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Exploring the Collection: The Parrot

The parrot is one of QWHA’s most beloved objects, primarily because of its connection to one of its early members, Mrs Cecilia Bancroft. Through researching the history and provenance of this object I discovered not only the fascinating story behind the parrot and how the QWHA came to have it, but also the broader historical context surrounding taxidermied animals.

The parrot is a stuffed and mounted mature male red-winged parrot, Aprosmictus erythropterus. It is a parrot native to Australia and southern Papua New Guinea, and ranges over most of northern Australia as far west as the Pilbara in Western Australia. The red-winged parrot is found all over Queensland, western New South Wales and as far south as northern South Australia.

One parrot’s (unfortunate) journey

The first owner of the parrot was Frances Jones. She was the eighth and youngest child of Mary Jones (née Peterson) and Richard Jones, a businessman, pastoralist and parliamentarian who became a leading public figure in the colony of New South Wales during the 1820s. Born in England, Richard had initially been a merchant and later became a pastoralist who successfully introduced the Saxon sheep to Australia. He also held significant amounts of land in southeast Queensland during the late 1840s. He died from a stroke aged 70 in 1852.

In 1857, Mary Jones and her two youngest children (Frances aged 15 and Tom aged 20) were living on a 90-acre property situated by the Brisbane River, downstream from the town of Brisbane. Richard had purchased this property, and built a house called New Farm, a decade earlier. It is not known how Frances came to have the red-winged parrot as a pet. In the 1850s, Brisbane was still a small frontier settlement surrounded by bushland, which would have been full of native Australian birds. Parrots and other birds were popular pets during this period, both in Australia and the United Kingdom.

According to the family history, The Colonial Diaries: Recording the Strength and Faith of the Jones Women, in 1857 Mary Jones received some disturbing news. Frances’s elder sister Lizzie, who had gone to England to join a religious order, had ‘lost her composure and reason’ and left the order. She was reported to be attending services at a Roman Catholic Church in London. A family friend wrote to Mary Jones telling her that ‘if you do not come to England Lizzie will be joining the Church of Rome’.

Fifteen-year-old Frances was told she had to leave New Farm to travel with her mother on this rescue mission. Reluctant to leave her home, Frances allegedly refused to go on the journey unless she was allowed to take her pet parrot.

Upon arrival in England, the parrot, his mistress and family lived in London for a period while efforts were made to locate Lizzie, who had absconded to Orleans in France. Apparently the parrot was the source of much amusement, learning phrases such as ‘Sebastopol is taken’, which was a reference to the Crimean War.

Unfortunately, the cold weather did not agree with the Australian parrot — he became ill and died. Frances’s mother arranged for the bird to be stuffed and mounted by a London taxidermist. The bird then returned to Australia with Frances and remained in her possession until her death in 1932. It then passed to her daughter Cecilia (pictured below)

who kept it until her death in 1961. The bird was donated to QWHA, along with a number of other objects belonging to Cecilia, in 1962, by her daughter, Dr Josephine MacKerras.

Nineteenth century woman wearing a hat
Cecilia Bancroft, taken in 1899. Image courtesy of Moreton Bay Regional Council, MBPS-0006-001.

Historical context

Forms of preserving once-living things have existed since ancient times. Taxidermy, the art and science of preserving and presenting an animal’s skin in a life-like way, became a key concern of natural scientists in the eighteenth century. Taxidermy was used to preserve animal and bird specimens so that they could be studied and classified in order to further scientific understanding. By the early nineteenth century, a thorough knowledge of taxidermy techniques was considered essential for serious Victorian naturalists, particularly if they were collecting far from home or in a tropical climate.

This fascination with the natural world spread to the wider populace, and collecting specimens and preserving them became an acceptable hobby by the mid-nineteenth century. Birds, because they are easier to mount than mammals, were the starting point for many amateur and professional taxidermists. Taxidermists developed sophisticated techniques to display birds in increasingly more life-like and artistic ways. Thus, professionally preserved birds became popular as decorative items in Victorian homes. Displaying taxidermied birds as objects was also believed to promote a healthy interest in natural history.

Exhibit of stuffed birds
Exhibit of stuffed birds. Image courtesy of John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Taxidermy beyond the bounds of natural history collections became increasingly popular throughout the nineteenth century, particularly after the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. By the end of the century, most villages in England had a resident taxidermist. For big game hunters, taxidermy was a way of keeping the spoils of the hunt as a trophy. Exotic animal parts could also be converted into useful household objects, such as hat stands, waste bins, chairs, candelabra and stools.

It was also commonplace during the nineteenth century to preserve beloved pets through taxidermy. Sarah Amato argues that preservation was considered a ‘final routine of pet-keeping’ and that by being transformed into an object the pet could continue to serve its owner. Thus, a preserved former pet could function both as a memorial and a useful object. In the case of the red-winged parrot, once transformed into taxidermy he would have not only served as a focus for his homesick owner’s grief, but also as a beautiful decorative object representative of Australia.

A well-preserved pet

At approximately 160 years of age, this bird is testament to the skills of the taxidermist who preserved it. Perched on a small branch, the parrot seems to look at the viewer in a quizzical way. In the 1850s, at the time the parrot was preserved, a good taxidermist was expected to represent the pet’s personality in their reconstruction. The stories told about the parrot’s intelligence certainly suggest that it had been faithfully restored.

Early taxidermy techniques were crude and left bird specimens vulnerable to insect attack; but by the mid-nineteenth century the techniques had been refined. Successful preservation involved removing all fat from the corpse and applying arsenic, either as soap or solution, which warded off insect attack. The skin was then tanned, the insides stuffed with wool or other materials and the upright stance created by wire. Given the date of the parrot’s preservation in 1858 — when Victorian interest in taxidermy was intensifying — the most current techniques would have been used to preserve and mount it. When Cecilia Bancroft presented a talk to the QWHA about the bird she said it was taken to ‘the best taxidermist in London’.

Man in a hat working on taxidermy of small bird.
Charles F. Skyring at work at his hobby of taxidermy. Image courtesy of John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Article by Linden George.


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