins were delivered to be cleaned; the fat and hair scraped off and then fermented using dog or pigeon dung.

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Needless to say, tanneries stank. I mean, really reeked. And so they were normally placed out of the centres of town by the 19th century – though not always. The leather created using dog dung transformed goat and calf skins into book covers, gloves and other quality items. So, if you have a leather bound book from the Victorian era, I’m afraid dog dung may have been involved in its production.

The supply of dog poo was done by people called “Pure Finders”. The brown stuff was called “Pure” because it cleansed and purified the animal skins turning them into leather.

In 1851, Mayhew tells us that Pure Finders could make between eight and ten pennies per bucket – and maybe more if the quality was good. The highest price was for something described as the “dry-limy-looking sort”. That apparently had more alkaline and so reacted better with the animal skins to make good leather.

There was always a temptation to doctor the dung to make it look more “limy”. That was done by mixing a bit of mortar with it. I can’t imagine how that was done – actually I can but I’m trying not to!

A lucky Pure Finder might have an arrangement to regularly clean some kennels and could make ten to fifteen shillings a week – good pay in the 1850s. But most had to scour the streets picking up what they could find. Their income was pretty miserable – this was a job you did if you’d fallen on hard times.

A typical tannery in the south London district of Bermondsey might employ 300 to 500 tanners – and in addition, retain 20 or so Pure Finders. Many of the finders were struggling to keep out of the workhouse by doing any job on the streets that was available. Mayhew heard about one finder who was totally unaware up until he died that he was the beneficiary of a vast legacy of thousands of pounds. Lawyers even placed advertisements in the newspapers to find him.

Fittingly, this man’s name was Mr Brown – I’m not kidding.

Tony Robinson is a TV historian and presenter in the United Kingdom and a few years back, he broadcast a series on horrible jobs in history. Here is his episode on the Victorians!

The hidden dog cemetery in Hyde Park

Dog CemeteryThere are many hidden treasures in London that I’m still discovering after a lifetime in this city. One that I was completely unaware of until recently was the dog cemetery in Hyde Park. From 1880 till about 1915, about 300 dogs and some cats and birds were interred in a plot of ground near the Victoria Gate – close to Lancaster Gate tube.

The names of the deceased canines vary with a couple being rather politically incorrect now. But they include Pepys, Little Lord Quex and My Little Dorritt. Grave inscriptions include a slightly changed Shakespeare quote: “After life’s fitful slumber, he sleeps well”.

The whole thing was started by the Duke of Cambridge in 1880 when he got permission for his wife to bury her pet dog in the park – where he was the official ranger. And then the dead pooches just kept coming!