As regular readers will know many of these posts are sparked by a chance discovery while researching something completely unrelated. Todays is certainly one of those odd quirks of fate.
I was looking at an article in a Country Life from 1954, but there on the following page was a much more intriguing short piece, which once I’d read it, I knew I had to follow up one day. Then I forgot. But a few days ago I saw its counterpart, also in Country Life, from some 50 years earlier, in 1903. So that was that it. I had to down tools on everything else and get researching kangaroos and wallabies in the British garden!
We are so used to hearing about Captain Cook and Joseph Banks landing from the Endeavour at Shark Bay, soon renamed Botany Bay, and the strange plants and flowers they discovered and bought home that we forget they would have had another shock entirely. It wasn’t just the plants that were completely new to their experience, so were all the birds, reptiles, insects and and the few animals they saw in Terra Australis.
On their voyage homewards north along the continent’s eastern coast, they ran aground on the Barrier Reef at Cape Tribulation. The urgent repairs required meant finding a safe harbour in an estuary to work on the ship’s hull. If it weren’t for this misfortune, the discovery of kangaroos by Europeans would have had to wait a few more years until the First Fleet arrived in 1788.
Endeavour’s log records that “on Friday June 22nd, a party who were engaged in shooting pigeons for the use of the sick in the ship, saw an animal which they described to be as long as a greyhound, and of slender make, of a mouse-colour and extremely swift.” Of course the next step was to have the creatures sketched – or rather that was the second step – the first one being to hunt one for dinner! There’s a fuller account of these early encounters on the blog of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL, whilst the entry in the journal of the expeditions artist Sydney Parkinson’s can be found on the website of the National Museum of Australia.
They were common great grey kangaroos.
Perhaps the best place to start our journey is using some of the research carried out by Dr Christopher Plumb for his PhD thesis on exotic animals in Georgian Britain, and which went on to be the basis of his book, The Georgian Menagerie.
The Endeavour bought home specimens of kangaroo which were dissected, stuffed and exhibited, written about and painted by George Stubbs in 1773. The importance of Stubbs painting Kongouro from New Holland which was exhibited to large crowds in London was immense. Of course Stubbs painted an animal reconstructed from just its skin, and even though he was expert an anatomist, he got some details wrong.
But like Durer’s rhinoceros centuries earlier the image took hold, and for example was used by Thomas Bewick in Pennant‘s General History of Quadrupeds (1790). If you’re interested in knowing more about the painting check Tom Sutcliffe’s article in the Guardian in 2013 when it was up for sale. It was finally “saved for the nation” in 2013 despite a rival bid from the National Gallery of Australia, and can be seen at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
We must remember that this was the time when Britain was just starting to use Australia as a penal colony, and the early fleets of boats that went out full of convicts came back full of ‘exotic’ creatures such as emus, black swans, cockatoos and of course kangaroos. The first live kangaroos reached London with the return of the Second Fleet in 1791, with more arriving the following year with the return of the Third Fleet. Some joined Queen Charlotte‘s menagerie at Kew where they caused a real stir, and so grabbed the public imagination that the Royal Navy even launched HMS Kangaroo in 1795.
By 1800 when a baby was born kangaroo-mania really got underway and soon it was possible to see and even buy “wonderfully formed and playful” live animals at Pidcock‘s Menagerie in London. The Kew herd bred happily and the babies were given away as presents, so that there were soon kangaroos at Longleat and Oatlands. Joseph Banks even gave a pair of kangaroos to the Jardins des Plantes in Paris during the brief pause in the Napoleonic Wars created by the Treaty of Amiens. I’ve even found a newspaper ad from as early as 1794 saying that there were kangaroos in a menagerie collection that was being auctioned off.
Nor was it just British ships that began transporting kangaroos halfway round the world our French rivals were doing the same. Nicholas Baudin returned from an exploratory expedition to Australia in 1804 on Le Géographe carrying a collection of birds and animals, some of which which were presented to The Empress Josephine for her menagerie at Malmaison. Sadly, although he started out with 3 kangaroos only one survived. The following year kangaroos arrived [probably as gifts from Britain] at the Austrian imperial menagerie in the grounds at Schoenbrunn.
Once it was proved that kangaroos would adapt happily to the British climate Plumb suggests they also acted as a symbol for plans to use Australia as a replacement for the recently lost American colonies. However there seems to have been little interest in using them as farm animals or for their food value. This was in marked contrast to the way that plants were being moved around the world as part of the push for economic power and colonial improvement. Instead kangaroos were seen almost as entirely ornamental, even though it was soon realised that there were downsides and they were not exactly domesticatable, The Monthly Review noted in 1804 it “was not to be safe to allow them to range at large, and that they were rightly surrounded by a high paling. For although some… would allow persons to approach and touch them, especially if they give them bread, the ―others are were by no means docile.”
And of course as shipping to and from Australia increased and more and more animals were bought back so they spread through parks and gardens all over Britain. The Duke of Devonshire had some at Chiswick in the 1820s, Lord Darnley had some at Cobham around the same time. Thomas Fish had a group of seven at Knowle Cottage in Sidmouth in the 1830s, all of which “had been bred on the premises” implying that they been there for some time.
