Exploded cans of rotting rabbit meat blanketing a scarred jetty is where the tale of the canned cottontail cuisine culminated for the port of Kingston in South Australia.

But despite the local industry’s grizzly end, tinned rabbit was once in demand on the dinner plates of London’s diners.

The stench of the 1906 explosion in Kingston made the local newspaper and helped bring rabbit canning in the town in the state’s south-east to a standstill.

But in its four years of operation, Kingston’s cannery produced some 800,000 tins of rabbit meat for the export market.

Rabbit trapper Alf Ling delivers rabbits to Kingston’s rabbit cannery circa 1900.(Supplied: Kingston National Trust)

“The story of the Kingston Canning and Preserving factory — and that of the rabbit canning industry — is a fascinating one,” said Kingston National Trust’s Maureen Andrews.

“If you talk to people these days, the perception is that the rabbit trade was a sort of a sideline during the depression. But it was much, much more than that.”

Boom and bust

Between 1870 and 1970, more than 20 billion rabbits were trapped or poisoned in South Australia and Victoria for commercial purposes.

And by the late 1920s the rabbit industry was reported to be the largest employer in Australia.

The SS Kintore loading 1,000 cases of canned rabbit from the EA Clark and Co Kingston rabbit factory in 1905.(Supplied: Kingston National Trust)

“Kingston had a very big canning factory which opened in 1902, but it only operated for four years until the explosion on the jetty when the cans overheated. There was also a report of botulism traced back to the cannery,” Ms Andrews said.

“But it was a bustling venture in its day. The skins shed had a capacity of 30,000 and it could process 1,500 pairs of rabbits daily.

“It directly employed 14 people and exported 800,000 cans of rabbit and 10 tonnes of canned lobster and canned mutton to London.”

Interior of the rabbit canning factory at Compton in 1898.(Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

It was one of a collection of canneries operating in south-eastern Australia during the peak of the rabbit industry at the turn of the century.

Others opened at Euroa-Longwood, Port Fairy, Portland, and Colac in Victoria, at Port Augusta, Kapunda, and Eudunda in South Australia’s mid north, and in the south east at Millicent and Robe — which also canned snipe and swan for export.

“The Longwood cannery was founded in 1891 where it produced rabbit for the dinner table by canning one-and-a-half jointed rabbits in a tin with brine, which was then boiled for canning and sealed with lead solder,” Ms Andrews said.

The Mount Gambier Rabbit and Meat Preserving Company opened works at Compton in 1897 where it operated for a little under 20 years, and at its height purchased about 4,000,000 rabbits a year.

A record 3,700 rabbits bound for the Compton preserving factory, 1904.(Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

“The local newspaper, The Border Watch, reported in 1944 that a banquet was held at the Federal Hotel in Mount Gambier where canned rabbit was served,” Ms Andrews said.

“The report said diners were ‘loud in their praise of the quality of the meat’ which was served at the dinner, and apparently canned at the factory in 1910.

“They obviously didn’t have used by dates.”

The preserving industry struggled in the first two decades of the 20th century with the introduction of chilling and freezing.

It was also badly affected by the 1906 Chicago meat scandal, which closed the industry’s largest market, England, in response.

The canned rabbit industry was sustained by military orders from Japan, the British Admiralty, and the British and Australian governments during World War I, but had largely disappeared by the 1920s.

Interior of the Compton rabbit preserving cannery circa 1898.(Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

Friend or foe?

The demise of its canning didn’t equate to the end of the rabbit industry for Kingston however, with the trade of skins and carcasses continuing into the 1960s until the virus myxomatosis slowed it.

“Prior to the cannery and long after, there was an enormous rabbit plague, right across southern Australia,” Ms Andrews said.

“It spread very quickly from the release of a few rabbits in 1859 and by the 1890s the whole of Victoria and south-eastern South Australia had become invaded by rabbits.”

Ms Andrews said two prevailing, competing viewpoints emerged.

“Some people saw them as an environmental disaster and wanted to exterminate them all, but other people saw them as an economic opportunity and wanted to exploit them for commercial gain,” she said.

The Border Preserving Works at Mount Gambier provided the Royal Navy with 33,000 kilos of rabbit food a week.(Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

“The rabbit-proof fence cost a fortune and didn’t work, and the rabbit industry — the trappers and processors — played an important role in containing the rabbit, as well as making a significant contribution to the Australian economy.

“I was quite astounded when I learned that because I think the prevailing historic view of the industry was that it was a marginal one.”

People were employed as trappers, skin buyers, and processors.

The rabbit was also a livelihood for felt hat makers, those working in freezing and exporting, people who made the pine boxes the carcasses, skins and cans were shipped in, those involved in making by-products such as gelatine and fertiliser, and transporters.

“We thought of them as a bit of a sideline during the depression, but rabbits were big business,” Ms Andrews said.

Maureen Andrews, Kingston SE National Trust branch committee member.(Supplied: Maureen Andrews)

“I remember, as a young married woman on the farm near Kingston during the 1967 drought, we couldn’t afford to have our stock processed at the abattoir at the time. So we relied on rabbits prepared in ‘one hundred different ways’ for meals.

“The Women’s Weekly [magazine] even ran a competition in the 1940s for Australia’s best rabbit recipes.

“In those days, and into the 1960s, chicken was a rare commodity on the dinner plate. But rabbit was much more commonplace.”

From its early beginnings, released for sporting pursuits by Thomas Austin at his Barwon Park Estate near Winchelsea in Victoria, the rabbit continues to make its mark — for better or worse — on the Australian landscape.

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