The painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept a pet wombat – though sadly, not for very long. The poor creature died after a few months, in November 1867, and he marked its passing in verse:
I never reared a young wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet and fat
And tailless, he was sure to die!
Apparently Rossetti included Top, the wombat, in his dinner parties, and there is some suggestion that he was the model for the dormouse in the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland – although the difference in size makes this unlikely. Rossetti kept a whole menagerie of exotic pets at his home in Chelsea, including peacocks, owls, various dogs and rabbits, and more exotic creatures such as armadillos, a raccoon, a woodchuck and a small Brahmin bull. He drew the line at a young elephant, not because of lack of room, but because of the high price – £400.
In 19th century imperial Britain, the trade in exotic animals seems rather comparable with the trade in imperial Rome, although rather than kill them in an arena, the British let them die slowly of benign neglect.
Some exotic animals survived reasonably well, especially birds. Cockatoos and budgerigars are global pets today, while black swans breed happily in the middle of London, in St James’s Park.
But marsupials were another matter. Like Rossetti’s wombat, they seldom survived for long. On the whole, Australian animals don’t make good pets. Most are nocturnal, and we like our pets to share our time zones, at least part of the time. And to be honest, they are not very bright. Only a very few are carnivores, and with all due respect to my vegetarian friends, it doesn’t take much grey matter to hunt a lettuce – or a gum leaf.
However wombats have a particular appeal. According to the children’s author Jackie French ‘wombats and humans completely misunderstand each other, but are capable of co-existing because there’s genuine goodwill on both sides.’ [Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend Magazine, 3 March 2012]
Early colonists called the wombat the ‘native badger’. They are diggers like badgers, though their diet is quite different. Place names including ‘badger’ or ‘badgery’ sometimes refer to wombats – though not Badgery’s Creek, Sydney’s never-resolved second airport site, which is named after an early settler, James Badgery.
Rosetti bought his wombat just after the acclimatization movement passed its peak. In the early 1860s, there was a short-lived fashion for importing exotic animals and plants, with the aim of finding new commercial uses for them. After all, the Columbian Exchange after Europe and the Americas first met in 1492 had led to a cornucopia of new foodstuffs – tomatoes and potatoes, corn and turkeys, peanuts and chili – plus many other commercial items too, such as quinine and indigo. Surely more recently discovered exotic animals and plants could be commercially exploited too?
The great enthusiast behind this idea was Edward Wilson, editor of the Melbourne Argus. In October 1861, he held an ‘experimental dinner’ in Melbourne, serving his friends ‘many of our native animals, birds, and fishes’ including ‘kangaroo, wallaby, wombat, bandicoot, opossum, and porcupine [echidna] among the animals; black swan, wild turkey [brush turkey], paroquet, waterhens, and wattle birds among the fowl, and most of the fish of our seas and fresh waters.’
Shortly afterwards, on 11 November 1861, a letter to the editor appeared in the South Australian Advertiser, suggesting an appropriate bill of fare for a competing experimental dinner in Adelaide:
Soups. – White ant, wombat, leech, bluebottles, bunyip, iced punch.
Fish. – Sperm whale, fried shark, sea devil, stingaree, toad fish, torpedo, globe diodon, centipede sauce, tarantula sauce, snail sauce, sauce of emmets.
Removes. – Tasmanian devil, with forcemeat balls; fricassee of wild cat and spinach, kangaroo rat and green peas, salmi of shepherd’s companions, supreme of sleeping lizard, laughing jackass and watercress, stewed platypus and cucumbers, boiled wombat smothered in onions, sea leopard stuffed with artichokes, death adder and caper sauce, jew lizard with mint sauce, ragout of native dog, cutlets of emu flavored with wormwood, jugged musk rats, curried bats, a sea lion garnished with poonah’s eggs.
Entrees. – Curried salamander, patty of toads, devilled water-hen, flying squirrel and oyster sauce, mayonnaise of magpie, grilled guiana [goanna] with asparagus, ringtailed opossum in batter, mayonnaise of black snake, parrot and white sauce, musquitoes in oil, a la Soyer, carrion crow and seakale, bruised mice with parsley and butter, fricandeau of cockatoo and carrots.
You get the picture. The list goes on, through the Second Course, Removes, Entremets, and Dessert. ‘The wines to be exclusively colonial.’
Edward Wilson returned to England in 1864, and retired to a home near Bromley, where he kept a private zoo with kangaroos, emus and monkeys. But he never persuaded the British government to support his idea of farming Australian animals for food. There were too many, like the Advertiser’s anonymous letter-writer, prepared to take the piss.
By the time Rossetti bought his pet wombat, the idea of farming them for food had been largely abandoned, though calling his animal ‘sweet and fat’ suggests he had passing interest in how it tasted. And Rossetti was taking the piss, too.
In a lecture given at the National Library of Australia in 2003, Angus Trumble points out that Rossetti’s verse is a parody of lines from a popular 19th century novel, Lallah Rookh, by Thomas Moore:
I never nurs’d a dear gazelle
To glad me with its soft black eye,
But when it came to know me well
And love me, it was sure to die!
Angus Trumble, Rossetti’s Wombat: A Pre-Raphaelite Obsession in Victorian England, National Library of Australia, 16 April 2003.
The South Australian Advertiser is available on Trove.
This time last year:
A Stitch in Time, 29 March 2011