Rossetti’s Wombat, Top

14th May 2019

We’ll begin the blog by discussing Victorian animals and our fascination with it. The fact that in Victorian England, you could go to a store in England and purchase exotic animals is incredible to us. In 2019, you can pop to Pets at Home and the biggest animal you will come away with is a rabbit (or a really big gerbil..) but, visit Charles Jamrach’s store in 19th Century London – Jamrach’s Animal Emporium – and you could purchase a whole manner of animals. If you saw ‘The Greatest Showman’ film, what you might not know that after P.T.Barnum’s circus fire in 1864, Jamrach was the main provider of animals for the circus. The Greatest Show indeed!

Visit Tobacco Dock and you’ll see a bronze statue. It’s there because in 1857, a Bengal tiger escaped the Emporium, found an eight year old boy and began to carry him away. Jamrach ran up and thrust his bare hands into the tigers mouth which forced him to drop the child. The young boy hadn’t seen such an large cat before and had tried to pet the animal – but after the incident the parents sued and were awarded £300.

Now; Wombats. Australian animals, males are usually about 30kg but can be bigger than that. Mostly nocturnal, they do feed during the day but because they are nocturnal, it means their hearing is increased as is their sense of smell. You’ll notice that their eyes are on the sides of their head so they can see sideways much better than they can forwards. They’re vegetarian and not particularly aggressive but if their burrow is invaded, they sound like they can have an aggressive streak towards their intruders!

At the beginning of the 18th Century, it’s important to know the feeling of the time. Of course, Australia was at the other side of the world and so it appears that the English were just beginning to learn more about the other countries and their animals. The British rule in India taught them lots about Elephants and so exotic animals weren’t a complete unknown.

Wombats were first known in England because of John Wilson – a convict transported to Australia because of a theft in Wigan. He befriended the local aboriginal people and learnt about the ‘Whom-batt’ as he called it.

Our Wombat is from the gift shop in Wightwick Manor as a little representation of Top – photo taken in Kelmscott Manor – notice behind, a book from Morris’s Kelmscott Press

Rossetti and his wombat

In September 1869, Dante Gabriel Rossetti bought himself a wombat that he called ‘Top.’ Named after his William Morris’ nickname. Sadly, by November of the same year, the wombat died. Now, it’s not known nor recorded of whether the wombat was brought over from Australia or was born in Jamrach’s shop – or how old he was when Rossetti bought him.

For three months though, Top joined Rossetti’s menagerie in Chelsea. Rossetti is well known to have a private zoo/menagerie in his spacious garden. A tiny piece of Australia brought all the way to Chelsea to inspire and intrigue the Pre-Raphaelites.


Rossetti’s love for wombats

In the Zoological Society’s Gardens in London, during 1856, a wombat had been born – it’s not clear if this is the first one or not (if you know – let us know!) As a child, Rossetti loved to visit the zoo and had gone a lot during his childhood. During one visit, his sister Christina was bitten by a peccary, her and their other brother, William, were actually the ones that discovered the families love for Wombats. When Rossetti was an adult, he remained a lover of the zoo and would take walks there and would have the meeting point of ‘the Wombat’s Lair.’

Our Wombat in Kelmscott Manor

Rossetti’s Tudor House

Following his wife Lizzie Siddal’s death in 1862, Rossetti could no longer bear to live in their home and moved to Tudor House. The garden measured 4/5ths of an acre and so was perfect for his dream of a menagerie. He set about filling his zoo – some were allowed to roam free which resulted in various consequences (some disastrous) and some in cages – again, some with disastrous consequences. Sometimes, he set up a marquee in the garden where himself and friends would dine sat on Persian rugs surrounded by some of  the animals. He was, for obvious reasons, not a popular neighbour.

His animals, at various times, according to ‘Rossetti’s Wombat’ included: “a white Brahmnin bull, or zebu (a specimen of the distinctive humped cattle of India). This was purchased on a whim from a ‘beast show’ in Cremorne Gardens” – page 68. “By May 1870 Rossetti had acquired two kangaroos – an adult female with a male joey in her pouch. These came to a bad buy mysterious end.” – Page 78. He also had a racoon which seems, nicely put, mischievous – Rossetti is known to have had to pay compensation for it’s raids on the neighbours gardens. There were also several peacocks – one of them was a beautiful white peacock which dived under the sofa and refused to come out until it died. His armadillos also were a nuisance to the neighbours and their privet hedges. The dormice were given to William Morris’ children in April 1868 when he took them through his pockets as he stepped through the door – we’re sure Morris was thrilled! He attempted to get an Elephant through what reads as a harebrained scheme and also a woodchuck. He also almost had a lion but it was only the fact he was put off by the expense of running hot water pipes through the garden to keep the lion warm during the English winter that he didn’t get one.

Other animals included: Punch the Pomeranian, Wolf the Irish deerhound, Jessie and Bobby barn owls, wood owls, Virginian Owls, mice, squirrels, rabbits, hedgehogs, and possibly a penguin. A grey parrot which tried to bite off visitors fingers and perhaps others that we don’t even know about!

Our Wombat in Kelmscott Manor

We’re so interested in the Rossetti and Top story – there’s so much to read. We did use John Simon’s fascinating book, “Rossetti’s Wombat” for reference in this blog and as quoted by page numbers above, did use it to help write parts of this blog. Also notice our featured image of the blog – it’s our Wombat on the windowsill at Kelmscott Manor next to Rossetti’s photo!