The Life and Times of Lord Coconut
By C.M. Jones, Biographer and Historian
Little is known of the early life of the man we have come to know as Lord Coconut. Even his exact date of birth is a source of contention among scholars. The legends that surround Lord Coconut are plentiful, but hard documentary evidence of who the man was is scarce, and that which we do have is either potentially biased or pure fiction.
It is agreed that Lord Coconut was a member of the British aristocracy. The use of the title Lord is correct; however the family to which this Lord belonged has never satisfactorily been established. There are four main ‘contenders’ for the real man behind the legend, however none of these can be established as true, as none of them quite match the events we have pieced together of his life. Based on the four contenders, when Lord Coconut first landed in Australia in 1887, he could have been anywhere between 25 and 42 years of age.
Although it is believed that his diaries have been long lost, a fragment of the Launceston Daily Telegraph newspaper discovered hidden behind a portrait he once owned (believed to be of his mother), gives us a mere glimpse of his life. It indicates that he was living in Launceston on April 1st 1887. The portrait can still be seen today in the Ladies Lounge of the Lord Admiral Hotel, Launceston.
The only other concrete detail, established from historical shipping records, is that he sailed from Launceston to Melbourne on the Tasmanian Steam Navigation Company steamer “The Flinders” on 7th April 1887.
It was also only a very short time that Lord Coconut remained in Tasmania before arriving on the mainland to establish himself in Melbourne.
Once he had ensconced himself in Melbourne’s elite society (such as it was at the time – privately he held it in contempt, calling his contemporaries “colonial kings of the antipodes (i)”), Coconut opened his first private gallery. There are no stock lists available for this establishment, so again we are reliant on his own words which reveal that it held treasures from Africa, Asia and various Pacific islands. Some say that Lord Coconut opened his private gallery to back up some of his more wild boasts to his own circle, others conject that he was already low on funds and testing the waters for the marketability of his finds.
We do know that an advertisement for the grand opening of “Lord Coconut’s Emporium of Wonder” appeared in the Argus newspaper in 1891. Much to Lord Coconut’s relief, it was a success and he was not only able to save himself from financial ruin, but also to begin importing various goods and continue his venture of a retail gallery.
As to the question of how Lord Coconut came to be named so, the stories are many and varied. The one most favoured by this author takes place on Easter Island. In 1884 a fleet of British explorers, botanists and cartographers were touring the area. The journals of a young botanist named Frederick Forsythe describe an episode of another British ship docking off Easter Island, with a young man among those that came ashore. The young man boasted that he could communicate with the locals in their own tongue and proceeded to demonstrate, where upon he was pelted with pieces of coconut shell. The crew of the British fleet laughed openly and jeered at this young man, calling him Mr Coconut. The young man righted himself, dusted off his coat and turned to those who laughed at him and corrected them “It’s Lord Coconut. Good day to you.” And with that, he flounced back down the beach to his row boat, where his man servant waited patiently for him, and returned to his ship.(ii)
(i) Broome, John (ed.) “Collected Writings of Lord Coconut: Letters and Journals 1857 – 1894”, QUP 2007.
(ii) Hirst, Richard “Voyages in Her Majesty’s Service” Rutledge Keegan Paul, 1991.