A Colorful Character

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While starting a new collection of people who might be called “Life’s Eccentrics,” I am drawn to postcards featuring unusual people.

Guinea Pig Jack

Although the character on this postcard may not be eccentric, he is a “colorful character.”

The card is a printed copy of a photograph and on the address side it bears the inscription “Breamore Series.” There is no evidence as to its publisher.

The card was mailed from the Village of Oakhill to Bath, a distance of only 2 miles, on April 27, 1906.

The addressee was a Miss Speed, living at Kilkenny House, Sion Hill, Bath. This property was the home of a retired solicitor (Thomas Inman) who was advertising for a cook in 1906, it is easy to suspect that Miss Speed was a domestic servant in the Inman house.

The card is titled “Guinea Pig Jack,” and appears to be an elderly man who is showing a guinea pig to a messenger boy. With such facts, it became a must to find out what was going on and why someone merited the name Guinea Pig Jack.

And, more importantly, why was he deemed enough of a celebrity to be featured on a postcard.

Google provided little help. Although, in several newspapers there were references to Guinea Pig Jack. The earliest reference was in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette of February 28, 1884. It reads, Sidney Cox, Old Orchard, laborer, was summoned for having assaulted Dominic Cunio, on February 16.

The complainant who lives at 84 Avon Street, and is better known as “Guinea-pig Jack,” said the defendant struck him, without any provocation and knocked one of his teeth out. The defendant admitted that he struck the complainant a slight blow with his open hand, because he made a noise at him. Fined 10s and costs or seven-days hard labor. Defendant went down.”

A newer reference, also in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, appeared on May 6, 1886. The following brief mention is within a larger article referring to a bazaar which was to be held at Bath. Visitors should not fail either to see the miniature “Guinea Pig Jack” who shows his guinea pigs to all who are disposed to patronize him.

The articles provide a name and address for our character although little else.

You may think that by having a name and address for our character that it would have been easy to find this man in the census records. It was not. Only one record for him was found.

Our friend was again assaulted in September 1900 and in a report similar to that earlier he is recorded as “Dominico Cunio, otherwise known as “Guinea-pig Jack,” of Avon Street.”

Regrettably, the next references to Guinea Pig Jack are the reports of his death in 1907. His local celebrity status was such that the Somerset Guardian and Radstock Observer of February 2, 1907, included a detailed column. It reads,

DEATH OF GUINEA PIG JACK.
FAMILIAR FIGURE DISAPPEARS.

Passersby in Manvers Street will never again encounter that remarkable little personality all shrunken but vivacious, “Guinea Pig Jack.” Never again will he lay his little companions out rigid on the top of their cage to restore them to animation with the familiar cry, “Wake up, quick, Bobby coming,” nor may he ever again utter his “Much oblige to you,” whether the passer by gave or not.

Guinea pig Jack died on Sunday of acute bronchitis at 6 St. John’s place. Last winter he was ill for months and no one ever expected to see him again, but he survived and spent the summer at his usual haunt. With the return of winter his ailment came back, attacking with renewed severity his weakened constitution.

He has been in bed since the middle of October, well cared for by Mrs. Wall and carefully looked after by the Roman Catholic priests. He lived at 84 Avon Street for 40 years or more in the care of Mrs. Wall’s aunt, and it was only seven months ago that he was moved to St. John’s place.

            Guinea-Pig Jack, as he was known was probably the best-known street figure in Bath for the last 50 or 60 years. A letter in a Bath contemporary recently stated that the writer remembered that on her arrival at Bath, in April 1843, Guinea-Pig Jack greeted her in Station Road. He was then a lad of about 18. He was about 76 at the time of his death.

In 1848, the earliest evidence we have of his existence at Bath, there were the same guinea pigs, the same transitory unconsciousness, and the same quick resuscitation at the warning “Bobby’s coming.” He was of Italian birth, his home being Chiavari, a little village in Genoa, and his father was an Italian soldier, who died soon after his son, whose true name was Dominico Cunio, came to England.

 He had many struggles in early youth. He appears to have wandered about England, for he was known in Brighton, Hastings, Plymouth, and Portsmouth well before he came to Bath.

All through the years since his first coming to this country he had the guinea-pigs which were so well known to passers along the road from the Orange grove to the station. He picked up English in just three years, but his stay in this country did not cause him to lose touch with his native land. He made pilgrimages to his southern home, in case, as he naively said, he might be wanted for a soldier. The little old, bent-up man must have had strange views of the physique of a soldier.

In addition to his guinea-pigs he filled up his time with errands, gave assistance with a barrow, and lately developed a newspaper round, but the boys of his later years were often unkind, and the old man was a year or two ago knocked down, and had to seek attention at the hospital and protection by the police.

He remembered kindnesses and had a lively recollection of the help given him by cabbies at Portsmouth. He was a devout Roman Catholic, and regularly attended St. John’s Roman Catholic Church. His exact age, “Jack” never could tell, but somehow or other it has been fixed at 76. “Jack” was no good at figures. He measured everything by twenties, and apparently had no idea of figures above or below that number. Everything with him had a “20” in it. Few faces will be missed from the streets more than the stooping figure with his pets, and the familiar “Much obliged to you.

“Jack” attracted the attention of all writers and therefore of many journalists. He has figured in at least one novel and at one time not long ago, Mr. Dean Howells, the American writer mentioned him in an article on Bath, in Harper’s Magazine.

Over the next 40 years the local newspapers frequently remembered “Guinea Pig Jack” although his true name varies from time to time in these reports. It is suggested that he lived in the home of a fellow Italian (Antonio Peirano) in Avon Street, and it was only using the surname Pierano that I discovered our character in the census records. He is listed in the 1901 census where he is a boarder at the Pierano’s property. He is listed as Domenico Conia [sic], a 60-year-old messenger.

And, there are a couple of clips which made me smile. The first is from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper of February 3, 1907. Jack reaped a harvest on Bath race days. Nobody thought of speculating without conciliating the fates by patronizing Jack. Jack sold papers but he never had a ha’penny (a half-penny) change if a penny was tendered.

The second is from a report mentioning him in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette of May 9, 1925. In a London paper last Sunday, a correspondent recalled the little old Italian who, many years ago, used to frequent Manvers Street bearing his miniature menagerie of guinea pigs in a small box, which performed alleged tricks for the edification of all who paused to witness the performance for whatever monetary consideration they cared to disburse.

Many Bathonians today will remember Guinea Pig Jack, and his quaint injunction to the pigs to lie quiet, with a further injunction to them to jump up because there was a “bobby coming.”

The writer in the London paper recalls a ready obedience of the little performers to this command, but in point of fact, Jack’s orders were generally not so very promptly obeyed. The proprietor of the show usually found his troupe so unresponsive that their lying down had to be a compulsory consequence of the fact that they were held down; and even if they were responsive the command to rise was not always effective. The shrill shriek of “bobby coming” failing to alarm the guinea pigs, it became necessary to give the box a violent shake to jerk them to their trotters and to afford to the performance its proper and desired conclusion.

One suggestion about Jack was that he was so famous in Bath during his lifetime that more than 20,000 postcards of him were sold. Today, any collector would be glad to have one. I do!

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The story of Jack reminded me of “Tickees”, a ticket scalper who hung around the old Cleveland Stadium and was seemingly born old (my dad remembered him being wizened in 1948, and he was still in business when I worked as a baseball gameday vendor almost forty years later). His trademark cry was “I’ll buy your extra tickees, box or reserved!” The police must have known about him, but if he was ever arrested, I never heard about it.

Thank you! Fascinating.

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