Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rohu, Ada Jane (1848–1928)

by Martha Sear

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

This is a shared entry with Jane Catharine Tost

Jane Catharine Tost (c.1817-1889), and Ada Jane Rohu (1848-1928), taxidermists and shopkeepers, were mother and daughter. Jane and her brother (Edwin) Henry (1812-1878) were born probably in London, children of John Herbert Ward, bird breeder, and his wife Catherine, and both took up taxidermy. On 1 April 1839 at St Anne's Church, Westminster, Jane married Charles Gottleibe Tost, a Prussian-born pianoforte maker. They were to have six children. In the 1840s and 1850s Jane was employed at the British Museum, preparing specimens under John Gould's direction, and may have also worked in Belgium.

Charles and Jane Tost and their children sailed from Liverpool in the Indian Queen and on 22 January 1856 reached Tasmania, where Jane took up a position stuffing and mounting specimens for the Royal Society of Tasmania at the Hobart Town Museum. They moved to Sydney in 1860, Jane offering her services as a naturalist from the family home in Bridge Street. In 1864 she became taxidermist at the Australian Museum, earning £10 a month, the same wage as her male counterparts: she was one of Australia's earliest female museum staff members. Her employment ended in 1869 when her husband, who also worked at the museum as a taxidermist and carpenter, clashed with the curator Gerard Krefft. An inquiry found that Krefft, who was later dismissed, had attempted to frame Charles for theft by depositing museum property at the Tosts' home. According to family tradition, Charles returned to England.

The Tosts' third child Jane Catherine (known as Ada Jane) had been born on 16 March 1848 in London. After a career on the stage of the Queen Victoria Theatre in Sydney, on 8 October 1868 at Woolloomooloo she married with Wesleyan forms James Richardson Coates, a dealer in earthenware, glass and china. They had three children. In 1872 Ada's husband and brother were killed fighting a fire at the Prince of Wales Theatre. With money from a benefit fund, Jane and Ada opened 'Tost & Coates Berlin Wool Depot and Taxidermists' at 60 William Street, catering to a growing middle-class taste for fancy work and stuffed animals in interior decoration, as well as to scientific collectors and museums. Following Ada's marriage on 12 September 1878 at St Peter's Church of England, Woolloomooloo, to Henry Stewart Boventure Rohu, a Scottish-born upholsterer and curio collector, the firm became Tost & Rohu. Ada and Henry had six children, and the shop supported a large extended family. The business grew, selling an eclectic mix of furs, stuffed animals, and Aboriginal and Islander artefacts.

Jane and Ada promoted their business by exhibiting examples of work at international exhibitions. In over forty years from 1860, together they won more than twenty medals. Their exhibits, ranging from a stuffed black swan to a wallaby fur muff, were prized not only for the skill displayed, but also for the ingenious adaptation of the taxidermist's art to Australia's fauna. They were part of a larger group of women engaged in the taxidermy trade: in 1892 the New South Wales women's work committee for the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, claimed that 'a good deal of the bird and animal stuffing, done in Sydney, [was] performed by females'. Predeceased by her husband, Jane Tost died on 24 April 1889, and was buried in the Church of England section of Rookwood cemetery. Two sons and a daughter survived her. Ada carried on their remarkable shop, which in 1896 moved to larger premises at 10 Moore Street (Martin Place). An advertisement in the 1910s revealed an astonishing assemblage, much like that later described by the bookseller James Tyrrell—'armour, spears, boomerangs, teapots, native dresses, ancient muskets, tiger skins, birds' feathers [and] stuffed animals'.

Predeceased by her husband, Ada Rohu died on 28 July 1928 at Newtown and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. Two sons and one daughter of her first marriage, and four daughters and a son of her second, survived her. Tyrrell purchased the business in the 1920s, delighting in the fact that it was known as 'the queerest shop in Sydney'. An exhibition about the work of Tost and Rohu was held at the Macleay Museum, University of Sydney, in 1996. The one confirmed example of Jane Tost's work, a squirrel, is in the collection of the Australian Museum, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Tyrrell, Old Books, Old Friends, Old Sydney (Syd, 1952)
  • J. Kerr (ed), Heritage: The National Women’s Art Book (Syd, 1996), pp 183 & 464
  • M. Sear, '"Curious and Peculiar”? Women Taxidermists in Colonial Australia’, in J. Kerr and J. Holder (eds), Past Present (Syd, 1999)
  • M. Sear, Unworded Proclamations: Exhibitions of Women’s Work in Colonial Australia (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 2000)
  • Tost and Coates Benefit papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Australian Museum Archives, Sydney
  • Royal Society of Tasmania Archives.

Citation details

Martha Sear, 'Rohu, Ada Jane (1848–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rohu-ada-jane-13285/text7283, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Tost, Jane Catherine
  • Coates, Ada
Birth

16 March 1848
London, England

Death

28 July 1928
Newtown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation