The Giant Wombat in the Basement

There’s a giant wombat in the basement of Worcester Museum. It’s there because Henry Hughes was bored of banking. It was the starting point of a story that has led me, via mid-19th century Brisbane and the learned societies of Victorian England, into some of the darker corners of the British Empire.

In 1838, the young and ambitious Henry Hughes left his job in Worcester for a new life in Australia. He was accompanied by the Isaacs family, including two brothers whom Hughes had known well in Worcester, Henry Edward and Frederic Neville. Hughes and the two Isaacs brothers — just 22 and 18 at the time of their arrival in Australia — bought a farm in Hunter Valley, and settled awhile. But it seems that this agricultural idyll failed to satisfy their thirst for adventure. Spurred by tales of fortunes to be made on the frontier, they sold up and headed along the coast, to the northern limits of New South Wales. They reached the Darling Downs — just west of what is now Brisbane — in 1841, despite having been robbed by armed outlaws along the way. Along with a handful of European settlers, they carved a life for themselves in the lush grasslands along the Condamine River, beyond the edges of their civilisation: a Terra Nullius.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t. The land into which they poured their herds of sheep and cattle was no wilderness. The fences they hammered into the stiff clay were stakes in the beating heart of a landscape that had been inhabited for 3000 generations. The first Europeans arrived in the Darling Downs in 1840. Four years later, 26 properties had introduced 150,000 sheep onto the grasslands[1]. Known as ‘squatters’, the earliest settlers had no claim to the crown lands they occupied, but by the time that the Darling Downs were carved up the term had acquired a perverse legitimacy, applied equally to legal settlements. On the back of a booming wool trade, some squatters became staggeringly wealthy, leading to the birth of a landowning class known as the ‘squattocracy’.

For most, however, it was not an easy life. Nonetheless, Hughes and the Isaacs seem to have prospered. That we know anything of their lives at this time is largely down to Hughes’ friend Henry Stuart Russell, who wrote an account of The Genesis of Queensland[2]. It documents frontier life in the Darling Downs, from first explorations to the area’s eventual secession from New South Wales to form the state of Queensland in 1859. The book is dedicated to Hughes; Russell’s affectionate portrayal of his friend reveals a man of wit, generosity, and — in later life — considerable political skill. Russell paints a vivid picture of his first encounter with Hughes and Henry Isaacs. Expecting a pair of prim English gentlemen, he was astonished to be confronted with:

“two individuals seated, each on a keg, smoking. Little, apparently, over twenty years of age; covered with dust; shirt sleeves tucked up to the elbows; doubled up by the heat of work; straw hats, ribandless, and once perhaps of a lighter tinge, heavy boots, which knew not blacking-brushes; each with a silver tankard in hand, a short clay pipe in mouth, there they stood laughing”[3]

Gowrie Station, Darling Downs

Gowrie Station, Darling Downs. By James Gay Sawkins, ca. 1852

They christened their station ‘Stanbrook’, after the Stanbrook Hall Estate near Worcester. It was soon renamed ‘Gowrie’, a corruption of the Aboriginal name for a local freshwater mussel: ‘Cowarie’. They stocked it with cattle. A watercolour painted some ten years after the station was established[4] shows a neat white stockade, a timber homestead with a steep pitched roof, and wild hills rising in the background. Two translucent figures on horseback canter across the pasture. By this date, Hughes had taken up the adjoining station — named Westbrook — though the men remained firm friends and business partners.

Frederick Neville Isaacs, in particular, was a man of rare skill, who adapted rapidly to his adopted homeland and became a skilled bushman. But he was also a man with considerable intellectual and scientific interests. He was an early member of the Queensland Philosophical Society, along with his sister, Elizabeth Coxen. Elizabeth had been 13 years old when the family emigrated. Having initially remained with their father in Sydney, she moved to the Brisbane area in the mid-1840s. She spent some time living with her brother at Gowrie. She, too, became a member of the Philosophical Society, and Gowrie evidently fuelled a lifelong love of natural history. In 1851 she married Charles Coxen, a squatter who rose to become a renowned naturalist, founder of Queensland Museum, and local politician. Elizabeth, who long languished unfairly in her husband’s shadow, was a brilliant scientist in her own right, and was probably the first woman in Australia to work as a natural history curator[5]. Gowrie was no rural backwater: it was a place where a voracious appetite for learning and discovery was shared and celebrated.

