Dancer Paula Pratt and snake expert George Cann at La Perouse 1947, PIX, 22 February 1947, p8

Dancer Paula Pratt and snake expert George Cann at La Perouse 1947, PIX, 22 February 1947, p8

This week on 2SER Breakfast, Tess talked to Minna Muhlen-Schulte about George Cann, the ‘snake man of La Perouse’.

 Listen to Minna and Tess on 2SER here 

For just over 100 years, down at the ‘La Pa Loop’ snake men could be seen draped in Australia’s deadliest creatures; red bellied black snakes writhing over their shoulders, the head of a black Tiger snake inside their mouth and venomous fangs sunk into the flesh of their cheek. The most well known was George Cann who became a fixture in La Perouse for 45 years.

George was born in Newtown rather than La Perouse but he roamed the coastline as a child and got to know a local character called ‘Snakey George.’ Together they would wander through the bush and collect specimens. By 12 years old, George Cann had captured his first Red-bellied Black Snake and set up his first snake show in Hatte’s Arcade, Newtown. At 16 years old George was travelling the carnival and show circuit from Hobart to north Queensland. A show required more than just one hook for the audience so George learnt juggling and trick rifle shooting as well.

World War One intervened and took George far into the fields of Western France, where he survived several mustard gas attacks. But on his return to Australia he saw Snakey George who suggested he take over the vacant pitch at the La Perouse loop for snake shows.

He continued to tour Australia and soon met and married Essie Bradley, a young snake-woman, who had herself been entertaining crowds as ‘Cleopatra’ from 13 years old and had successfully avoided ever getting bitten.

George Cann, eyeball to eyeball with a black snake at La Perouse 5 September 1934 , by Ted Hood, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (Home and Away - 392)

George Cann, eyeball to eyeball with a black snake at La Perouse 5 September 1934 , by Ted Hood, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (Home and Away – 392)

The Canns found a house at Hill 60, one of three camps that became home for hundreds of unemployed people who moved to La Perouse during the Depression. George began shows again at the Loop from 1926 and Essie would also fill in as show woman when he was away on tours. He finally stopped touring in 1938 with the offer of a job as curator of reptiles at Taronga Zoo.

George’s resilience was like few other snake men. He survived an estimated 400 snake bites, temporary three-day blindness from a Tiger snake bite and was routinely phlegmatic in his treatment of poison in his body drinking only cold tea. After 1.3 metre tiger snake at Taronga Zoo bit his Achilles’ heel he refused all offers for treatment merely remarking “Don’t tell the Missus.”[1]

John Cann described his father as ‘short..nuggety and for all his knocking about surprisingly quiet.’[2] He was someone remembered by his friends for his honesty with the exception of selling fake antidotes during the 1920s.

George died of a stroke, unrelated to snake bites, at Prince Henry Hospital in 1965. During his last days he managed to escape the hospital bed and have one last roam through the La Perouse scrub where he and Snakey George had first caught snakes half a century earlier.

 

Listen to the podcast with  Minna & Tess here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Tess Connery on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney. 

Further reading: 

The Canns of La Perouse blog: http://cannsoflaperouse.blogspot.com/
John Cann, Snakes Alive: Snake Experts & Antidote Sellers of Australia, Kangaroo Press, 1986,
Peter Hobbins, Venomous encounters Snakes, vivisection and scientific medicine in colonial Australia, Manchester University Press, 2017
Julia Kensy, La Perouse, Dictionary of Sydney https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/la_perouse

Notes:

[1] Cann, J ‘John Cann, the last Snake Man of La Perouse, tells a story with bite in new book, Sydney Morning Herald, January 24 2018, https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/john-cann-the-last-snake-man-of-la-perouse-tells-a-story-with-bite-in-new-book-20180124-h0nf6q.html, accessed on 19 June 2019.

[2] Cann, J Snakes Alive: Snake Experts & Antidote Sellers of Australia, Kangaroo Press, 1986, p134.

Share This