The State Library of New South Wales holds a very lovely painting of the first Government House in Sydney. The oil painting, by George Edwards Peacock, was done in 1845, just before the building (where the Museum of Sydney now stands) was demolished. The scene is of a grand residence and place of administration, flanked by graceful trees and a set of churches in the background: there’s the square tower of the Scots Church, the round tower of St Phillip’s Church and the gothic designed St Patrick’s Catholic Church. On the lawns there are a few animals going about their day.
Now, I was a bit unkind to Peacock when I first saw this painting. I thought to myself: ‘that’s a lovely picture, but those are the ugliest horses I’ve ever seen’. Well, in my defence, I never expected to see camels quietly grazing in front of a major government building in the middle of Sydney. So, today’s story is about how camels came to be on Sydney’s Domain and a chance for me to apologise to Mr Peacock (sorry George!).
Now, the idea of bringing camels to Australia was met with excitement. Like lots of ideas though, seeing ambitious plans realised can be challenging.
Lord John Russell (who was Secretary of State for War and the Colonies at the time) wrote from Downing Street, London to Governor George Gipps in March 1841 about camels:
Considering the peculiar nature of the continent, the vast extend of unexplored country, the want of water, and peculiarity of the long journeys which must be made by land from one colony to another, I think they might be found very applicable, as well for purposes of discovery as for a means of communication; and that it is a subject well worthy of your attention and encouragement.
Russell, in the same letter, also suggested elephants as being of use in New South Wales, but it was the camel that captured the public imagination as being suited to some of our more arid landscapes. One of the early attempts to bring camels to the southern continent was made by a Mr J. Airdlie who imported two females and one male in the early 1840s. The male camel died, but he was soon replaced. Airdlie was going to settle in Goulburn, but he decided to return to Sydney and ask Governor Gipps to take the camels in exchange for a land grant. Instead of land, Airdlie was given cash. Quite a bit of cash: £225, in August 1842. (Depending on what calculator you use, this could be around the half a million-dollar mark today.) Gipps, and many others, thought the camel had great potential to aid exploration as such an animal was known as the “ship of the desert” .
And so, in the mid 1840s, along with the sheep, the goats, the kangaroos and the emus, there were three camels grazing on the Sydney Domain. As one newspaper reported, the animals were ‘the delight of children, but the terror of nurses and mothers’. Indeed, it was later noted that a boy ‘who is now an eminent Barrister, was near being trampled to death by one of them’ while warnings were issued to ‘persons in carriages or on horse-back, not to go too near the camels unless they are certain of their horses being quiet’. In another example of great job titles that we do not have anymore, there was even an official Camel Keeper looking after the animals.
The need to be cautious around camels was well known. Camels spit and have a reputation as being a bit temperamental. The first camel brought into Australia, Harry, landed in Port Adelaide in late 1840. Harry was sold to John Horrocks a pastoralist and explorer; just the type of person Lord Russell and others thought would benefit from having a camel or two. Harry was described by the press – as he headed off with Horrocks as a member of an 1846 expedition to the South Australian interior – ‘the camel (not par excellence, being the only one in the colony)’. If Harry was offended, we will never know, but we do know he became an obviously disgruntled member of Horrocks’ team, attacking animals and humans with equal enthusiasm. He then, while Horrocks was reloading a gun, lurched suddenly and the gun went off: taking out the middle fingers of Horrocks’ right hand and a row of his teeth. The expedition leader died from his wounds just days later. Australia’s first camel was a killer.
The Sydney-based camels were less violent and lived on the Domain until 1845. Like many camels that made their way to Australia during the colonial era, we are not entirely sure what happened to these beasts. At least one camel met a miserable end on a Sydney street, drawing complaint from a local resident who wrote to the Morning Chronicle:
Although past nuisances were certainly very great, they are quite thrown in the shade by that which now presents itself to the passer by. Not ten yards off the foot-path [near St Mary’s] there lies a dead camel, inflated with gas to an enormous size, on which a number of pigs are occasionally seen regaling themselves. The fetid smell emitted from it is sickening in the extreme, and quite enough to engender disease in all who come within its baneful influence.
While some of Australia’s early camels, like this poor beast, died of various causes, many were let loose to breed and now roam the outback and bush where they are, at least, not quite as strange a sight as they would have been at Government House.
Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator of Scholarship at the State Library of NSW and a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel!
You can join Rachel this coming Thursday evening for her free online talk A Body In Your Library at the State Library of New South Wales. For further details, and to register, head to the Library’s website here: https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/events/body-your-library
For more Dictionary of Sydney, listen to the podcast with Rachel & Alex here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Alex James on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney.
‘Camels and Elephants.’ Australasian Chronicle, 29 July 1841, p3 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article31732436
‘The Camel in Australia.’ The Australian, 11 December 1841, p2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article36851588
‘The Camels of New South Wales.’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 August 1871, p5 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13242918
Chittleborough, J. (2005). ‘Horrocks, John Ainsworth (1818-1846)’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2005 http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/horrocks-john-ainsworth-12989
‘Domestic Intelligence.’ The Melbourne Argus, 11 August 1846, p2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4759802
‘Domestic Intelligence.’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 August 1842, p2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12408209
‘Expedition to the North West.’ South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, 19 September 1846, p2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article195934167
‘Original Correspondence.’ Morning Chronicle, 29 November 1845, p2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article31746863
Parsonson, I.M. The Australian Ark: a history of domesticated animals in Australia. Collingwood: CSIRO Publishing, 1998.
Peacock, G.E. View of old Government House – Sydney – N.S.W. as it appeared when vacated by Sir George Gipps in 1845. Mitchell Library: State Library of New South Wales, 1845, Call No. ML 658 https://search.sl.nsw.gov.au/permalink/f/1cvjue2/ADLIB110318222