As such, the station attracted eminent visitors. The Darling Downs was a launching point for a succession of pioneers, heading north and west into the bush. In 1844, the charismatic and controversial Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt spent some time with the Worcester emigrants, staying on Gowrie station before an overland expedition to Port Essington in the far north of the continent. Frederick Neville Isaacs accompanied Leichhardt on a number of expeditions until the explorer’s mysterious disappearance in 1848[6].

During his first stay at Gowrie, Leichhardt was delighted to be shown some remarkable fossils excavated by Hughes and the Isaacs during the construction of the station[7]. They included examples of giant kangaroos, but the star find was a near-complete specimen of one of the most extraordinary creatures ever to have inhabited Australia: a three-tonne wombat named Diprotodon. This Ice Age colossus, three metres long and two metres tall at the shoulder, is the largest known marsupial.

Diprotodon optatum (2)

Diprotodon grazed the Australian bush for around 1.5 million years. How did such an animal evolve and thrive? Around 5 million years ago the global climate started to become cooler and drier. By 2.6 million years ago, the planet was entering the geological period synonymous with the last Ice Age: the Pleistocene. In a cooler climate, animals show an evolutionary tendency to increase in size, leading to an abundance of ‘megafauna’: animals with an adult body weight of over 44kg. Bergmann’s rule[8] suggests that larger animals have a lower surface area to volume ratio than smaller animals, so they radiate less body heat per unit of mass, and therefore stay warmer in cold climates. Geist[9] and others disagree, arguing that it is more linked to food resources, and ‘productivity pulse’ — the availability of nutrients per animal in a cold-shortened growing and feeding season. The ability to survive periods of food scarcity may be enhanced by bulk; a larger animal can store and survive on fat reserves. Whatever the cause, confined to their continent, Australia’s marsupials grew big. When the first humans made the immense 100km sea crossing from mainland southeast Asia around 60,000 years ago[10], they would have encountered many of these beasts, though their days were numbered. Tales in Aboriginal mythology of giant creatures such as the bunyip have often been thought to be an echo of collective memory of encounters with extinct megafauna[11].

The cause of the decline of the Australian megafauna is still debated. It seems likely that humans played some role, but were not the only factor: increasing aridity was making food resources scarcer[12]. The Diprotodon probably went extinct around 40,000 years ago. But the bones’ perfect preservation in the Gowrie soil convinced Leichhardt that they might still exist in the continent’s unmapped interior. Leichhardt appears to have exhorted Isaacs to send the specimens to his homeland for study, knowing they would excite interest within the burgeoning natural history circles of England.

The first Diprotodon specimens had been described by Richard Owen just six years earlier. Owen was brilliant; a vicious and driven man, but an outstanding naturalist. He founded the Natural History Museum, coined the term ‘Dinosaur’, and sparred ferociously with Charles Darwin. And the finds from Gowrie did attract his interest. He published them in 1859: describing and illustrating specimens of Diprotodon, giant kangaroos of the Macropus genus, and another genus of giant wombat named Nototherium. The fossils are described as being “contributed by Mr Hughes, from freshwater deposits of Darling Downs.”[13]

Despite the passage of over 150 years, some of those fossils still exist. I first encountered them in a battered cardboard box in the basement of Worcester’s City Museum and Art Gallery. They had been erroneously labelled, decades ago, as ‘Pleistocene: South America?’. Entombed in a forest of acid-free tissue paper, we unwrapped them like giddy but cautious children. And there they were: just as they were illustrated in 1859. A double-ridged tooth the size of a matchbox. A jaw, Owen’s name still visible on a label that seemed as aged as the fossil itself. A strange jumble of bones, incomprehensible to the uninitiated, but brought to life by the sorcerer Owen.

