At the Zoological Gardens, 1895; IAN01/03/95/11-12a

On October 6 we celebrate the 158th birthday of Australia’s oldest zoo, the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens, which opened at the Royal Park site in 1862.

The Library holds many items and photographs in the collection relating to the development and history of this iconic zoo, tracing its evolution from a menagerie in a fledgling colony to a mature institution dedicated to conservation work and education.

Photograph of Felina Kennedy holding the hose as Peggy the elephant walks through the "Washmobile"; Peggy being coaxed by keepers Carl Mackaway and Bill Craig
“Peggy” one of the zoo’s elephants takes her daily shower with the aid of a “Washmobile”, 1952; H2004.100/1114
Photograph of bear standing on wooden bench with front paws resting on wooden upright supporting bench, iron railings behind.
Who’s a bear? Melbourne Zoo, ca. 1897-1901; H2006.188/21
Zoological Gardens employees, 1896; H91.280/1/37. Photograph by D Le Souef

Some of our most significant collections relate to the Le Souëf family, who for generations played a prominent role in the development of the zoological gardens in Melbourne and other states.

Albert Alexander Cochrane Le Souëf (1828-1902) was appointed the first Director of the Zoological and Acclimatisation Society in 1872. It was under his leadership that the Society began to shift their focus away from animal husbandry and the acclimatisation of newly arrived domestic animals towards the development of a zoological collection to interest and educate the broader community.

Albert had no formal zoological training but he was fascinated by the natural world – both in Australia and further afield. He developed the Zoo’s gardens and the native fauna collection, touring Europe to visit other zoos and acquire more exotic animals for the collection. Between 1870 and 1893 he expanded the number of animals from 285 to 1300. [1] His tireless oversight made the Zoo a premier metropolitan recreation of international repute.

Portrait of Albert Le Souef
Albert Le Souef, 1872; H5056/567. Photograph by T F Chuck

By the time of Albert’s death in 1902, the Zoo was an established family passion. Albert was succeeded as Director by his son William, better known as Dudley (1856-1923), who inherited his father’s genius for zoo management, and was also an amateur nature photographer, prolific writer, and ornithologist. Two of Dudley’s brothers – Ernest and Albert – went on to become directors of the Perth Zoological Gardens and Taronga Zoo in Sydney respectively. Many other family members acted as librarians, secretaries and vets in Australian zoos. 

Mr. Dudley Le Souef holding snake
At the Zoological Gardens, Mr. Dudley Le Souef holding a snake, 1895; IAN01/03/95/11-12b

The Library’s collection of Dudley Le Souëf’s family photographs – many which have been digitised – give intimate insights into the life of a family that not only ran the Zoo, but lived on the grounds, with the Le Souëf children growing up amongst the daily operations. It must have been quite a unique upbringing: one story tells of the Le Soëuf sisters waking one night to find their pet terrier attacking an escaped leopard. [2]

Le Souef family, group portrait of William Henry Dudley Le Souëf, his wife Edith Evelyn Wadeson and children from L to R: Horace, Albert, Edith, Hilda and Rita, ca. 1904; H31865
Le Souef children with Frank Meaker, 1900; H91.280/1/89. Photograph by D Le Souëf
Le Souef children in gardens of Royal Park, Melbourne, 1902; H91.280/1/95. Photograph by D Le Souëf
Portrait of Dr C. Ryan sitting on a bench next to a small mammal
Dr C. Ryan, 1898; H91.280/1/89. Photograph by D Le Souëf

Dudley’s son, John Cecil (1905-1982), was born in a sleep-out on the Zoo grounds. He was affectionally known by the nickname ‘Zooie’, and inherited his family’s enthusiasm for sharing knowledge of Australia’s animal life with others. He worked briefly for the ABC presenting a children’s program entitled “Zoo Talk” on 3LO, recounting memories and stories of his childhood. He also opened a sanctuary for koalas and other unique Australian animals threatened by extinction, the Le Souëf Fauna Park (also known as the Belgrave Wild Zoo) in the Dandenongs, and established the Rosebud Aquarium and Museum. [3]