It’s also clear that the public who were able to visit no longer regarded them as completely outlandish and they were no longer the principle attraction – that was the “ali paca” or a “south American camel.” Fish had these too as well as zebras, black swans, emus and other exotic birds and animals. An 1837 guidebook to the House and Grounds warns against meddling with the kangaroos since their tails “can be applied in a manner by no means agreeable to the intruder.”
The Knowle has been rebuilt since Fish’s day and was used first as a hotel and then by the local council as offices. It is now in the hands of developers who are proposing a large scale development of apartments for older people.
By the later 19thc larger scale introductions began in several English parklands. The pioneer seems to have been Walter Rothschild who had herds of both kangaroos and wallabies in the grounds of his museum at Tring. which he introduced in about 1885, alongside a number of emu, kiwis and cassowaries. Another consignment was sent crated by rail but one escaped causing mayhem at Euston Station
Rothschild attracted the attention of Country Life [2.9.1899] because Tring was the scene of almost the first of more modern experiments in acclimatisation which have since been carried out on a larger scale at Leonardslee, Woburn Abbey and elsewhere. The writer doubted however “whether Antipodean marsupials will ever be really established in this country as fallow deer were by the Romans. Their flesh is not a luxury for the table, and there is none of the consideration attached to their ownership with which centuries of feudal custom and territorial ownership have invested deer and deer parks.”
Rothschild bequeathed his collection to the British Museum and is still open today as an outpost of the Natural History Museum. There is a detailed contemporary account of written in in 1895 by Louis Wain and more information on the website of the local history society.
Today there is a resident herd of wallabies at Leonardslee Gardens in West Sussex, descendants of those introduced from Tasmania by Sir Edmund Loder in 1889. They lived alongside his colonies of beavers, antelopes and unusual deer. He also commissioned James Pulham to construct a ‘rock’ enclosure for his mountain sheep, which had caves inside the ‘mound’ that were, and indeed still are, used as wallaby breeding pens.
In an interview his great-great-grandson, Robin Loder estimated that “our wallabies do the work of two full-time gardeners,” because “We have a number of very steep, grassy banks and areas where it is impossible for a lawnmower to reach, but which the wallabies keep trim and in good order.” Even better “They eat all the brambles but keep away from the plants and provide natural fertiliser for the bluebells and wildflowers as they go. They can do this because they have a rubbery underside to their feet so they don’t make deep tracks like other animals and they don’t damage the micro- environment,’ says Loder, ‘and they tend not to use the same path twice.” Nor do they compete with any native species – they are not predators and don’t eat the food required by other animals. This makes them “uniquely suited to live in such a protected and fragile environment.” The only additional protection that is employed is wire protection on young conifers. So all in all they are a landowner’s delight because “they work hard, they’re totally green, they don’t draw wages, they don’t take holidays and they’re wonderfully natured. What more could you want?”[Daily Mail 15th May 2009]
Leonardslee has had a rather chequered history in recent years but was reopened in April 2019 after major restoration work so you can go and check out the wallabies yourself. Details of how to do so on the Leonardslee website.
Another introduction was made at Inchconnachan, an island in Loch Lomond, by the Countess of Arran where she had a holiday home. She had a menagerie at home including red-necked wallabies, llamas, and pigs but after World War II, she moved her wallabies to her Inchconnachan estate where they have naturalised and lived successfully ever since.
The 1954 Country Life article by Geoffrey Morey begins with an account of his garden in the shadow of Lincoln Cathedral. Luckily it was surrounded by an 8ft brick wall, which is fortunate because the garden was home to 3 kangaroos. The two adults had been bought back as babies after a kangaroo hunt [which he describes in gruesome detail] had killed their parents. Soon afterwards a baby arrived. All three were treated as pets, and usually given the freedom of the house and garden.
“An English country garden may seem a strange place for… kangaroos, and despite the difference in temperature they seem no less happy here than on their native plains in Australia. They roam the garden at will. They have plenty of grass to eat and they have a very large warm kennel to sleep in at night. The lower teeth of a kangaroo are almost horizontal and they can shave the top of the grass as finely as a lawn mower. This does not matter, but their liking for the bark of some trees means these must be protected by wire-netting for otherwise they would soon be killed.”
“These animals are not hard to feed, nor do they eat a great deal. They like grass and hay, and cabbage leaves and fruit… but if our kangaroos were asked to choose the kind of food they liked best there is no doubt that they would both choose peppermints.”
Of course its difficult for them to escape from such a location but elsewhere in Britain there has been breakouts from zoos or private collections and small groups have established themselves in a range of locations such as the Isle of Man, the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, Buckinghamshire, the Peak District, and have apparently even been found in London’s Highgate Cemetery.
And if you want your own lawnmower on legs try approaching Waveney Wildlife, of Bungay, Suffolk, where wallabies have been bred commercially for nearly 3 decades, or Quintin Spratt, who runs a small-scale commercial wallaby farm/breeding operation near Tacolneston in Norfolk. But there is a waiting list as they breed only once a year. Around £150 will get you a male wallaby, while females start at £600. and rarer albino females with pink eyes and fluffy white fur sell for around £1,000. Spratt says “Anyone who can keep a rabbit can keep a wallaby. They are lovely, gregarious animals.”
So what are you waiting for… forget robotic lawnmowers and get a wallaby!