Tooth and upper jaw fragment of Diprotodon australis

Tooth and upper jaw fragment of Diprotodon australis, within Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery. Coin diameter = 23mm

There were more wonders in the box: bones of Dinornis, the heavy-footed moa, a colossal bird that grew up to 3.6m tall, endemic to New Zealand. Owen first identified the genus in 1839 from a fragment of femur[14], to a chorus of vocal doubters, who pointed out that if it were a bird, it would be unfeasibly large. But Owen was insistent, and when further specimens arrived from the Antipodes in 1843, he was proved right. We unwrapped a toe-bone: dark, branching, the texture of an old oak. It is an object of disquieting otherness, even today. Its impact in 1850s Worcester must have been extraordinary.

This small city was, in the mid-19th century, an intellectual hothouse. The Worcestershire Natural History Society, established in 1833, swiftly amassed a considerable collection. It found a home in 1835, when the Museum of the Worcestershire Natural History Society opened on Foregate Street. A driving force was the remarkable Dr Charles Hastings, who had founded the British Medical Association down the road at Worcester’s Infirmary three years earlier. The imposing classical columns housed a bewildering variety of curiosities. The earliest surviving accession registers comprise roughly seventy pages covering material accepted by the museum between 1837 and 1854. Within the first few entries, there are bird eggs and beetles; geological specimens from local quarries; an entire fossil tree weighing almost a tonne; a cast of a dodo’s head; a selection of Mexican insects; samples of lava from Mount Etna; and a fragment of mortar from the steps of the Parthenon.

Into this mix of odd bedfellows came the specimens from Gowrie, courtesy of Henry Hughes. But how and when did they arrive? I hunted through the registers, and found the entry:

1848 June… 17 Australian Bird Skins 1 Ormthorinus paradoxus… upper portion of Skul (sic) of Native 4 Native bags 6 war weapons portions of dress & ornaments and a number of Fossil bones mostly Jaw bones with teeth discovered in Australia presented by Mr Hughes who brought them over.”

“Upper portion of Skul of Native”. Hughes appears to have briefly returned to Worcester in 1848 with a macabre cargo. Besides the fossils, bird skins, duck-billed platypus, and an assortment of aboriginal artefacts, he brought back a skull. A human skull. An Aboriginal skull.

It is not clear from the descriptions whether the skull was archaeological, or of more recent origin. With over 50,000 years of Aboriginal settlement in Australia, it may have been ancient, uncovered along with the other fossils during those early years at Gowrie. But many of the remains acquired by institutions in the 19th and early 20th centuries were acquired in murky circumstances: stolen — and in some cases allegedly killed — to order[15].

Hughes and the Isaacs, part of the earliest wave of squatters on the Darling Downs, were in frequent and often fraught contact with local aboriginals. One encounter, in January 1845, saw a group of aboriginals spear and scatter a number of Gowrie’s sheep and cattle. In response, the local squatters rallied twenty horsemen to drive them off. In 1847 Frederick Neville Isaacs attempted to establish a new station at a place named Dullacca. His obituary later recorded that he was “very quickly driven from it by the blacks”[16], and forced to return to the relative safety of Gowrie. Isaacs employed a native tracker named Billy, who helped him to keep the local Aboriginals at bay, notwithstanding an episode where Billy was almost speared[17]. Employees of other stations were less fortunate: among those killed was one of Hughes’ Westbrook staff.

It may have been his experience with Billy that led him to become a vocal proponent of the idea of a ‘Native Police’ force. In November 1848 he wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald, refuting the suggestion that Aboriginals had been poorly treated, and arguing for the formation of a local ‘Black Police’ to protect the land and assets for which the squatters were paying the Crown. The first such native police force, a paramilitary organisation comprising units of mounted aboriginal troopers commanded by a white officer, had been established in 1837 in Port Phillip District on the south coast. Isaacs got his way. Between 1848 and 1915, the local force for which Isaacs campaigned — known as the Native Mounted Police Force — became notorious for extrajudicial killings and violent reprisals against local Aboriginals[18]. By using Aboriginal troops from areas distant to those in which they served, the Native Police units sought to take advantage of Aboriginals’ superior tracking skills, to keep the wage bill low (supplemented by freely available alcohol and tobacco), and to minimise the chances of reprisal attacks against white settlers.

