Friday, May 13, 2016

Portraits and Personalities of Townsville: St. John Robinson, a Northern Icon

North Queensland Photographic Collection
For northern children, in the first decade of the twentieth century, their only opportunity to native or exotic see animals in a zoo setting was on infrequent visits to the ‘big smoke’ of Brisbane or Sydney. However, in the 1930s and 1940s a naturally-occurring lagoon on a cattle property just north of Townsville became the centrepiece of what was then regaled as “the largest privately-owned zoological garden in Australia.”  The owner of what was to become Mount Saint John Zoo was a colourful character, John Edmund Robinson (better known as St. John Robinson), who, in his mixture of showman and naturalist, foreshadowed the famed Steve Irwin.

The inception of the idea for a zoo was St. John Robinson’s observation of the number of birds that were attracted to the lagoon. He built a small dam and enlarged the water area by creating swamps in order to attract more birds. His zoo, opened in 1932, became a much advertised tourist attraction for Townsville. Already familiar with the habits of crocodiles as an occasional crocodile shooter, and a keen amateur naturalist, he then captured and transported crocodiles to his zoo, as well as trapped native animals. He augmented the collection with exotic animals by trading with larger zoos in the southern cities and Singapore who valued his access to tropical Australian species.

North Queensland
Photographic Collection
Whilst making invaluable observations about the breeding habits of crocodiles, of which little was known at the time, he also exploited the fascination and fear of the visitors with stunts such as riding crocodiles bareback, cleaning their teeth while their jaws were held over a barrel, and crocodile feedings. His zoo – with its variety of animals, his showy rodeos, and, even once, an infamous bull fight – while regarded as either a “pioneering sanctuary” or an exotic attraction was also, contrarily, questioned regarding the welfare of the animals exhibited.

St.John Robinson has been described as “an active promoter of local causes,donating the profits from his rodeos to various charities and arguing in favour of northern development and the recognition of a resourceful, utilitarian northern type.”

The Special Collection holds photographs taken at Mount St John Zoo, and Mavis Robinson’s autobiography Tell Us About the Olden Days, which feature memories of the zoo, in the North Queensland Collection.

Sources
Styan, Anthony. 2015.“Townsville Mount St John Zoo.” Queensland Historical Atlas. http://www.qhatlas.com.au/townsville-mount-st-john-zoo.

Fielding, Trisha. 2014. “Mt.St. John Zoo.” North Queensland History. http://northqueenslandhistory.blogspot.com.au/2014/08/mt-st-john-zoo.html.

Bianka Vidonja Balanzategui
JCU PhD History Candidate

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