My partner and I were wandering through Sydney’s newly renovated Australian Museum recently, enjoying all the natural history treasures on display. I hardly gave the Victorian armchair pictured below a second glance until I overheard a staff member explaining it’s significance to another visitor. Oh my word, forget the dinosaurs and old rocks, here was a story to light my social history fire.
The chair’s association is with German born Gerard Krefft. He was appointed Curator of the museum in 1864. Krefft was a talented artist and was able to make excellent drawings of animals.
Mr Krefft was particularly interested in Australia’s snakes. In 1869 he published the first definitive work on the subject.
The Museum must have been a lively place in Krefft’s day, especially as he had a pet New Guinea pig, which appeared to have the run of the place. I love this piece he wrote to the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald on October 10, 1873.
Sir – The pig from New Guinea, purchased for the Museum from H.M.S. Basilisk, and well-known to many visitors on account of its gentle disposition and tameness, has just brought forth three young – one exactly like the young of the European wild pig, the other two much darker. As I expressed an opinion that this New Guinea breed of pigs was remarkably like the common wild pig, and was probably derived from that stock, I am now glad to see my supposition borne out, because, as far as my own experience goes, the young of the domestic pig are never striped, while those of the wild breed invariably are.
The intelligence of the mother is very great, and she has only just recovered from a severe fall caused by jumping through a glass window about 2 feet square, and more than 4 feet off the ground. She is the cleanest pig I ever saw, and lives on bread, corn, and rice only – being, of course, fond of lollies and all kinds of sweet stuff. She followed some ladies who petted her to the upper floor of the Museum, and she is altogether a most remarkable creature…..’ GERARD KREFFT
The letter was published under the headline, FACTS FOR MR DARWIN. It highlighted the fact that Mr Krefft was a strong supporter of Charles Darwin and the then controversial theory of evolution. Krefft wrote letters to the newspapers sharing his own observations on natural selection and even corresponded with Darwin. In Sydney at that time, many people even some of the Museum’s trustees, were creationists, and this resulted in friction.
DARWINIAN THEORY BY CURATOR KREFFT
Krefft wrote a interesting piece in which he noted that all the short-tailed, bulky animals had dwindled down to just the native bear (koala) and the wombat. ‘Those species which acted upon Mr. Darwin’s theory of natural selection began to develop their hinder extremities, and in course of time they managed to produce long legs, and a tail to balance them.; whilst the more conservative members of this ancient community – the native bears for instance, – took kindly to climbing trees, and the wombat began to burrow into the earth for protection.’ He worried that these animals would become extinct, especially koalas, which he noted lived only on a narrow strip of coastal land. Sadly he also commented, ‘..besides, everyone kills the poor creatures, or pelts them with stones when they are observed in the daytime.’ (Sydney Mail April 6 1872)
There were other issues causing trouble between Curator Krefft and the trustees. He accused some of them of spiriting away museum specimens for their private collections. They in turn called him a drunkard and said he falsified attendance records.
There had also been an allegation that he stole some gold from a display. Eventually the situation reached crisis point and on August 20 1874 the trustees sacked him and demanded he leave. However, a feisty Krefft considered his dismissal unfair and stayed put. It was a particularly difficult situation, as his wife and sons resided on the premises. Mrs Krefft had just undergone a difficult pregnancy, and the couple’s daughter was stillborn.
KREFFT -July 2, at the Australian Museum, College Street, the wife of Gerard Krefft, of a daughter, stillborn. (Sydney Morning Herald July 3)
And now we come to the matter of the armchair.
While Mr Krefft was still sitting in the chair, the trustees hired a couple of local prizefighters to carry it out to the street and simply tip him out. Additionally, the residential apartments were broken into, effectively ousting his family. Krefft pursued the matter in court and eventually received compensation, but by then he was a broken man. The following was published in The Evening News, January 19 1881;
Sadly, he was beyond help. The same newspaper announced his death four weeks later;
‘Mr Gerard Krefft, the distinguished naturalist, whose disputes with the trustees of the Australian Museum embittered the last years of his life, is now beyond the reach of earthly care. He died last night, after suffering acutely for some months past, from dropsy and Bright’s disease. He leaves a widow and two children…‘ Krefft was only 51. He was buried in St. Jude’s Cemetery, Randwick.
His family struggled on in severely reduced circumstances. The following is from Freeman’s Journal in 1902.
The armchair is on display in the wonderful new Gallery of Treasures. It’s well worth a visit.
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