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Canning Boiled Rabbit Meat Was Once A Major Industry In Australia

Trawling through Twitter one day, as you do, I came across a tweet from Australian Kitsch. The tweet tells the story of the Aconcagua—a Glasgow-built steamship that often journeyed between Melbourne, and London—where 2,000 tins of boiled rabbit exploded in the hot sun while steaming across the Red Sea.

The second tweet in the thread shows a quote from an eyewitness to the mayhem.

The fearful stench had to be endured for days. The doctor had disinfectant fluid sprinkled all about, so that between the two the passengers had an exceedingly unpleasant trip.

Almost 150 years on, you don’t see a lot of boiled rabbit cans on the shelves at IGA, Coles, or Woolworths. You don’t even see a lot of it on the menu at restaurants either, but back in the 1800s rabbits were found on the dinner table of many Australian families.

Rabbits were introduced into Australia by the First Fleet and were among the first animals imported for food in the country. Spreading quickly across the country, a new industry emerged and rabbits were being sold in Sydney markets by the 1820s. Rabbits were even being entered in agricultural shows in the poultry category where breeders could showcase their best specimens and potentially win the £1 first prize.

With the advancement in refrigeration technology, the ability to store, and move vast amounts of rabbit meat by railway saw frozen rabbits transported all around the country.

The Longwood Preserving Company—featured on the cans in the above tweet—was established in 1891 in Longwood, Victoria. In 2022, Longwood has a population of 240, which is only slightly more people than the Longwood Preserving Company counted as employees in the 1890s, boasting 75 people working at the company, and a further 150 people trapping rabbits in the surrounding area.

The directions on the can reads:
“The Rabbit in this tin is cooked and is ready for use and is excellent cold, but if desired warm, boil for five minutes before opening.”

On a good day the factory could turn out 4000 tins of rabbit, with meat from one and a half rabbits per tin. … But by 1898 the factory had closed down due to competition from the export trade in frozen rabbits. The rabbit exporters paid double the money for rabbit carcasses and the canning factory could not compete.

Brian Coman ‘Tooth and Nail: The Story of the Rabbit in Australia

The rabbit meat industry continued strongly in Australia until the 1960s when the industry almost collapsed overnight due to strong competition from the cheaper battery-farmed chicken meat.

Labelled as ‘underground mutton’ or ‘poor man’s chicken’, rabbit meat was seen as a dish eaten by the poor. Today rabbit is generally only found in higher-end butcher shops and fine dining restaurants

Thank you to George Main for this great article ‘Bunnies By The Boxful’ that was used as a source throughout this article.

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