Inside the Collection

Rabbits, rabbits everywhere

G’day, mate!

No wait! Don’t stop reading! I know it sounds ridiculous, but I’m just trying to fit in! My name’s Sidney Flicker and I am an American student studying at the University of Sydney. Currently, I’m doing an internship in the curatorial department at the Powerhouse Museum as part of my Master of Museum Studies degree. My job is to work with curator Margaret Simpson and research photographs in the Clyde Engineering Photograph Collection, in particular those that show farm machinery.

In the past few months, I’ve looked at and researched all sorts of agricultural machines including ploughs, cultivators, and thatch stitchers. These machines were all made by Clyde Engineering Co. Ltd., a large Australian company located in the Sydney suburb of Granville. Clyde Engineering began as Hudson and Sons around 1857, with the final name change to Clyde Engineering Co. Ltd. in 1898. The Hudson family worked tirelessly on projects that ranged from railway carriages to airplanes and farm machinery to engineering equipment.

1920-1945 Black and white photo of a second class train carriage
Photographic glass plate negative, NSW Government Railways, second class railway carriage, Clyde Engineering Pty Ltd, 1920-1945, 88/289-1172. Collection: Powerhouse Museum
Cadet trainer aircraft A6-15 with two men working on the engine in a warehouse
Photographic glass plate negative, first avro cadet trainer aircraft A6-15, Clyde Engineering Pty Ltd, 1939, 88/289-145. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

One of the farm machines that caught my eye during the research was the rabbit poison cart that was made after 1902 by Clyde. The name of this machine model was the “Toxicon” and it was designed to drop and bury poison pellets that rabbits would hopefully eat.

Rabbit poison cart, “Toxicon” three wheel cart device
Rabbit poison cart, “Toxicon”, Clyde Engineering Pty Ltd, after 1902, 88/289-894. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

It’s sad to admit, but before I came to Australia I knew very little about this wonderful country. Much of my information came from Crocodile Dundee and stereotypes – “shrimp on the barbie”, constant shark attacks, “a dingo ate my baby!” and the rabbit infestation. I believed that when I walked down the streets of Sydney I would see rabbits jumping and scurrying everywhere: the Australian equivalent of the squirrel.

If I had arrived in Australia one hundred years earlier I would have been right, but in those one hundred years the Australian government and its citizens have worked hard to fix the rabbit problem. The “infestation” began when 24 wild rabbits were imported for hunting sport by an elite member of society in Victoria in 1859. Within forty years, the rabbits had spread across the continent hitting New South Wales in 1880. Along their way the rabbits affected the natural environment and agriculture.

The rabbit poison cart was part of a farmer’s arsenal against rabbits, while other strategies ranged from trapping and explosives to dog-led hunts and poison to rabbit-proof fences and warren ripping (dragging a plough through the underground network of burrows). Seven to ten rabbits could eat as much pasture as one sheep! These early methods were not as affective as later methods. Sometimes they did more harm than good since poisons could be eaten by anything, including pets and ironically, the rabbit’s natural enemies including dingoes, foxes and goannas.

During the Great Depression, the large quantity of rabbits was actually a good thing: rabbits were a cheap source of food (once you caught them) and selling rabbit pelts resulted in pocket money. Pelts were made into Akubra hats and worn by World War II Australian soldiers. The result was a battle between farmers who wanted to protect their crops and ‘rabbiters’, also known as rabbit trappers, who wanted to protect their livelihood.

Finished rabbit fur pelt bowler hat. Collection: Powerhouse Museum
Finished rabbit fur pelt hat, United Fur Felts, Sydney, 1940, H4266. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

In the 1950s, the Australian government released Myxomatosis, a disease that only affected rabbits, which had a 99% kill rate. While some rabbits have developed a resistance to the disease, it continues to be very effective in keeping the rabbit numbers down. Anti-fertility agents in the 1990s also help keep the rabbits from breeding, well, like rabbits.

It is these actions, among many others, that prevented me from seeing rabbits hopping around the Sydney streets when I arrived in Australia. But even today rabbits affect agriculture, in 2002 rabbits were causing losses of more than $600 million in Australia through crop and pasture damage.

I would like to thank Collections Australia Network for their online exhibition Run rabbit RUN! and Margaret Simpson for aiding my understanding of rabbits in Australia.

Sidney Wilkinson-Flicker

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