Many, many decades before the introduction of moving pictures and yet more before any of the electronic media starting with the introduction of radio in the 1920’s, virtually all of the entertainments were “live” – variety shows, plays, pantomimes, concerts, amateur and professional and a range of other diversions ranging from the mundane to the somewhat bizarre, especially in 1872.
“The Hairless Horse – Caoutchouc”
“108 Bourke Street
“Opposite the Theatre Royal”
“This beautiful and curious equine animal is now on exhibition at 190 Bourke-street east, opposite Theatre Royal. His skin is a beautiful black, totally devoid of hair. Ladies can stroke him without soiling the most delicate kid glove. To children he is a peculiarly welcome sight and no fond parents will ever regret giving their little ones a sight of Caoutchouc. Opposite Theatre Royal. Admission-with photograph of horse - 1s., children 6d”.
A woodcut print of Caoutchouc that appeared in the The Illustrated Australian News, 16 July, 1872..
The original woodcut is still held by the State Library of Victoria, but what is not clear is whether this was the "photograph" that one supposedly received as part of the shilling admission - no examples of a "photograph"per se survive.
Race-callers of today would love the name in tight photo-finish, but despite it appearing to be an almost random jumble of letters, the better dictionaries list the word as an 18th century French word originally derived from Spanish and an alternative for “latex”, “rubber”, or “india-rubber”, in particular that derived from the botanical genus Hevea of Ficus – the pronunciation is roughly “koochak”.
The Theatre Royal was Melbourne’s leading theatre and just what the attractions were at 108 Bourke Street other than the “hairless horse” remains unknown.
But the venue was not too far from both F. C. Goyder’s hotel and the livestock sale yards he operated in conjunction with a Mr. McCaughey (the hotel at 35 Bourke Street, and the yards believed to have been on the corner of Bourke and what is now Exhibition Street.
The existence of this wonder of nature was first revealed to the general public by the Illustrated Australian News of July 16
The News was published as equally for readers in the “olde country” as locally and never hesitated to feature an antipodean marvel of either natural or man-made origin.
The News illustrations were based on woodcuts, and the accompanying article on Caoutchouc suggested he had been captured by stockmen near the Balonne River in Queensland after they tried to isolate him from a mob of wild horses for nearly six months.
The story was perhaps “sexed-up” a little (to use a modern term) with the News suggesting that the locality also was home “to a tribe of hairless men”.
According to the paper, our hero was a six-year old gelding with a beautiful glossy black coat “as if cast from india-rubber”, hence the horse’s new name – just how “wild” he may have been is perhaps open to question given that he was gelded, hardly a natural occurrence amongst wild horses!
Given the standards of journalism of the time (and perhaps ever more), the Illustrated News went on to quote an unnamed Sydney “professor” who in one sentence managed to confirm that the horse “had by some natural oddity had not a single capillary” while at the same time reinforcing the idea of the hairless men of the Balonne River region.
Goyder, one of Melbourne’s leading sportsmen, had at the time the lease of the Croxton-Park racecourse in Northcote, about four miles outside of Melbourne.
The course had been developed some four years earlier and for a time was being touted as the “second Flemington”, but after a series of meetings plagued by bad weather and with virtually no public transport to what was then a rather remote location, the venture had fallen on hard times.