The first elephant to arrive in Australia was Ranee she was a gift from the King of Siam and was born around 1877.

She arrived in Australia in Melbourne from Calcutta Zoo on the 5th March, 1883

She died at Melbourne Zoo on 19th December 1903 aged approx. 26 years.

She was an iconic figure in Melbourne Zoos and Melbourne’s History. 

Ranee’s arrival at Melbourne Zoo is somewhat of a mystery.   There are sources that say she was a gift from the King of Siam, that she came from Calcutta Zoo and that she was purchased by Mr Le Souef.   It really is not important how she came to be here. What is important is that she was here, and she was a dearly loved animal who figures in the Zoo’s history and in the memories of the children of Melbourne of her time.

 What do we actually know?

                        Originally when the Royal Melbourne Zoo was opened to the public having been established by the Victorian Acclimatization Society; it soon became evident that entrance fees would need to be charged so that the property could grow.

When the Zoo introduced entrance fees Mr. Le Souef purchased an elephant, and Ranee arrived 5/3/1883 on board the Iron Clipper Ship, Liverpool Class, The Cassiope, 1559 tons from Calcutta.

The trip for this young elephant, she was around 6 years old, must have been horrendous. The trip took many weeks and the ship was becalmed on several occasions and also fought heavy seas with waves threatening to sink the ship. All this time Ranee was tethered by chains to the deck and unable to move. The sailors had called her Lucy and a rough shed had been built on deck, to house her. There is a record of the ship being caught in a storm of the heads and reportedly she wrapped her trunk around the iron stanchions of her house to support herself.

Eventually, the ship docked in Melbourne and Ranee was unloaded. She was held at Sandridge [Port Melbourne] police station, 113 Bay Street. Port Melbourne until they could arrange to have her moved to the Zoo. She was held in the police stables, and there is no record of how the police horses reacted to this event.

How to get Ranee from Port Melbourne to Parkville was proving to be a problem. The traffic of the time consisted primarily of horse-drawn vehicles. Motor vehicles were not introduced into the Colony until 1897 and depending on sources was either the Thomson Steamer or the Ridge – Austin, kerosene driven, horseless carriage.  The first bicycles arrived in the 1860’s and by 1890 the safety bicycle had evolved.

As the traffic of the day, was horse drawn it was felt that due to her size, and the fact that most of the people would never have seen an elephant, the movement of the animal, through the street in daylight hours could cause panic to the people and stampede the horses. Ranee was held at Sandridge until late evening and then walked through the streets of Melbourne to the Zoo late at night.

The exact route is not recorded. The most straight forward and obvious route would have been  leaving the Sandridge Police  in  Bay Street and proceeding to Crockford Street  and along City Road to Clarendon Street  to Spencer Street up Dudley Street to Peel Street  and onto Royal Parade  a distance of approximately 8 kilometers.   The walk would have taken a considerable period of time.  However, the walk to the zoo was without incident and Ranee was well behaved until the gates of the Zoo were reached at which point she bolted.

When she arrived at the Zoo, as no funds had been made available to build quarters for her and she was initially housed in the old stable buildings.

Ranee began her new life at the Zoo and was on view six days a week, Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m.  until 12 midday  and from 2 p.m. till  4.00 p.m. in the charge of her keeper.

The rest day was not necessarily to give the elephant a rest but to encourage paying visitors to the gardens.  An entry fee was payable Monday to Saturday with Sundays providing free entry.  The crowds on Sundays were already reaching unmanageable proportions and the Society’s administrators naturally wished to capitalize financially on the numbers the elephant would draw.

Mr Le Souef was on record on many occasions petitioning the Government to allow the gate charges to be extended to cover the Sunday. This was not only due to the extra revenue that would be gained but because he felt due to the press of numbers in Gardens on the Sundays that it was only a matter of time until a fatal accident occurred.

The Society’s Minute Book of the 19th of March 1883 records that the elephant is gentle and in good health and is to be given the name RANEE.  It was also proposed that she be trained to give rides and would be ready in a fortnight to do so.

Further statements from the Minute Book confirms;

“…The elephant will commence to carry children on Saturday next.  The Howdah is made and looks very well and                 handsome.” 16/4/1883

“…The elephant is a great attraction and the receipts are increasing…” 30/4/1883.

An account presented for payment at this time shows a payment of    £58.00.00 for the Howdah.  As the average wage in Melbourne was £1.00.00 a week in 1883 the cost of the Howdah was equivalent to 58 weeks wages. It was a very expensive item.

Elephant rides were introduced in 1883 and became a popular attraction at the Zoo continuing until 1962 when the rides ceased. In 1894, the Elephant rides and gate receipts contributed £1553.1s.10d. to the Zoo’s income.

