Harry BURRELL and the Platypus
The platypus, one of just two monotremes on the planet, the other being the echidna, thrives in the rivers and creeks around Manilla, as it does along the entire east coast of Australia from Cape York all the way to southern Tasmania. At the turn of the 20th century, Manilla farmers introduced the platypus to newcomer Harry Burrell, who, along with his wife, noted ornithologist Emily Hill, would establish Burrell's Bazaar, an emporium of exotic imported goods and curiosities at the corner of Market and Manilla streets at the turn of the 20th century. As amateur naturalists, they developed a small menagerie in the grounds of the Bazaar. Burrell wanted very much to bring a platypus up from the riverbank for both display and research, but the platypus, Harry found, was no ordinary land dweller. His early experiments to keep one confined, continually failed. One or two issues stood in his way - the utterly relentless demands of keeping a monotreme fed and the fool-hardy notion of housing a river dwelling egg-laying mammal, away from the river. He'd need, somehow, to replicate its habitat.
Burrell experimented with several constructions before ending up with a satisfactory enclosure which replicated the platypus' burrow system, allowing him to keep one or two captive for short periods.
The first enclosure was designed to simply see if a platypus could be kept in captivity. The final model, produced in 1910, he dubbed a "Platypusary". It was compact and also mobile, which meant that platypuses could be transported. The novel platypus was becoming a prized exhibit and many were sent by this method to Sydney's Moore Park Zoo and other institutions. The unit was subsequently made to order for several private collectors and organisations and Burrells Platypusary would eventually take live platypuses off into the wider world.
Harry Burrell's research found great interest around the world, but was met with derision in local scientific circles, no doubt due to his unconventional methods and having not been formally trained. He found his calling in studying nature. However, his achievement and that of those who assisted and shared in his ground-breaking discoveries - without due recognition - has stood the test of time.
Harry Burrell forged a significant career as an amateur biologist through 3 decades of researching, photographing and filming Platypus and many other native animals. He published 2 major research works; "The Wild Animals of Australia" (1926) which he wrote in collaboration with Sydney's Moore Park Zoo director, Le Soueff; and The Platypus" (1927), which earned him international acclaim.
Harry Burrell with his Platypusaries
Platypusaries were constructed for animal dealer Ellis Stanley Joseph's several attempts to take platypuses to America, between 1916 and 1922. His last attempt to land them in America was for him, a minor success, but “a stunt of some concern” to Mr. Burrell, resulting in just one platypus surviving the journey. The long trip by sea resulted in the death of four of the five taken; then an arduous journey for the last one surviving, overland by rail across the American continent. This last platypus was put on display at New York's Bronx Zoo, surviving just a few weeks.
In 1934 Burrell and his wife Emily, a noted ornithologist, made their then Manilla property "Yarrenbool", a native fauna reserve.
Harry Burrell was awarded an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) in 1937, for his contribution to the world of biological science.
In 1930 Burrell contributed his research materials to the then Commonwealth Institute of Anatomy. They are now held at the National Museum in Canberra, which also holds his glass plate negative collection. Recently seeing renewed attention it has now been digitised. Manilla Heritage Museum keeps a replica of BURRELL’s Platypusary, built to scale for the Museum's Burrell Memorial project. In the late 1980s, M.H.S. members undertook the huge task of researching Harry's career for the launch of the Burrell Memorial in the garden of Royce's House. As a result, the Museum holds copies of Burrell's letters and research correspondence with his American contemporaries. This material was donated to the Manilla Archives, by the American Museum of Natural History, one of the only institutions found to have kept Burrell's correspondence.