Le Souef’s Aquarium and Museum, Rosebud, Vic; ca. 1920-1954; H32492/5183

The Le Souëf family manuscript collection (Papers, 1820-1989, MS 13490) includes papers of various family members, reflecting their interest in natural history and the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens. These records chronicle three generations of one family’s passionate commitment to exploring the natural world. [4]

The collection takes up 8.2 linear metres of storage and includes correspondence, travel diaries about zoo visits and animal collecting trips abroad, many photographs, glass and film negatives, newspaper clippings, and records relating to the Zoological and Acclimatisation Society. [5]

The collection even includes keys to the animals’ cages and buildings at the Melbourne Zoo, including one key label with the mysterious name: Magic Horse. These images illustrate recent painstaking work by our Preservation team to sort, clean and rehouse items in this unique collection.

Photograph of keys being sorted, cleaned and rehoused by Preservation staff member
Photograph of keys rehoused by Preservation team

[1] Alan McEvey, “Le souef, Albert Alexander (1828-1902)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography

[2] Lisa O’Sullivan, “The Le Souëf Family Tradition”, Australasian Science, vol. 16, no. 2, Winter 1995, p. 64. Also online

[3] Le Souëf Family Archives Guide to Records, The University of Melbourne eScholarship Research Centre

[4] O’Sullivan, “The Le Souëf Family Tradition”

[5] Find an extensive guide to this collection at Le Souëf Family Archives Guide to Records

Further Reading

Neil Montagnana-Wallace, 2012, Melbourne Zoo and You: 150 years, Bounce Books, Thornbury, Vic

Browse titles in the collection produced by members of the Le Souëf family on our catalogue.

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This article has 5 comments

  1. A fascinating article – thank you Kylie

  2. The Le Souefs were part of an extended family network dedicated to the study and illustration of natural history. Prior to taking up his zoological pursuits Albert Le Souef had been a squatter on the Goulburn River. His father William was an Assistant Protector of Aboriginals. Albert married Caroline Cotton, a daughter of John Cotton, a neighbouring Goulburn squatter. Cotton was an ornithologist and painter. Before emigrating he had published a book on the Songbirds of Britain, illustrated with his own paintings. At his station, Doogalook, he developed an appreciation of the culture of aboriginal people, and of the plant, animal and bird life he found there. His premature death prevented the publication of his projected book on the Birds of Port Phillip, but fortunately this was published by his descendants in the 1970s. In England John Cotton’s father William was a notable collector of antiquities, his collection now preserved as the Cottonian Collection at the Plymouth Museum.
    One of Caroline Cotton’s sisters, Marian, married another local squatter, Charles Ryan. In the 1870s they established the garden Derriweit Heights at Mount Macedon. It became one of the most renowned gardens in Victoria, for both its beauty and for the variety of its plants. International visitors travelled to Macedon to see it.
    Amongst Charles and Marian Ryan’s children were Sir Charles Ryan, whose photograph (as Dr. Charles Ryan) appears in this article, and Ellis Rowan the flower painter, a large collection of whose paintings is now held in the National Library in Canberra.
    One of Albert Le Souef’s daughters, Una, married Otway Falkiner and made the garden at Boonoke homestead one of the most beautiful in the Riverina.
    The story of the natural history thread which runs through these families is well told in Maie Casey’s memoir ‘An Australian Story 1837-1907’ published in 1962. She was the daughter of Sir Charles Ryan, and was herself an artist, amongst other accomplishments.

  3. Many thanks!!! Will share with grandchildren. An excellent chapter of our history.

  4. Thank you for the interesting account of our zoo’s history. I look forward to seeing an exhibition one day about the Le Souëf family and The Royal Park Melbourne Zoo.

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