Isaac’s assertion that Aboriginals were not poorly treated is hard to credit. Aboriginal grievances were well-founded. Their lands had been enclosed and transformed, their delicate ecology trampled under the hooves of the hundreds of thousands of heads of livestock turned out onto the fragile grasslands. Gowrie and Westbrook were held in the 1850s to be “two faultless and flower-carpeted ranches, the best for sheep and cattle this wide Australia holds”[19]. But those sheep and cattle were to prove disastrous, eventually destroying that flower carpet. The Aboriginals had managed the Darling Downs for millennia with an annual burning when the grasses were ripe and dry: a process known as ‘firestick farming’, it encouraged vigorous growth and maximised species diversity, ensuring a productive landscape that met Aboriginal food requirements. All of this was catastrophically disrupted by the grazing of livestock, the erection of fences, and the partition of the land into units under a system of ownership that was utterly alien to the Aboriginal way of life.

In the light of these violations, it is easy to see how Aboriginal resentment sometimes boiled over. But of all the violent episodes in this turbulent time, it is the poisonings that are most shocking. They were all-too frequent around the time that Hughes and the Isaacs were carving their path at Gowrie. Russell discusses one of the most notorious, which took place in February 1842 at Kilcoy Station, approximately halfway between Brisbane and the cluster of stations on the Darling Downs. Several white shepherds working for Sir Evan Mackenzie became increasingly alarmed by the presence of large groups of Gubbi Gubbi Aboriginals who were requesting flour, tobacco, and sugar. To rid themselves of this nuisance, they laced a batch of flour with strychnine. Up to 60 of the Gubbi Gubbi died in agony[20]. The effects were related in graphic detail to Henry Stuart Russell by an escaped European convict named James Davis, who had made his home among the Gubbi Gubbi[21]. Although widely reported in the Australian press, no charges were ever brought. Sir Evan Mackenzie escaped with a caution.

Such actions led to reprisals; the Aboriginal belief in collective responsibility meant that many settlers suffered for the actions of others, expanding the cycle of violence. Russell notes that Hughes and the Isaacs knew and had entertained the victims of the infamous Hornet Bank Massacre in 1857, in which 12 people, members of the Fraser family and their employees, were killed. The action, likely a response to the killing of 12 Iman Aboriginals for spearing cattle and the poisoning of an unknown number of others with a strychnine-laced Christmas pudding, sparked a vicious response which almost annihilated the tribe[22].

In such an atmosphere, with death a constant presence and a viciously antagonistic attitude towards Aboriginal people, it is not hard to understand how Hughes and the Isaacs had scant regard for the physical remains of the indigenous population. Whatever the origins of the skull, Hughes and the Isaacs placed so little value on Aboriginal culture that they saw fit to send body parts halfway around the world, to be catalogued with no more ceremony than a few ‘portions of dress & ornaments’.

I do not yet know what became of the skull. To those not familiar with historic museum collections, this may sound surprising. Unfortunately, it is not unusual. In the 170 years since Hughes brought it back, the museum collections have declined, moved, been revived, changed ownership, and suffered all manner of indignities. The collections of the Worcestershire Natural History Society had, by the late 19th century, faded from their heyday in the 1840s to 1860s and fallen into disarray. They were eventually moved to the new Victoria Institute, which opened in 1896. Much of the collection still resides there, but some has been moved to a succession of out-stores. Some records survive, but many more do not. There were the challenges of the Second World War, too, during which the fate of museum collections was understandably low on the list of municipal priorities. In a bid to clear space for war work, aisles of artefacts were dumped on the street. Their fate is unclear, but at least some are thought to have ended up in landfill.

There are practical issues, too. After 170 years, labels can become illegible, or detached. Transcription errors are perpetuated and magnified. Documentation can become a game of Chinese whispers, leading to cases like the ‘South America’ label on the box of Australian fossils. Worcester’s museum collections are now in excellent hands, but to unpick such a tangled web across hundreds of thousands of objects — spanning nearly two centuries — is a colossal task.

