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.
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.
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.