Now you see it… but what if you don’t?

Now you see it… but what if you don’t?

As I was forging ahead with my survey late last year, contacting various collecting institutions to see what, if any, horse remains they might have in their collections, I received a phone call that stopped me in my tracks, and brought home to me the limitations of my research scope.

It’s all well and good to look at objects and their associated interpretation – but what if there was a relevant object that now no longer exists?  Because this was exactly the situation being described to me by the Curator of the Victoria Police Museum, Sergeant Terry Claven.

During the 1970s, one of the most popular members of Victoria’s police force was a big grey gelding called Gendarme. Gendarme, along with his human partner Sergeant Alex Tassell, could be seen at any number of occasions on Melbourne’s streets, including the anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam protests of the early 70s. The two also did less fraught work, participating in a number of Moomba parades, and appearing in the Myer toy department during Police Week. [1]

Gendarme and Sergeant Alex Tassell

Gendarme and Sergeant Alex Tassell Source: http://vichorse.com/forum/index.php?t=msg&goto=1783803&

For almost two decades, Tassell and Gendarme, who Tassell trained as a drum horse for the police band, were a common sight. The horse’s popularity was, believe it or not, astronomical. He starred in his own children’s book series, with titles Gendarme the Police Horse and Gendarme at Work each selling over 25,000 copies [2], received the Victoria Police Chief Commissioner’s Award, was given the Key to the City of Melbourne, and, upon his retirement in 1980, had a public farewell at Government House!

Sadly Gendarme was euthanised shortly after he retired, in September 1980. [3]  However, as with other popular equine figures in Australian history, death was no barrier to his posterity. As described in a piece for the Herald, Gendarme would ‘[receive] the same honour as the great Australian race horse Phar Lap, and [be] stuffed.’ [4] It’s worth noting here that Gendarme seems to be the only other horse besides Phar Lap to have been preserved in this way, a true testament to his popularity.

The taxidermic process was done by Brent Hall, who worked professionally as a Preparator with Museum Victoria and ran a home taxidermy business in Glen Iris. [6] It took nine months and cost $8000 [5], but in June 1981 the great horse was once again able to greet the public, unveiled in a ceremony at Dandenong Town Hall. Sargeant Tassell himself was impressed at the way Gendarme had been captured through taxidermy. “The head is to a tee and they’ve done a really good job on the rest, even down to the bumps and scars he received over his long career”, Tassell was quoted as saying at the time. [7]

Unfortunately, time was not kind to the mount, and at some point its deterioration meant that it had to be destroyed. So now I have to ask myself, given the scope of my research, how do I talk about this significant horse, without anything to tell his story through? As those associated with Gendarme pass away, the horse’s story, and his significance, are also lost. Tassell himself passed away in 2008, preceded by the last of the Gendarmes (there were ultimately five horses who went by the name, though I believe it was only Gendarme I that was mounted and displayed). [8]

At the time of the newly-mounted horse’s unveiling, the prevailing opinion was that Gendarme was so popular that he was bound ‘to be remembered for many years to come’ [9], yet this has not been the case. Despite my research interest, I had not come across Gendarme’s name prior to contacting the Victoria Police Museum. Which begs us to ask of that other most famous taxidermied horse – if all Phar Lap’s remains were to suddenly disappear from public view, how long would he remain in the public consciousness?

In my opinion, it would be a generation, two at most. And that, right there, is what lies at the heart of my research – that the stories we tell about these horses, and about ourselves as Australians, are so tied to their physical remains that without them, the stories would disappear. While we might assume that a horse’s significance will continue to have a historical impact even after their death, the truth appears to be that, without material culture, horses do vanish from history.  No matter how significant we think the horse is today, he’ll be eclipsed tomorrow – unless he remains in the public imagination through ongoing exhibition and display.

REFERENCES:

[1] Michael Hast, ‘Sergeant Alex Tassell is Melburnian of the Year,’ Melburnian (no date), 11.

[2] Geoff Wilkinson, ‘Cop who rode into history,’ Herald Sun 24 December 2008, accessed 18 March 2015 http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/cop-who-rode-into-history/story-e6frf7kx-1111118398490

[3] Ian Brown, ‘Gendarme stands proud for posterity,’ Herald 11 June 1981 (no page reference).

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Brent Hall obituary, Nautilus vol 6 issue 3, 2009.

[7] Ian Brown, ‘Gendarme stands proud for posterity,’ Herald 11 June 1981 (no page reference).

[8] ‘Vale Alex Tassell,’ The Police Association Journal February 2009, p.23.

[9] ‘Beat the Drum Slowly,’ [no publication name] June 1981, p.18.

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