At some point, the skull was evidently separated from the rest of the material. Owen’s 1859 publication does not mention it. There is no record of repatriation. The uncertainty over its location is a source of spiritual danger, both for the descendants of the individual and for the land itself. This is equally acute whether the individual was tens of thousands old, or recently deceased. In Aboriginal culture, the living navigate the land by the knowledge of the resting places of the dead[23]. Their presence within the land itself is an anchor; their absence from the land is a curse:

“Our belief is that when our people’s remains are not with their people and in our country then their spirit is wandering. Unless they go back home the spirit never rests.” Aboriginal elder Major Sumner[24]

I have written before that we stand on the shoulders of flawed giants. Henry Hughes, Frederick Neville Isaacs, Henry Edward Isaacs, and Elizabeth Coxen were remarkable people. We cannot, and should not, overlook their qualities; it is precisely because they are admirable in so many other ways that their failure to accord Aboriginal culture the respect it deserves is so stark. They were active participants in an episode of human history in which the values of the European enlightenment failed catastrophically to comprehend the land and people they encountered, with appalling consequences. The missing skull, all the more powerful in its absence, bears witness to the dark origins of scientific endeavour and natural history collections. It cannot be ignored.

Museums across the country are filled with objects that are the gateway to stories like this. They highlight the complexities of the human condition. The best and worst of us is contained within them. How did a society that could transport those fossils halfway across the globe — and identify the beast to whom they once belonged — fail so utterly to appreciate the humanity and society of the people they met, in that continent of wonders? The giant wombat in the basement stares back at me. Its presence is a challenge and a warning, across half the world and 50,000 years: dig deeper, and tell of what you find.

This post is based on personal research into Worcester’s Ice Age collections, undertaken whilst working for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service on the Lost Landscapes project. Many thanks are due to the staff of Museums Worcestershire – particularly Deb Fox, Garston Phillips, and Kerry Whitehouse – for their help and encouragement. It is to Museums Worcestershire’s great credit that they are committed to frank and open discussions about the difficult history behind some of their early acquisitions, and we are currently discussing ways in which more of these stories can be told. Any ideas or suggestions gratefully received. Thanks are also due to members of the Royal Society for Biology West Midlands and the Worcestershire Archaeological Society, and the Megathread, for being a receptive, constructive, and supportive sounding board for this research.

Footnotes:

Click number to return to place in text

↑ 1 Ian Parsonson The Australian Ark: A History of Domesticated Animals in Australia (Clayton: Csiro Publishing, 1998)

↑ 2 Henry Stuart Russell The Genesis of Queensland (Public domain, 1888). Available at: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1305181h.html [accessed 29 April 2018]

↑ 3 Russell, The Genesis of Queensland

↑ 4 James Gay Sawkins, watercolour, ca. 1852. Public domain. Available at: https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135205733/view [accessed 28 April 2018].

↑ 5 Judith McKay and John M. Healy, ‘Elizabeth Coxen: pioneer naturalist and the Queensland Museum’s first woman curator’, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum–Nature 60 (2017), pp.139-160. Brisbane. ISSN 2204-1478 (Online)

↑ 6 See Darrell Lewis, Where is Dr Leichhardt?: the greatest mystery in Australian history, (Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2013).

↑ 7 Ludwig Leichhardt, Journal of an overland expedition in Australia: From Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years 1844-1845 (London: T. and W. Boone, 1847). Available at: http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/p00050.pdf [accessed 29 April 2018].

↑ 8 Carl Bergmann, ‘Über die Verhältnisse der Wärmeökonomie der Thiere zu ihrer Grösse’, Göttinger Studien 3 (1) (1847), pp. 595–708.

↑ 9 Valerius Geist, ‘Bergmann’s rule is invalid’, Canadian Journal of Zoology, 65 (4) (1987), pp.1035–1038.

↑ 10 Giles Hamm et al., ‘Cultural innovation and megafauna interaction in the early settlement of arid Australia’, Nature 539 (2016), pp.280-283.

