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Minchin, Richard Ernest (1831–1893)

by E. J. Minchin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Richard Ernest Minchin (1831-1893), by unknown photographer, c1867

Richard Ernest Minchin (1831-1893), by unknown photographer, c1867

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 22965

Richard Ernest Minchin (1831-1893), zoological director, was born on 5 March 1831 at Greenhills, Tipperary, Ireland, thirteenth of the nineteen children of William Minchin, B.A., owner of Greenhills and rector of Dunkerrin, and his wife Mary Ann, daughter and coheiress of Corker Wright of Rutland, King's County. His father's family had moved from Gloucestershire to Ireland in the seventeenth century and acquired estates in Tipperary and adjoining counties. In 1852 Greenhills was sold and the family migrated to various countries, some settling near Christchurch, New Zealand; a brother, John Birch, became an early geographer in the Andes.

Minchin was educated at Dr Baillie's School and migrated to South Australia in the Stag with a brother, Henry Paul (1826-1909), in 1851. Henry had studied law in Dublin and for a decade was stipendiary magistrate and protector of Aborigines at Mount Remarkable, later turning to coffee planting in South India. The brothers had letters of introduction to the sheriff, Charles Burton Newenham, and to Captain C. H. Bagot on whose station Minchin worked for a time. He then moved to Victoria about 1854 and joined another brother, Corker Wright (1829-1926), who in 1858 became clerk of courts at Raglan, near Beaufort. On 19 September 1854 Minchin had married Ellen Rebecca, daughter of Richard Ocock, solicitor of Ballan; their first son Ernest William was born at Geelong in 1856.

With his wife and young family Minchin moved to South Australia where he was appointed a third-class clerk in the civil service on 14 January 1857. In 1859-69 he worked in the new Land Titles Registration Department as second draftsman, his salary rising to £260. From 1870 to about 1884 he was a contractor for the department, taking charge of the section when the senior draftsman was absent.

As an honorary member and secretary, Minchin was a prime mover in establishing the South Australian Acclimatization Society, founded in July 1878 to replace an earlier effort which had lapsed. The new president was the chief justice, S. J. Way, and largely through Minchin's work its name was changed to the South Australian Zoological and Acclimatization Society. In July 1881 as honorary secretary he wrote to the governors of the Botanic Gardens asking for part of their land for the preservation of animals. When the governors refused, a deputation from the society called on the chief secretary, J. C. Bray, who favoured the project but refused support because residents of North Terrace feared that the animals would break out or keep them awake. In February 1882 a second deputation to Bray was led by Way with similar results. In March the society sent a memorial with 830 signatures to the governors of the Botanic Gardens renewing the request for land. The reply was obdurate and a third deputation to Bray asked for land near the Lunatic Asylum. The press suggested other sites and slated the governors: 'It was well known that Dr Schomburgk did not love animals in his garden'. In April another memorial with 1520 signatures was sent to the Botanic Gardens and the governors suggested a site on the north side of the River Torrens, promising their hearty co-operation. In August a motion was carried in the House of Assembly for a zoo near Albert Bridge to be run by the Zoological and Acclimatization Society.

Minchin was appointed director of the Zoological Gardens in November. He had it fenced substantially and started to build a keeper's cottage. He visited the Melbourne zoo and Le Souef sent one of his keepers to serve the society. From his own collection in North Adelaide Minchin transferred a large aviary and other enclosures to the zoo and specimens were brought from the Botanic Gardens. With a 'special faculty for collecting' and a keen eye for a bargain he built up a large variety of birds and beasts without getting into debt. Through the society he received trout ova from Tasmania for hatching and gave publicity to the laws for the protection of animals and fish. In 1879-80 the society imported and freed English thrushes, skylarks, goldfinches and other birds.

In 1883 the zoo was formally opened on 23 May and Sir Thomas Elder became president of the society. He provided funds for a rotunda and the purchase and transport of the first elephant, Miss Siam. The first lions were donated in 1884 by Sir James Fergusson, then governor of Bombay, and J. H. Angas presented the first lioness. Minchin also acquired 2 tigers, 2 Tasmanian tigers and a large variety of birds. In 1885 the society sent him to South East Asia where he collected a rhinoceros, 2 white buffaloes, a black panther, 2 leopards, a sun bear, 10 tiger cats, 2 alligators, many monkeys and sundry 'curious creatures' from the royal menagerie in Siam and from Java, Ceylon, Malaya and the Northern Territory. On this tour Minchin was elected a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London. In 1887 he visited Europe and with help from South Australian expatriates acquired more specimens for the zoo. In 1889 he was elected an honorary life member of the society and moved into the director's new residence at the zoo.

Minchin had little training for his mammoth task but his good judgment in collecting specimens was matched by the architectural elegance of the buildings for his animals. According to Governor Kintore, the society's gardens were more excellently managed than any outside London, the credit being due to Minchin's untiring care. In 1890 he was given leave and went to Hong Kong where he caught a wasting disease. He returned to Adelaide but was confined to his home. Minchin moved with his family to Mount Barker where he died on 4 January 1893. After a large funeral he was buried in North Road cemetery. Predeceased by his first wife on 6 July 1882 he was survived by two sons and three daughters, and by his second wife Ellison Barbara Christina, daughter of Robert Forsyth Macgeorge, whom he had married in Adelaide on 16 August 1883. He left an estate of £1190. His second son Alfred Corker (1857-1934) had acted as honorary director in his father's absence and served as director for forty-one years.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1860 (165) 18, 1866-67 (22), 1882 (93)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1882, 1883-84
  • South Australian Government Gazette, 1857, 44, 68, 666, 1858, 43, 484, 1859, 24
  • South Australian Acclimatization Society, Annual Report, 1878-79
  • South Australian Zoological and Acclimatization Society, Annual Report, 1880-93
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 5 Jan 1893, 21 Sept 1934.

Citation details

E. J. Minchin, 'Minchin, Richard Ernest (1831–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/minchin-richard-ernest-4207/text6773, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 31 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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