Sydney eccentric: James Fowler Wilcox

Thirty years before Sydney’s first public zoo opened at Billy Goat Swamp in Moore Park, James Fowler Wilcox had opened a zoo of his own in the heart of the city.

The enterprising naturalist arrived in Sydney in 1850 aboard the HMS Rattlesnake. The ship, under Captain Owen Stanley, had spent several years surveying the north and south-east coast of Australia, and the south coast of New Guinea, and Wilcox was kept busy collecting specimens for museums in England. Once discharged, he began amassing his private collection, and in 1851 opened shop at 30 Hunter Street.

His menagerie was part zoo, part museum, part emporium, where stuffed specimens were exhibited alongside their still-breathing cousins.  One June afternoon the Herald paid a visit to Wilcox’s establishment, and described “…a small but unique collection of Australian and Indian beasts, birds, and reptiles, from the inspection of which we derived much gratification”.

In far-flung colonial Sydney, the collection must have been a magnet for both the scientifically minded and seekers after novelty. For a small fee, visitors could see such exotic creatures as a cheetah, an orangutan, and a guynee (“a small cow with a hump, which the Hindoo regards as a sacred object”) housed with a Persian sheep. A favourite with the punters was a “formidable” boa constrictor, whose pen was kept humid with a jar of boiling water. “Young ladies declare it be a ‘love of a snake’, but are quite angry that it is not folded up in blankets,’ the Herald reported.

Wilcox had the instincts of a scientist and showman combined. The press made great play of the arrival of a “monster Moruk”, an emu-like bird…lately imported from one of the South Sea Islands and purchased at a high figure by the spirited naturalist of Hunter-street.” The latter announced that the Moruk had swallowed the key to its cage and was not, therefore, likely to escape.

Visitors could purchase live “budgerygars”, stuffed birds and animals “mounted in unequalled taste, and in strictly natural and anatomical positions” and, presumably for those wishing to accumulate their own collections, a range of firearms (including a “walking stick percussion gun”).

The menagerie was also home to Wilcox and his young family during his three-year stint as proprietor, and his wife regularly placed “servants wanted” ads in the papers. Unsurprisingly perhaps, there was a high turnover of housekeepers at the Wilcox residence.