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One of William Smyth’s Kaka (copyright Otago museum).
One of William Smyth’s Kaka (copyright Otago museum).

PartnersFebruary 3, 2019

The Irishman who stuffed New Zealand’s birds

One of William Smyth’s Kaka (copyright Otago museum).
One of William Smyth’s Kaka (copyright Otago museum).

Catherine Woulfe goes searching for the legacy of one of New Zealand’s first taxidermists. 

This story originally ran in Barker’s 1972 magazine under the title Legacies: He Never Quit the Hustle.

Birds! In the 1800s they were everywhere. Huia, kōkako, takahē, kākāriki – all clamouring to be shot and stuffed and stuck on a mantle.

Into this cornucopia sailed Irish taxidermist William Smyth. He was in his early 30s when he arrived in Dunedin, already a hustler, a hard case. He was a taxidermist – he’d probably taught himself, from books – and he had prepared nearly 300 British birds. He thought it was high time he took a job at a museum.

Except there were only four museums in New Zealand. And each usually employed only one taxidermist.

Smyth wrote to his local MP asking for a hook-up. He took a climb-the-ladder approach, and asked for work as a museum janitor. He was sober and well-educated, had been into natural history since childhood. Plus, all those birds. Yes? No.

It was the first of many knock-backs.

Smyth rallied. He was good at rallying.

With his new bride Agnes in tow, he set up as a commercial taxidermist in Caversham (later the home of Carisbrook).

The couple had five children. Agnes left him once, twice, and finally thrice, complaining that he failed to provide for her and the children – and that he left arsenic lying around on the verandah.

Arsenic was used to cure the bird skins, to stop them attracting mould and insects. It was also used by taxidermists who wanted to kill themselves. (At least two of Smyth’s contemporaries did just that. Frederick Fuller, who discovered the massive, moa-hunting New Zealand eagle, died in 1876 and James Morton, an Invercargill taxidermist, in 1882.)

William Smyth’s Kākāpō (copyright Otago museum)

Smyth, despite the foundering of his marriage and career, just kept on keeping on. Perhaps it was his extraordinary self-belief that hauled him through.

That, and the tantalising prospect of a job at the Auckland museum. The curator, Thomas Cheeseman, struggled to find a taxidermist for the position, and Smyth never quit asking for it.

Over two decades the pair exchanged dozens of letters, beginning in 1882, when Cheeseman wrote inquiring after King Penguin skins. Poor old Smyth, always on the back foot: no, he didn’t have any King Penguins, but would Cheeseman like… he listed more than a thousand bird specimens, as well as small mammals. Cheeseman bought about 20.

Things continued in a similar vein. Smyth, eager, Cheeseman, busy and business-like. All up, Cheeseman bought at least 220 of Smyth’s study skins (preserved, but unmounted specimens).

But he never bought into Smyth. Over and over again, Smyth hit him up. In 1882: “I should be glad to treat with you regarding taxidermist to the Museum”. In 1883, on hearing Cheeseman was trying to recruit overseas: “Please keep me in mind I am willing to take an under place if necessary.” Two years later: could Cheeseman help him get “any opening for me in any museum even at dusting out the place”?

Portrait of William Smyth about 1885 (Photographer unknown, Te Papa)

Thwarted, Smyth doubled down on his commercial taxidermy.

He enlisted locals to bring him birds and skins, and travelled to Fiordland and Napier to shoot kārearea, kōkako and weka. There were interesting sidelines.

When Victorians came down with “fern fever” Smyth made books of pressed ferns – these were purely to look good (and sell), with no pretensions of scientific significance. He sold large shells, intending them to be used in gardens, and he mounted trophy heads for deer hunters. He made a few muffs and lampshades from native birds – imagine! He wanted to set up his own little museum, and asked Cheeseman for help getting hold of “any monstrosity or freak”. He was, at one point, after a working model of Niagara Falls.

He did not make much money. Things got so dire that he advertised his copy of Buller’s Birds of New Zealand, a tool of the trade and then the closest thing to a bible of our natural history.

Yet his chutzpah stayed very much intact. Smyth’s will, drawn up two years before his death in 1913, instructs that his entire collection was to be shipped to Coleraine, a town in Northern Ireland. The town was to foot the bill for all packing, freight and upkeep of the specimens. If Coleraine wasn’t keen they were to offer it to Ballymoney, and as a last resort, the City of Londonderry.

“He fell among thieves” – likely a reference to the story of the Good Samaritan – was to be inscribed on his headstone.

None of it happened. The collection went to auction in Dunedin and Smyth’s headstone has a mocking, blank space where the inscription should be.

It’s his work, then, that serves as epitaph. Smyth’s specimens have landed in museums all around the world – the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Here, each of the major museums holds dozens of his birds, and his grand display cases – weird groups of birds, clustered on branches and rocks – are still floating around in private collections.

Smyth became bitter and resentful toward Otago Museum, so he’d perhaps gain a certain satisfaction from the fact the museum now holds 159 of his specimens – and that an honorary curator there named Rosi Crane finds him absolutely fascinating. Recently she and co-author Brian Gill published a paper in the journal Archives of Natural History, cataloguing Smyth’s life and times. It’s a rare piece of academia: wry, warm, funny. Sincere.

“His contribution to public bird collections has gone unrecognised,” Crane and Gill write. “It is timely to give some due acknowledgement to his legacy.”

A black shag by William Smyth (copyright Otago museum).

Alongside Smyth’s slow-burning success, what comes through in their paper is that he was a difficult bugger, a man who made life harder than it needed to be. Who, nonetheless, never stopped hustling.

Crane’s left with the same impression.

“Intense, that’s the word,” she says. “I think he was very difficult… very upright and very firm and Protestant in his views.

“I think once you started him talking you’d find him hard to stop. One of those, you know.”

I visit Auckland Museum, looking for traces of Smyth. I’d been assured many of their 70 Smyth specimens are on public display.

I wander into a huge room, packed with dinosaur fossils and moa bones and dozens of stuffed birds. Some are at eye-level, behind glass.

But look up. There, against the high white ceiling, a flash of kākā in flight. The stark chest of a kererū. Ruru the colour of a forest floor, a wingspan that can only be kārearea. And here’s the best bit: on most of the birds, there are no labels – or where there are labels, no mention of the taxidermist. At last, Smyth is on a level with his celebrated contemporaries. And all of them have been subsumed by their craft. By the birds.

Keep going!