William Sheridan Wall, Museum Curator
William Sheridan Wall

Irish born Mr  William Sheridan Wall served as Curator of the Australian Museum in Sydney during  the 1840s and 50s.  He personally collected and preserved many native birds, but his greatest legacy to the institution was a creature from the deep.

On December 5 1849 the schooner Thistle came upon a dead sperm whale and towed it into Sydney Harbour. When Mr Wall heard the news, he suggested  to the  Museum Committee that it would be a wonderful addition to the collection. There were a couple of problems. One of course was the very size of the creature. The other was that it was summer, and putrification  would be rapid.

At first  Mr Williamson, the master of the vessel, said he wanted to retain  the lower jaw (for the teeth) , but it was explained that a toothless whale would hinder scientific study of the specimen , not to mention disappointing the  museum’s visitors.  When an agreement was reached, all the blubber was removed to  be boiled down and the carcass  handed over.  In a slim volume he published on the subject, Mr Wall wrote;

I proceeded to adopt proper measures for cleaning the bones. After considerable difficulty in finding persons willing to encounter so unpleasant, and as they imagined, so unhealthy, a task – I at last succeeded in engaging four Portuguese sailors.  It was, however, then discovered that a portion of the tail, containing ten of the caudal vertebrae, and also a fin, were deficient.

The tail had inadvertently been sent off with the blubber, but  Mr Wall located  it on Hughes’ Wharf, in Sussex Street. He arrived in the nick of time, because  it was so ‘ripe’ that  local business people were  about to dispose  of it at sea.

With the fin presumed lost, the rest of the carcass was taken to Pinchgut Island (now Fort Denison).  Lime was used to clean the bones and they were left to bleach for a couple of months.

Pinchgut Island
It’s a wonder the skeleton fitted on tiny Pinchgut Island

There was more good news when  two little boys found a ”strange fish’ washed up in Woolloomooloo Bay.  It turned out to be the missing fin.  The crew of  a fishing vessel had nabbed it for the oil, but luckily the wind got up and they had to cut it loose.

The fin, lost but found.

Unfortunately there were still  two pelvic bones  missing.  In the end, the rotting carcass of another whale came ashore at Port Hacking.  Off went Mr Wall and despite almost being washed away, he ventured  into the  stinking mess.  Eureka – he found his missing bits.


Mr George Strong, violinist and composer, was one of many  Sydney residents who collected and donated items of natural history to the museum. He was particularly fascinated by Mr Wall’s  sperm whale, (named Catodon Australis) so much so that he  was inspired to  compose a polka (then much in vogue), dedicated to the Curator.

Catodon Polka by George Strong inspired by William Wall and the whale.
In honour of Mr Wall

The piece was performed at The Victoria Theatre, in Pitt Street (since burned down).

Would you like to hear it?    CLICK HERE


Mr Wall,  in the course of his dissections of various specimens of the whale,  determined that the  powerful  locomotion generated by its tail might  be  applied to boats.

Mr Wall proposes a simple     piece of machinery, formed chiefly of elastic wire, similar in its shape and action to the spiral process of the whale, with artificial sinews of  strong gut communicating with a tail of gutta-percha, the motion being primarily communicated by means of a small horizontal wheel. The inventor is of the opinion, by a very slight effort of muscular power there might be attained a degree of speed more rapid, beyond all comparison – Sydney Morning Herald.

Gutta-percha is a rigid, natural latex produced from the sap of a tree.

I would love to provide a diagram of William’s design, but regretfully a prototype was never constructed. His idea was ridiculed, but in his defense, he was 150 years ahead of his time. Here is a 2015 photo from a marine development company in Norway;

Well done Mr William Wall!

1854 was a very big year for our Curator. The Museum held its first public exhibition. One of the exhibits was gold found with the gizzards of a duck….haha! This is of particular interest to me, because my grandfather found some in one of his ducks fifty years later. Here is a link to a story on  The Exhibition



  1. Another fascinating history, thanks Pauline. The Australian Museum website has a few blogs on Wall but not in this kind of biographical detail; for example the opening of the first permanent museum building (see https://australianmuseum.net.au/blogpost/explore/opening-our-doors).

    A few years ago, the museum arranged for a pianist to record the Catodon Polka — you can download the audio file here: https://australianmuseum.net.au/audio/the-catadon-polka-2. It’s quite jolly.

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