Jessie the elephant

More than any other zoo animal, Jessie the elephant captured the hearts of Sydneysiders, delighting visitors at Moore Park Zoo and then Taronga for more than 50 years. Several elephants were kept at the zoos over the years, but Jessie was known as ‘the children’s favourite’. Everyone knew about Jessie – in the early 20th century, a common description of an audacious or cheeky person was that they had ‘more hide than Jessie’.1

Jessie’s exact age was unknown, but she was believed to be eight years old when she arrived in Sydney on 30 November 1883. Purchased from the Calcutta Zoological Society, she had travelled by ship, accompanied by two keepers or ‘mahouts’, whose names were reported to be Parbuck and Eliback. 

Jessie’s arrival caused great excitement. She was offloaded at Millers Point on the southern side of Sydney Harbour. Rather than walking her through the city streets to Moore Park, zookeepers planned to transport her in a van, but getting her into it was not an easy task! No sooner had she been coaxed inside than she ‘walked out again before the doors could be fastened, brandishing [her] trunk and looking rather put out’.2 Jessie was eventually transferred to the zoo, and before long she was ‘quietly munching sugar cane’ in a shed that had been readied for her arrival.3

Jessie had a gentle demeanour, and it was reported that she would ‘lie down, roll over, and do a great many other things at the word of command’ from her keepers. 

Parbuck … showed the method of mounting the elephant by placing a foot on her trunk, and catching hold of her ears, one in each hand. Jessie then gives a gentle hoist with the trunk, and the thing is done.4

Three women sit on top of an elephant at Moore Park Zoological Gardens

Elephant ride on Jessie, Zoological Gardens, Moore Park, date unknown. NSW State Archives: Government Printing Office, NRS 4481 [7/15981] ST8409

Elephant rides were then a popular form of entertainment, and a necessary money-spinner for the zoo. People rode on a specially made saddle, known as a ‘howdah’, with bench seats on either side. To get into the saddle, riders climbed a set of steps onto a raised platform. Over six months in 1916, income from rides on Jessie at Moore Park Zoo totalled £146 15s (around $15,000 today). She carried more than 35,000 people in this time, at a penny a ride.

  • Jessie curls her trunk as riders pose for a photograph at Taronga Zoo, February 1917.

    Jessie curls her trunk as riders pose for a photograph at Taronga Zoo, February 1917. NSW State Archives: Government Printing Office, NRS 4481 [7/16382] ST5982

  • Jessie the elephant returns a group of riders to the boarding pavilion, February 1917.

    Jessie returns a group of riders to the boarding pavilion, February 1917. NSW State Archives: Government Printing Office, NRS 4481 [7/16382] ST5983

Jessie the elephant wearing the howdah at Taronga Zoo, February 1917.

Jessie wearing the howdah at Taronga Zoo makes quite a spectacle for onlookers of all ages, February 1917. NSW State Archives: Government Printing Office, NRS 4481 [7/16382] ST5990

In 1916, Jessie moved from Moore Park Zoo – her home of over 30 years – to more spacious grounds in the new Taronga Zoological Park, on the northern side of Sydney Harbour. For this journey, Jessie walked through the city streets in the early hours of Sunday, 24 September, guided by the zoo’s head keeper, Mr Miller, then through the Domain and down Macquarie Street to a waiting vehicle ferry at Bennelong Point. 

Her feet became sore on the hard roads, and at times she grew nervous in unfamiliar surrounds, but with ‘a pat on the shoulder, or a reassuring grip on her ear … she [passed] through narrow streets or across tram rails’ to reach the waiting ferry. 

With hardly any hesitation, Jessie walked on to the punt, and ran her trunk over the outer gate, as if inquiring whether she would remove the obstacle. A word from her keeper, and she stood as still as a rock during the trip down the harbour.

The pontoon dipped alarmingly under her 4-ton weight as she alighted at Taronga, but with words of encouragement from her keepers ‘she finally tip-toed across the pontoon and on to the wharf’.5 By 7am she had been introduced to her new home, built to resemble an exotic Indian temple.

Jessie lived out the rest of her long life at Taronga. To much public sorrow, she died on 26 September 1939, after almost 56 years of zoo life in Sydney.

  • 5. The Evening News, 25 September 1916, p4.
  • Photograph of Jessie the elephant on the vehicle ferry Kedumba, 1916.
  • Photograph of Jessie the elephant on the vehicle ferry Kedumba, 1916.
Photograph of Jessie the elephant on the vehicle ferry Kedumba in 1916

Photographs of Jessie on the vehicle ferry Kedumba, photographer unknown, 24 September 1916. Taronga Zoo Archives: PH/376

Footnotes

About the authors

Jacqui Newling wearing a red top and glasses

Dr Jacqui Newling

Assistant curator

Jacqui brings over ten years of ‘visitor first’ interpretation experience to her role as a curator at SLM. She specialises in place-based social history and heritage, bringing meaningful stories from our past to contemporary audiences through various forms of media, from exhibitions to interactive opportunities for visitors in our museums. 

Head and shoulders portrait of woman set against brick wall.

Anna Cossu

Curator

Inspired by wonderful history teachers and after her own foray as a high school teacher, Anna found herself drawn to the world of museums and heritage interpretation.

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