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 Rats, Hydromys 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: 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.
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