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THE RABBIT KING - Jack McCraith
Jack McCraith and his Australian Rabbit Empire
By Catherine Watson, 212 pages
At the age of 15 in 1931 when the Great Depression was biting hard, Jack McCraith had an idea: “Everyone knows how to catch rabbits,“ he said. “I’ll learn how to sell them.”
On his first buying trip, Jack push-biked from Essendon to Bulla, near today's Tullamarine Airport, down the steep hill, across the narrow old bluestone bridge which is still used today and pushed his heavy bike up the other side. He haggled hard and bought the two best rabbits for sixpence from a rabbit trapper returning with a catch of fresh rabbits on his horse and cart with extra long shafts draped all over with pairs of rabbits. Within two hours, he skinned this pair in his back yard and sold them to neighbours for a profitable one and sixpence.That was the start of his huge rabbit empire.
Within 20 years, Jack McCraith controlled a rabbit business which stretched across half of Australia. In the war years, Australia exported more rabbit meat than sheep meat when whole hills moved with rabbits. In his 40 year career, Jack exported more than 130 million rabbits.
Wherever the rabbits went, Jack went too. Rabbit chiller vans and trucks emblazoned with the sign JOHN A. MCRAITH, Rabbit Exporter, Spencer Street, Melbourne, dotted the back country from the Simpson Desert to the Nullaboor Plains.
It was a cut-throat and difficult industry filled with unscrupulous people, drunks and no-hopers. Chillers were robbed or sabotaged, buyers absconded with the rabbit-buying money, trucks broke down hundreds of miles from the nearest garage.
The trappers were tough men but Jack McCraith was tougher. When he had to sort out problems in the bush, he used his fists. He was a crack shot with a rifle into his nineties. Jack's methods were unorthodox. He was a big gambler and brought the same gambling instincts to his business life. Many of the exporters went broke but Jack McCraith survived and prospered.
The Rabbit King is the previously untold story of the Australian rabbit industry, how it kept many people alive in the harshest times and how it made some people very rich. It is also about a poor boy who makes good. It is the record of the rise and rise of a man who perfectly suited the times and all that it reveals about the way Australians lived and thought in that era. This book is a colourful slice of genuine Australian history and is a great read.
Ironically, the 1920's large commercial building that IT'S A TRAP occupies, was a rabbit processing factory for 35 years. Harry (Espitito) Portelli left Malta when the war was on in 1944. He came to Kyneton and became a serious competitor to Jack McCraith. Our family in Melbourne, thanks to Dad's and his trusty ferrets, sold dried rabbit skins to Jack McCraith for years. We also grew up eating home-cooked rabbit and backyard eggs, fruit and vegetables.
Harry started as a one man band with his Indian motorbike and sidecar, riding out to local Kyneton farms to collect the rabbits caught by the farm kids. Harry showed up on time, paid cash on the knocker and bought the rabbits back here to skin them and sell the meat. Rabbit fur went to Akubra for felt hats. Harry also ended up having chiller vans and trucks supply him with rabbits from as far away as NSW and a fleet of his own trucks.
Whatever machinery he needed, Harry made it himself, including building the large freezer made of walls lined with sawdust and ammonia pipes. He made the best ice in Kyneton. He also built the motor that drove the long hooked chain that his skinners hung the rabbits on to send them to the packing area. Skinners were paid piece work - by the rabbit. A top skinner could skin seven rabbits a minute, standing knee deep in rabbit bits for six hours a day, hit the slops at night and show up again the next day. Harry ended up having 20 men work in this building. The home-made metal gate he built on the driveway to Mollison Street is still in use here today.
His frozen rabbits were shipped to Malta and to England after the war (back to where they came from), by the boat load. The post-war Brits were hungry and on food rations for years. Before Myxomatosis disease, more rabbit meat left Australia than sheep meat. Harry owned a lot of Kyneton property and after a heart attack and driving himself in his black Ford Customline down to Sunshine Hospital where he later died, he left an estate of two million pounds which was more money than God in those days. Harry owned many Kyneton shops, houses and most of Beauchamp Street, the main industrial area, mostly from rabbits and fox fur sales. Try and buy that all that back at today's property prices. Harry is buried in the old Kyneton cemetery. His gravestone is near the largest pine tree. He would approve of us selling rabbit traps in his building today.
Rabbit was good quality cheap meat for millions of people. Today it is an expensive delicacy, $20.00 for a single rabbit, not even a pair, if you can find them.
How the wheel turns.