Inspired by yesterday’s wayward wallaby crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, today Nicole thought she’d take a look at some other animals mentioned on the Dictionary of Sydney.
One very famous animal on the Dictionary has been described as the world’s first animated celebrity. Well before Mickey Mouse came along, Felix the Cat was delighting audiences of the silent film era, first appearing on screens in 1919, and the man who claimed responsibility for Felix’s creation was a former Sydneysider.
Cartoonist and producer Patrick O’Sullivan was born in Paddington in 1885, the son of a Darlinghurst cab driver. By 1905 he was submitting cartoons, caricatures and illustrations to The Worker, the trade union affiliated newspaper. O’Sullivan left Sydney in 1909 and ended up in New York in 1914.
There he became known as Pat Sullivan and from his studios in 1919 came the now world famous cat. Felix appeared in over 100 films and by the mid-1920s, the Felix comic strip was published by 60 newspapers worldwide. While there is some contention about who actually created the Felix character, with Otto Mesmer, another animator in Sullivan’s studio also credited by many, Sullivan’s studio produced the films and he held the copyright for the name and at least 200 different Felix toys until his death in 1933.
You can watch some early Felix the Cat cartoons online courtesy of the Internet Archive here.
Another famous animal in Sydney’s past could be found at Tamarama, in Australia’s first large scale open-air amusement park Wonderland City. The park featured an artificial lake, Australia’s first open-air ice skating rink, a merry-go-round, Haunted House, labyrinth, 1,000-seat music hall and a Japanese tearoom. Among the more novel attractions was the ‘Airem Scarem’ dirigible, a floating airship suspended on a cable which extended over the sea.
Another one of its indubitable attractions was Alice the elephant. An Asian female elephant who had arrived in Australia with the English company Bostock & Wombwell’s travelling menagerie in 1905, Alice was purchased by Wonderland City’s proprietor William Anderson in 1906 when she and the menagerie’s other livestock were put up for sale when the menagerie’s director returned to Britain. At Wonderland City she was dubbed ‘the children’s friend’ and was the subject of a weight-guessing competition and carried a couple in an ‘Oriental marriage celebration’ witnessed by 30,000 people.
In 1908 she was sold to Wirth’s Circus in 1908 and travelled Australia under her new name ‘Princess Alice’. Alice remained in captivity in the circus until her death in 1941 in Melbourne when she was about 65 years old.
Over the years, Alice’s life story had been embroidered upon for publicity purposes by Wirths, and conflated with that of other elephants in the circus world, and at the time of her death newspapers dramatically reported her to be the world’s oldest elephant and over 150 years old. This was just one of the myths surrounding Alice. Another was that she’d been buried in the backyard at the Wirth family home in Coogee.
Whatever the truth about her life, at least photographs and film footage survive of the much-loved elephant. You can view some of this footage here, courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive collection, and read more about Alice here on the excellent research blog Australasian Zoo & Circus Animals Historical Journal too.
You can find more animals on the Dictionary via the Animals subject heading here, which will take you to lists of entities, entries, images and oral histories concerning animals.
If funding permits, we hope to include more stories about Sydney’s animals this year as well.
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator, and the Executive Officer of the History Council of NSW. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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