↑ 11 Pat Vickers-Rich et al. (eds), Vertebrate Palaeontology of Australasia(Lilydale: Pioneer Design Studio in cooperation with the Monash University Publications Committee, Melbourne, 1991).

↑ 12 See: Judith Field and Stephen Wroe, ‘Aridity, faunal adaptations and Australian Late Pleistocene extinctions’, World Archaeology 44 (2012), pp.56-74.

↑ 13 Richard Owen, ‘On a Collection of Australian Fossils in the Museum of the Natural History Society at Worcester; with Descriptions of the Lower Jaw and Teeth of the Nototherium inerme and Nototherium Mitchelli, Owen; demonstrating the identity of the latter species with the Zygomaturus of Macleay.’  Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 15 (1859), pp.176-186. https://doi.org/10.1144/GSL.JGS.1859.015.01-02.37

↑ 14 Gowan Dawson, ‘On Richard Owen’s Discovery, in 1839, of the Extinct New Zealand Moa from Just a Single Bone’, BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=gowan-dawson-on-richard-owens-discovery-in-1839-of-the-extinct-new-zealand-moa-from-just-a-single-bone [accessed 29 April 2018].

↑ 15 Jillian Mundy, ‘Remains back in safe hands’, The Koori Mail, 23rd September 2009, p.9 https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/docs/digitised_collections/the_koori_mail/460.pdf

↑ 16 The Brisbane Courier, Tuesday 18th July 1865, p.2. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/1275400

↑ 17 J. Stewart, ‘Gowrie Homestead, Kingsthorpe’ Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 18 (9) (2004), pp.406–419.

↑ 18 Jonathan Richards, The Secret War. A True History of Queensland’s Native Police, (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008).

↑ 19 J. Stewart, ‘Gowrie Homestead’, p412.

↑ 20 Centre for 21st Century Humanities, University of Newcastle, ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872’ (2017) https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/detail.php?r=5014 [accessed 28 April 2018]

↑ 21 Russell, The Genesis of Queensland

↑ 22 Gordon Reid, Nest of Hornets: The Massacre of the Fraser Family at Hornet Bank Station, Central Queensland, 1857, and Related Events (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1982).

↑ 23 Lindsay Murdoch, ‘Stolen spirits brought home to be at rest’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 2011. https://www.smh.com.au/national/stolen-spirits-brought-home-to-be-at-rest-20110719-1hnbv.html [accessed 25 April 2018]

↑ 24 Paola Totaro, ‘Bringing home the dead so their spirits can rest’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 2009. https://www.smh.com.au/national/bringing-home-the-dead-so-their-spirits-can-rest-20090512-b1w9.html [accessed 29 April 2018]

4 thoughts on “The Giant Wombat in the Basement

  1. Pingback: The Giant Wombat in the Basement ~ Rob Hedge | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  2. Hi Rob,

    What a fascinating read! “Two cups of coffee” worth of fascinating.

    I knew some of the dark history behind the settlers’ attempts to rid themselves of the inconvenient presence of the “blacks”, though the more I read, the more revolted I am by the contemporary mores and attitudes that are so different from our own, in the main.

    As humans today we’re still not good at finding ways to live in peace and acceptance of our fellows, but the casual indifference to any aboriginal, prevalent 200 years ago, (when the ‘white man’ “knew” himself to be superior to all other races, and carried a sense of entitlement that justified him in treating his dog better than he did his black neighbour), simply sticks in the 21st century craw.

    The loss of the human skull bothers me too, I do hope that it wasn’t casually thrown out, as being of little interest. I would like to think that now the Museum curators are doing what they can to track down their artefacts, the mystery will one day be solved, and the skull returned to its home.

    The historical research involved in such a project; delving into old records, deciphering letters and scouting dusty ledgers was the stuff of my teenage dreams, it has been an enduring sadness that my “careers advisor” didn’t share my enthusiasm. Instead, ignoring my animated description of what I wanted to do with myself, she offered teaching, nursing or the Civil Service. Not quite the stuff of dreams then.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, a wealth of interesting detail, and an unsolved mystery. I expect the Giant Wombat has seen a lot over the years – it’s a pity he’s not telling.

    See you soon,

    Mary

    Like

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