Fine feathers, eggs and drumsticks

Plymouth Rock chicken at Rouse Hill House

Plymouth Rock chicken at Rouse Hill House. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

Be they for eggs, the dinner table or the podium, the keeping of chickens has a long history at Sydney Living Museums properties.
Historically, different breeds were kept for different purposes: leghorns and brahma for example were popular breeds kept for their meat, while others were favoured as egg layers and some were kept for their ornamental value. Almost all of our properties have a history with chickens: the oral histories at Susannah Place tell us of chickens bought to be fattened up for Christmas – and the inevitable traumas faced when the chicken, given a name by the children and hence become a pet, faced the inevitable ‘chop’.

Today at Rouse Hill we have 4 breeds: striped Plymouth Rocks, white Light Sussex with their banded necks, glossy black Australorps with their ‘oilslick’ plumage (that look stunning in the sunlight), and, well, whatever Davros is. Does anybody have an idea? Is he a leghorn cross? While the broody Australorps tend to wander off together, all these breeds coexist quite happily in the coop and will wander up to investigate visitors (and whether they have a handful of seed).

The 4 chicken breeds together at Rouse Hill House and Farm

The 4 chicken breeds at Rouse Hill House and Farm: the hens are Light Sussex, Plymouth Rocks and Australorps. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

A passion for poultry

At Rouse Hill House, second generation Edwin (1806-62) and his younger son, third generation Edwin Stephen Rouse (‘Ted’, 1849-1931) had a particular interest in champion horses and prize poultry, both of which received elaborate housing. Facing the east service wing of the house is a long brick wall, the remains of a sizeable building with an obscure history. It was likely built around 1860 by the Parramatta builder James Houison who built several structures at the property at that time. But its purpose is unclear: it may originally have been for staff accommodation, or even to house stallions. Other family traditions variously associate it with Edwin’s or his son’s interest in poultry – Edwin was a member of the Sydney Poultry Club as a receipt for membership dated 1858 survives [1]. Possibly the structure was turned into an elaborate fowl-house when the ca.1876 stables designed by Horbury Hunt were built.

At its show in 1858 The Sydney Poultry Club awarded prizes for Black Spanish, Dorkings, various Cochins and Hamburgs and the ornamental Silky Java:

The annual poultry show took plane yesterday at Clark’s Assembly Rooms at Elizabeth street North. Owing to the inclemency of the weather, the attendance was not very numerous, and the visitors were for the most part gentlemen exhibitors, or those who were immediately concerned in securing a good breed of poultry. The exhibits were very numerous, and amongst them there were many extremely fine birds, both as regards breed and size. ‘Empire’, July 1. 1858

The phrase ‘gentleman exhibitors’ is important here; prize poultry was an appropriately ‘gentlemanly’ pursuit, and the newspaper report notes that as exalted a personage as the Governor, Sir William Denison, was an exhibitor – his Dorkings received second prize, beaten by Sir Daniel Cooper. Edwin Rouse, the squire of Rouse Hill, sits comfortably in this social category.

Regardless of its initial purpose, a few timber posts survive from the long enclosed runs that extended down the hillside behind the brick remains, the slope providing excellent drainage. A pair of egg incubators also survive in the collection. The current chicken coop – the residence of Davros and his retinue – occupies a small part of the original site, and has an outer coop which is fenced, and an inner coop which also has an enclosed roof; after all, there are foxes about! Parts of the demolished chicken houses have been recycled into the nearby potting shed, which has a door with a chicken-sized arched hatch incorporated in to its base. You see similar doors in this idealized view of chicken runs. Note also the espaliered fruit tree to their right:

Design for chicken runs

Design for chicken runs from Lewis Wright, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, c1875. Sydney Living Museums R86/751

 ”Beautiful plumage”

Cover

Cover of Lewis Wright, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, c1875. Sydney Living Museums R86/751

In the sitting room at Rouse Hill is a copy of The illustrated book of poultry with practical schedules for judging by Lewis Wright illustrated with portraits of prize birds [ca.1875-86, Casell Petter and Galpin London Paris New York]. With the proverbial ‘sumptuous illustrations’ – and they really are quite fabulous – the book details different domestic breeds and game birds, designs for coops and runs (the sheer scale of Lady Gwydyr’s poultry houses suggest a mania for poultry!),  guides to chicken anatomy, health and hygiene, and judging points for show birds. 51 breeds are illustrated, some in combined plates. Here are some of our favourites – especially the Golden and Silver Spangled Polish with their elaborate hair-dos – and an incubator design that only a dedicated Victorian enthusiast could envisage:

Incubator design

Incubator design from Lewis Wright, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, c1875. Sydney Living Museums R86/751

White Leghorns chickens

White Leghorns chickens from Lewis Wright, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, c1875. Sydney Living Museums R86/751

Silver Spangled Polish chickens

Silver Spangled Polish chickens from Lewis Wright, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, c1875. Sydney Living Museums R86/751

Silkie chickens

Silkie chickens from Lewis Wright, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, c1875. Sydney Living Museums R86/751

Golden Spangled Polish chickens

Golden Spangled Polish chickens from Lewis Wright, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, c1875. Sydney Living Museums R86/751

Game fowls

Game fowls from Lewis Wright, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, c1875. Sydney Living Museums R86/751

Cochin chickens

Cochin chickens from Lewis Wright, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, c1875. Sydney Living Museums R86/751

Buff Cochin chickens

Buff Cochin chickens from Lewis Wright, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, c1875. Sydney Living Museums R86/751

Black breasted red game cock

Black breasted red game cock from Lewis Wright, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, c1875. Sydney Living Museums R86/751Museums, Rouse Hill House collection R86/751

Andalusian chickens

Andalusian chickens from Lewis Wright, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, c1875. Sydney Living Museums R86/751

[1] See Caroline Thornton, Rouse Hill House and the Rouses, the author, 1988. p103.

The entire Illustrated Book of Poultry is online here, in all its feathered splendour.

  • Kim

    Mrs Lance Rawson, the writer of ‘The Antipodean Cookery Book’ also wrote quite extensively about raising poultry in Australia. Her book ‘The Australian Poultry Book’ was in its second edition in 1894, and that same year she began a series of articles for The Queenslander called The Poultry Yard with all sorts of practical advice.

  • The Curator

    Hi Kim, thanks for this: a prime example of where you went for
    information in the pre-google era. Publications like Rawson’s (as with
    Loudon’s many years earlier) also reflect the increasing suburbanisation
    of the Australian cities from the mid 19th century onwards, and yards
    (the proverbial quarter-acre block) that were substantially bigger than
    those seen today and could contain a vegetable garden, fruit trees and a
    chicken coop. (Though as we noted, even the tiny rear yards at Susannah
    Place could house a chicken or two). I certainly remember my
    great-grandmother keeping chickens – and tales of the ‘Sunday chop’.
    Cheers, Scott.

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