Inside the Collection

Water rat fur coat and a long romance

Photograph of water rat fur womens coat
93/252/1 Water rat fur coat made by Sam Press, Sydney, Australia, 1940-1950

This very unusual fur coat was donated to the museum in 1993. Curator, Glynis Jones recalls, “I remember visiting the donor, Mrs Buckland, she sat me down in her lounge room and sipping a small glass of whisky, related the wonderful story of her coat. Its a love story really with all the pelts gathered on holiday with her husband in the 1940’s.”

The coat is made of the pelts of 100 Australian Water RatsHydromys chrysogaster.  Not to be confused with the commonly seen introduced rats, the Australian Water Rat is a native species with a lifestyle similar to that of an otter. Today, these animals are completely protected and although rarely seen, are considered to be in good numbers. These pelts were collected in the 1940’s, when attitudes to fur (and killing wildlife) were very different. In fact, women were encouraged to wear fur as wool was needed for the war effort.

Mr and Mrs Buckland came from the rural town of Dubbo.  As a young couple in the 1940’s they moved to Sydney. When Mrs Buckland’s coat wore out her husband suggested they have a holiday on the Macquarie River, near Dubbo and catch enough water rats to make a new coat. They took 7 weeks to trap over 100 water rats. They camped beside the river and set rabbit traps at night. As soon as a water rat was caught they would kill and skin it so the sheen was not lost from the fur. They moved to a new spot each night as water rats will not return to an area where a water rat has been killed. The pelts were pegged out in the shade to dry and later finished at a tannery in Botany.

Mrs Buckland approached Farmers Department Store in Sydney but they told her that they did not make long coats (possibly they were daunted by the unusual fur and large number of small pelts). They sent her to Sam Press, a furrier in Pitt Street, Sydney. She gave the furrier exactly 100 pelts (back only). She knew there was a lucrative trade in furs and that furriers were notorious for keeping a few pelts for themselves to sell later. Sam Press did a wonderful job of the coat and showed Mrs Buckland how they had dropped (a method of stitching) thick and thin areas of the skins so that the coat had a even surface. Mrs Buckland loved the result and the unusual fur was often admired.

My interest in this object was piqued when I was lucky enough to see a water rat in the wild while camping along the Murrumbidgee River. For most people today (including myself),  the thought of spending a holiday trapping and killing water rats is unthinkable. However attitudes were very different in the 1940’s and living off the land was a reality (and even a necessity) for many more people.

Photograph of water rat

Photograph: Ben McGruer: Life in the Suburbs: promoting urban biodivserity in the ACT

Mrs Buckland (she never told us her first name) was a widow when she donated this coat to the Museum. For her, the coat was a precious memory of a time she and husband spent together as a young couple camping by what was then the beautiful free flowing Macquarie River and I can certainly appreciate the romance in that.

Lynne McNairn
Web and Social Technologies

11 responses to “Water rat fur coat and a long romance

  • 100 water rats for Mrs Buckland’s coat seems extraordinary when for us it is a treat to see one in the wild. Bizarrely beautiful though and amazing dedication by Mr Buckland.

  • Here at Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth, New Zealand, we have a similar rat-related love story! In our collection we have a cape fashioned out of bush rat skins, trapped by Mick Murphy on Mt Taranaki between 1939 and 1940. Mick was employed as a possum trapper, and sent the rat skins he collected to a furrier in Palmerston North to make a cape. When the cape came into the collection, there was little information about what prompted him to make such a unique item, but more recent research suggests it would likely have been for romantic reasons. A possum trapper in the 1940s would not have been able to afford mink, and using rat skins may have been a cheaper way to make his special girl feel particularly special. The cape can be found here: http://www.pukeariki.com/Heritage/Spotlight-on-the-Heritage-Collection/id/189/title/rat-cape
    In fact, it appears the cape may have worked – in the photography collection we also have a photo of Mick with his new wife Winufreda in 1945, only 5 years after the cape was made. Perhaps rats really are the way to a girl’s heart (in Australia and New Zealand at least)?! Their wedding photo can be seen here: http://vernon.npdc.govt.nz/search.do?id=174004&db=object&page=1&view=detail

  • This water rat coat subject is amazing. My husband’s Great Grandfather made his wife a coat from water rat pelts in the late 1930’s. They lived in St Kilda but he was a retired farmer so the rats could have been trapped on his property.
    Is there an email address I can send a photo to?

  • A great story of the water rat coat and wonderful that the museum still has it. Having worked for Cornelius Furs I compliment the museum on their photography of the coat. not easy to capture the sheen in the pelt especially the darker furs. David Mist

  • I have the matching Water Rat Fur Stole. The Water Rats caught by my great great Aunty Val and Uncle George (Buckland) and made up by the same Sydney company for Val’s lifelong best friend, my Grandmother. If the Museum want the stole I can drop it down immediately….I dont know how to care for it and would never wear it. Kind regards

    • Hi Michele,
      Thanks for getting in touch. If you’re interested in donating to the Museum’s collection please email cur-enquiries@maas.museum and your offer will be forwarded to one of our Curators for consideration. There is more information about donating to the Collection here. Please note that items offered for donation cannot be left at the Museum. If you have any further questions, we will be able to answer them via the above email.
      Kind regards, Sarah Reeves, MAAS

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