One of the most famous and well-loved specimens in the collections of the Natural History Society of Northumbria is our stuffed Wombat. On permanent display in the Great North Museum: Hancock’s Explore Gallery, our Wombat has been nominated many times by visitors as their favourite object even taking centre stage in the local ‘Objects of Desire’ exhibition in 2000.
In 1798 specimens of two very strange and unusual animals were dispatched on a long journey from Australia, to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne. The Wombat, the first to be seen in Britain, and its companion, a Duck-billed Platypus, were sent as gifts from Governor John Hunter (1738-1821) of New South Wales. Hunter had connections in the North-East and had recently been elected an honorary member of the Lit & Phil. He sent the specimens to Sir Joseph Banks in London who after first examining the animals put them on a cargo ship bound for the North East.
The two specimens had been preserved for the long journey in a small cask of spirits, most probably rum. On arrival, a local woman was hired to carry the cask from the river Tyne’s quayside to the Society’s rooms in the bustling town of Newcastle. Placing the barrel on her head she set off up the steep hill but unfortunately, the bottom gave way and the poor woman was nearly suffocated by the foul-smelling spirits. Imagine her shock at finding two strange creatures lying at her feet. Early naturalists had described the platypus as a hybrid animal – half bird, half beast and this was only the second specimen to be sent to England!
The wombat, however, was the very first – a unique specimen.
Years later, in 1826, our Wombat skin was re-discovered in a drawer at the Lit & Phil and given to Newcastle taxidermist Richard Wingate, who, never having seen a wombat in the wild, stuffed it in the rather unnatural begging position we see it in today. He probably assumed that as it was a marsupial it would behave like a kangaroo! He mounted it in a sitting position, which he believed ‘from the two callosities [hard skin] on the haunches, to be more adapted to its habits.’
Our Wombat is a specimen of the sub species of Course-haired or Common Wombat Vombatus ursinus ursinus which was once found throughout the Bass Strait Islands, but is now restricted to Flinders Island to the north of Tasmania. Common Wombats are a solitary, territorial species, with each wombat having an established range in which it lives and feeds. They dig large tunnel complexes which can undermine the foundations of buildings and they were regarded as a nuisance by the early Australian settlers. The sub-species was relentlessly persecuted and severely reduced in numbers; they are now regarded as endangered. The callosities noted by Wingate are part of the wombat’s defence mechanism they have an extremely tough rear end with extra thick skin which means that if they are threatened they can they can dive head first into their burrow blocking the entrance with their sturdy backside.
Governor Hunter, who had observed the Wombat when it was still alive, wrote in a letter that the specimen was female as it had “the false belly for the security of its young” but Wingate the taxidermist could not find a pouch and pronounced that it was a male. Our Wombat is probably a juvenile female.
The renowned local wood engraver Thomas Bewick was preparing to publish the 4th edition of his A General History of Quadrupeds in 1800 and on learning of the latest arrivals from the antipodes he figured them both in his Addenda to the Quadrupeds.
However, Bewick took “the figures and descriptions of two very rare animals” from the drawings and information sent to the Lit & Phil by Governor Hunter and not from the specimens themselves. Bewick’s wood engraving (see right), although the first published illustration of a wombat, sadly lacks the liveliness of his other engravings.
His son, Robert Elliott Bewick, completed a copperplate of the mounted Wombat which appears in George Townshend Fox’s Synopsis of the Newcastle Museum published in 1827 (see left). The Wombat, now stuffed in its comical pose, is placed in a landscape of rocks and plants. There is also a small preparatory pencil drawing by Robert still existing in the Society’s archives.
As the first Wombat to arrive in England, our specimen holds a special place in the hearts of many Australian naturalists and the odd visitor from down-under has been known to make the pilgrimage to our museum to see this fabled beast.
Even the Glasgow comedian Billy Connolly while on his televised World Tour of Australia in 1995 heard the story of our famous Wombat. He wrote about the fantastic story in the book which accompanied his travel series and contacted the Society for an illustration.
During the museum’s closure and refurbishment from 2006 to 2009 our Wombat was sent on sabbatical to Cherryburn, the birthplace of Thomas Bewick happily entertaining a whole new audience for three years.
Bewick’s original woodblock engraving of the Wombat for Quadrupeds forms part of the Cherryburn Birthplace Museum collections and can still be seen on display there.
Pigott, L.J. and Jessop, L. (2007) The governor’s wombat: early history of an Australian marsupial. Archives of Natural History 34: 207-218.
Fox, G.T. (1827) Synopsis of the Newcastle Museum. Newcastle: T. & J. Hodgson.