Research and wombats

Occasionally I write a post about some research I’m doing, to document or demonstrate the historical process. Or just to express the madness of historical research. Probably the latter, in this case.

Today I am working on my second mystery novel, and if you know me it won’t surprise you that I became enamored of finding One Particular Thing. In this case, it was the exact date in 1863 on which newly acquired wombats were available to view at the Regent’s Park Zoo in London.

The idea began with an article from Public Domain Review, detailing Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wombat fascination. I was wondering whether I could have a scene where Rossetti drags his PræRaphaelite friends to the zoo to see the wombats and, if so, when that would be. According to the article:

In this period a number of new wombats arrived at the Regent’s Park Zoo: a rare, hairy-nosed wombat on July 24, 1862, and two common wombats despatched from the Melbourne Zoo on March 18, 1863.

The novel will be set in 1863, so I was interested in the two common wombats. Well, “despatched from” does not mean “arrived at”. So I wanted to find out when they arrived.

drawn at the zoo by Christina Rossetti

Now here’s where search terms become terribly important, and the lack of creativity in this regard most obvious. I used “regents park zoo wombats 1863”.

Since the Public Domain Review is, naturally, in the public domain, I mostly found the exact same phrase above on a bunch of web pages. So I tried searching for a book about the history of the London Zoo, both on Google Books and Amazon. I did find a book, for $25 with no preview. No can do, and no way to go to a library.

I began searching for records. Surely the Zoo has records. Eventually I found the Proceedings of the Zoological Society at Google Books, but of course they had every possible year but 1863. When this happens, I go immediately to HathiTrust.

And there I found it, after the usual search involving several identical options that actually aren’t identical records, the Proceedings for 1863, searching the word “wombat”.


March 18, 1863. So it turns out the article in the Public Domain Review (and all the items that plagiarized it) is wrong. The wombats weren’t despatched then; they arrived. And there were three wombats, one Common, one Hairy-nosed, and one Black. Another Common wombat did arrive, but on June 6. I also looked up the Acclimatization Society. Apparently they’re the ones responsible for introducing plagues of rabbits into Australia, and pesky sparrows that ate the fruit crop. Their work would eventually found the Melbourne Zoo, but it didn’t exist in 1863, so that’s wrong too.

So as yet I have no plot, no outline, and no idea where my story is going. I do, however, have wombats.


2 comments to Research and wombats

  • jmm

    “Give me a wombat and a place to stand, and I can move the world”?

    • Lisa M Lane

      Or in his case, a wombat, peacocks, a Brahmin bull, and an armadillo. And if it hadn’t been at the risk of pissing off Thomas Carlyle, he wanted an elephant.

      And here I complain about neighbor with small yards and big dogs!