“The wombat is a joy, a triumph, a delight, a madness.” – Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

13th November 2017

Did you know Rossetti owned his own wombat? ‘Top’ the wombat died in November 1869 and Rossetti had him stuffed!

Native to Australia, like today, they weren’t popular pets in the Victorian era. A few were brought back to live in Europe in the early 1800s, apparently Napoleon’s first wife Josephine had one in her menagerie and there was also some in London’s Regent’s Park Zoo in the early 1860s. Following the death of his wife Elizabeth Siddal in 1862, Rossetti moved to 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, a property with a large garden that he transformed into a miniature zoo! Fond of visiting the wombats in the zoo, he had two of his own ‘pet’ wombats, one he bought in 1869 from Charles Jamrach.

Charles Jamrach is a fascinating man, a leading dealer in wildlife, birds and shells in 19th century London. He owned an exotic pet store in East London, the largest in the world at this time, something now that seems like something off a film! Born in Germany, his father was chief of the Hamburg river police which gave him close contact with sailors which allowed him to build a trade as a dealer in birds and wild animals, establishing branches of stores in Antwerp and London.

Following his fathers death, Charles moved to London and took over the business. He sold to noblemen, zoos, menageries and circus owner and bought animals from ships docking in ports around England and continental Europe with agents dotted around these areas. He owned a shop and a museum, called Jamrach’s Animal Emporium, there’s one story that tells of a Bengal tiger escaping the emporium in 1857 which picked up an eight year old boy and carried him away until Jamrach “came running up and, thrusting his bare hands into the tiger’s throat, forced the beast to let his captive go.” The child had approached the tiger in interest when he’d never seen a big cat before and sued Jamrach, being awarded £300 in damages. You can find the story immortalised in a bronze statue near the entrance in Tobacco Dock, near the scene! That tiger was sold to George Wombwell to be added to his menagerie.

Back to Rossetti, in his menagerie he also had kangaroos, wallabies, armadillos, a racoon and larger animals such as a zebu, he was even discussing an African elephant with Jamrach! Whilst now this seems crazy for a garden in Chelsea, it wasn’t uncommon for those in high society to own their own menagerie.

When his own wombat arrived, he described it as a “a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness” in a letter to his brother. He named the wombat Top, named after Morris’s nickname ‘Topsy.’ Morris acquired this nickname after a character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin due to his nervous disposition and wild temper which when enraged could lead to seizures and blackouts. Rossetti was well known in his taunting of Morris to amuse himself and their friends when he got angry and flew into a rage.

Top didn’t live a long life, only lasting in England a few months and dying in November 1869, following the Wombat’s death, Rossetti had him stuffed and displayed in the entrance to his house. His self portrait mourning the loss of Top is a famous piece of work of Rossetti’s.

Death of a Wombat” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
1869 November 6 (Public Domain)