The elephant rides began as a straight track, in the elephant paddock [where the Fun Fair resided] but later it became a circular track.

Ranee was the premier attraction at the Zoo and during her 21-year residence she was a great income earner. It is estimated she contributed in excess of   £2,800:00:00, to the Zoo’s income, and she provided up to 5% of the Zoo’s annual income.

The Age, 22 Feb 1890 carried this report

“Ranee, a fine Indian specimen is still quite a juvenile of 18 years of age, has grown 2 feet since its arrival and will               probably grow still more in the six years still wanting for its full development. The patient monster is a great favourite           with children, and earns its own living, besides paying a good bonus to the revenue of the gardens. Its average                   takings for rides round the enclosure are £170 per annum, and its total cost (keeper, wages and food) amounts to               £150. It has a splendid appetite, and eats double the amount of food consumed by the elephant under Mr Bartlett’s c           are at the London Zoo. He estimates the daily provision for a full grown elephant at about 150 lbs., including hay,                 roots, rice, bread and biscuits, but lusty young creature, perhaps on account of plenty of exercise and a fine climate,           consumes daily 2 1/2 cwt hay besides half a bucketful of ship’s biscuits”

The report of her death in the “1904 Annual Report reads as follows;

      The  Council regrets to state that the old Elephant, “Ranee”, died on December 18th, just before the holidays.  The               cause of death as found by the Hon. Vet. Surgeon, Mr. W. T. Kendall, was a very large accumulation of biliary                       calculi, weighing over 100lbs., in the liver, that organ having been almost completely destroyed. The accumulation               must have been going on for years….”

            In his book “Almost Human”, page 132, Mr. Willkie stated, “She died after a week’s illness, at over forty years of                    age…”, however the newspaper account of her arrival allows that she is six years of age at time of her arrival.

Following Ranee’s death her body was presented to the Melbourne Museum, where her skeletal remains were placed on display and the cause of her, by then, uncertain temper was revealed;

 Her great molar teeth should have been about four inches long.  One of them was, but the other grew and grew until          its growth was impeded by the bony structure of her proboscis, and the attrition of each can be plainly seen in her                skeleton. The runaway tooth must have been nine or ten inches long. She would never allow her mouth to be                       touched, and that was the reason why the extraordinary growth was not discovered during her life-time.”  (Almost               Human, p132.)

             This factor combined with her hepatic stones must have caused the animal a great deal of pain. No wonder the gentle placid animal that had arrived in 1883, became difficult to control and of “uncertain temper”. The stories told of Ranee, in the early days, all illustrate her gentleness.  She had apparently great fondness for one of her keepers and would, when he lay on the grass sleeping or resting, stand over him on guard, and use her trunk to whisk the flies from his face. If he was approached at this time she would become agitated and show of signs of anger causing the intruder to retreat.



Barrett, Charles   Rambles round the Zoo, Whitcombe & Tombs Limited, 1923

Osborne, Mrs. A.R.  Almost Human Reminiscences from the Melbourne Zoo as told by A.A.W. Wilkie Whitcombe & Tombs Limited c.1917

            Argus Newspaper 5/03/1883

The Age Newspaper 5/03/1883

The Age Newspaper 22/02/1890

The Daily Telegraph 5/03/1883

de Courcy Catherine, The Zoo Story,  Penguin Books 1995

PROV, VPRS 2223 Minute Book of the Zoological & Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, 1857 – 1951   

PROV, VPRS 2228   Register of Deaths of Animals Zoological & Acclimatisation of Victoria 1898 -1957

PROV, VPRS 2230 Ledgers of Zoological & Acclimatisation Society of Victoria 1861 -1940

            Uren Nancy. History of Port Melbourne Oxford University Press 1983

Morse, Linda. 2001.  FOTZ Fun Run Presentation

Further assistance provided by

  • Catherine de Courcy
  • Melbourne Zoo Educational Service
  • Police Historical Museum
  • Polly Woodside Historical Museum
  • Cath Pye


About lindandsam

Linda is a poet and writer. As a mature aged student, she completed a Bachelor of Creative Writing. Master of Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC). Linda has also completed the Diploma of Family History Studies at the University of Tasmania (UTAS) and is looking forward to further post graduate work. Published in the USC Storyboard, 2015. Self-published ‘Where is Gedhum Choekyi Nyima?’ For the Tibetan Children’s Village, Dharamsala, 1997. She now lives in Bass Coast in beautiful Wonthaggi and shares her life with her partner and their four-legged fur baby Hugo Boss

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