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1860s: A Naturalist's Legacy

By: Rose Docker, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 28 Apr 2017

Throughout the 1860s the Australian Museum was led by its formidable, but ill-fated German born curator — Gerard Krefft.

Gerard Krefft

Gerard Krefft
Photographer:  © Australian Museum

In 1871 a newspaper reporter remarked, ‘An inward conviction of the fitness of things soon forces itself on the observant mind when ‘the right man is in the right place,’ and the state of the Australian Museum, since the curatorship of Mr Krefft, is evidence of the fact.’

Today the ground floor of the AM’s original 1840s building has an area set aside for special gatherings – called the ‘Krefft Room’. On its walls, Krefft's impressive work as a pioneering scientist and proactive museum administrator are well documented — but what is lesser known is the forlorn fate of his family post-Museum.

In a piece of official correspondence to the Crown Solicitor in December 1877, Gerard Krefft gives his address as ‘Curator’s Office, Australian Museum, 73 Stanley St, Sydney’. It was then over three years since a fierce dispute with the Museum trustees had seen him forcibly ejected from both his position as Curator and from his family home at the real Museum, around the corner on William and College Streets.

Also in 1877 Krefft published ‘Krefft’s Nature in Australia. A Popular Journal for the Discussion of Questions of Natural history’. It lasted only one issue – mainly because it concentrated on hurling insults at the Museum Trustees, comparing them to ‘parasitic flies’, rather than talking about Australia’s flora and fauna.

A broken man in mind and body, Gerard Krefft died in 1881 at just 51, leaving a desperate widow and two young sons. Annie Krefft nee McPhail moved from Woolloomooloo to Parramatta, Sydney and Paddington trying to avoid paying rent. She wrote many letters trying to sell Krefft’s papers and manuscripts and her eldest son Rudi went to work at the age of 13 for the Government Printer.

Today the Mitchell Library in Sydney holds a collection of Krefft’s papers which includes a poignant reminder of the fate of his youngest child Hermann, born in 1879.

Krefft’s handwritten diaries for 1869, 1872 and 1874 give a blow by blow account of his last turbulent years at the Museum. Interspersed in gaps between entries and on blank pages, are the words and drawings of Hermann inscribed about 20 years later. On one page he repeatedly practises his signature, ‘H Krefft, Naturalist, Paddington Sydney’. On other pages he’s made detailed natural history observations in the style of Krefft senior and throughout are dozens of sketches of ships.

Page from Gerard Krefft’s 1872 Diary held by the Mitchell Library. Hermann Krefft’s drawing of a ship side by side with his father’s notes about building a shed for a new whale skeleton recovered in 1872.

Page from Gerard Krefft’s 1869 Diary held in the Mitchell Library. Hermann Krefft practises his signature.

Hermann died unmarried in 1911 of a cerebral haemorrhage aged 31. In those sad diaries, it’s hard not to see a young man living forlornly in the shadow of a vibrant father he’d never known, except through inky words on a page.