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Jacobs, the taxidermist

Occupying prime space at the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities exhibition at Aratoi are several stuffed birds and animals, some of the work of the taxidermist Adnett John Jacobs, usually known by his second Christian name.

Jacobs was born in England in 1853 and came to New Zealand with his family in 1873, first settling in Nelson before moving on to Wellington. In 1879 he married Alice Alderslade. The couple were to have 14 children.

John Jacobs first made the newspapers in 1877 when he was prosecuted for trapping larks, an acclimatised bird. In 1882 he was living in Molesworth Street in Wellington and advertising to “Maories and others” that he was a cash purchaser of live parrots, tui and other native birds. The following year he started advertising as a “Feather Furrier and Taxidermist” in Wellington, although he shortly moved to Nelson, where he was bankrupted in 1888. He restarted his business the following year.

By 1891 he had moved to Wairarapa, first to Catterton then on to Masterton where he said he was prepared to pay highest prices for huias, crows, New Zealand quails and other birds.

Among the birds he worked on was one presented by Montague Meredith, a frequent donor to the Masterton Museum. In September 1891, the newspaper advised that Meredith had presented a “pukaka” [actually a pukeko or swamp hen] with “variegated plumage”. Unfortunately, this piece of his work has not survived.

By March 1893 Jacobs had opened a shop in Queen Street, where he was able to display various birds, animals and fish he had stuffed. The local paper was impressed with the range of “remarkable and valuable natural curios”, although they reserved special praise for the snow-white sparrow.

His luck did not last, and he was again declared bankrupt in July 1895. In evidence, he explained that he was unable to earn a living as a taxidermist and was spending time also working as a painter and paper hanger.

He recommenced business as a taxidermist when discharged from bankruptcy later that year, but by January 1896, had run afoul of the law. He went hunting in the Makuri area, east of Pahiatua, where he was apprehended with native birds he had shot. He was found guilty of having killed seven huia and a native pigeon and given a moderate fine. He left Masterton and resumed his taxidermy business in Wellington.

The following year Alice Jacobs was advertising that she was running a labour agency, as well as providing taxidermy services in Wellington. Jacobs was declared bankrupt again in 1905, this time described as a paper hanger.

Leaving Wellington behind, he moved to Dunedin in 1911 and then on to Invercargill in 1915, where he again worked in taxidermy. By 1918 he was in Oamaru and in 1920 Palmerston North. In 1933, 71-year-old Alice, under whose name the taxidermy business was operating, was adjudged bankrupt.

Jacobs died in Palmerston North in 1939 aged 86. Alice was 94 when she died in 1967. Their youngest son Ray had a successful career as a taxidermist, mainly at Canterbury Museum, where his son Terry also worked. Terry’s son David, also worked in the field.

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