The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 4 Part 1









List of papers








By Paul Bentley

October 1999 


With a roar of laughter 1789-1850

The Crown of Wattle 1851-1900

Strike Me Lucky! 1901-1950

The Coming of the White Elephants 1951-2000. Due soon


With a roar of laughter 1789-1850


When the First Fleet vessels turned into Port Jackson, they brought with them the seeds of a new culture: a copy of a popular 18th century play, a piano, a screw printing press and a cargo of convicts. Decades passed before the seeds took root; a century or more, before they flowered.

The early years of the penal settlement were preoccupied with necessities: law and order, exploring and taming the land, feeding and clothing the population. Imports included fresh cargo of emaciated men and women in chains to add to the burden of the precarious colonial economy. The convict and soldier population was largely illiterate or poorly educated, ill equipped for cultural challenges in a remote and alien environment.

Leisure time explored the folk songs, street ballads, jokes and stories of an oral tradition rather than a literary one; horseracing, cockfighting and pugilism, aided and abetted by gambling and liquor, harnessed expression of a more physical kind. The air and sunshine of the new colony offered a more open confinement than the hulks of the Thames. But, as one commentator observed, "breaks from the dull monotony were accompanied by the clank of chains ... everything was calculated to blunt the finest feelings and render them susceptible to the worst impression."

The dull monotony was attacked on Boxing Day 1832, when two plays were presented in the saloon of the Royal Hotel, Sydney. The melodrama Black-eyed Susan, according to one observer, 'called for repeated approbation' and the farce Monsieur Tonson 'kept the house in a roar of laughter from beginning to end'.

The Australian theatre industry was born.


Plays had been presented before in Sydney. On 4 June 1789, in the presence of Governor Arthur Phillip and officers of the garrison, a group of convicts had performed George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer in a mud hut decorated with coloured paper and a dozen farthing candles. For cast and audience, it was a momentary "escape from the dreariness and dejection of [their] situation."

In January 1796, a former watchcase maker and convict-turned-baker, Robert Sidaway, opened Sydney's first theatre - a convict-built 120-seater - in Bell Row (Bligh street) a venture which operated intermittently until 1800, when it was closed as a corrupting influence by the authorities.

Through the second and third decades of the nineteenth century, the signs of civilisation appeared like milestones. A town plan of Sydney was published in 1810. Business enterprises stabilised the burgeoning economy: the first commercial shipment of wool was sent back to England in 1811 and the Bank of New South Wales was established in 1817. Macarthur, Wentworth and others stirred the pot of political independence and the colony's first independent newspaper, The Australian, was. published in 1824. Learned societies and institutions, cultivators of the colonial mind, opened their doors: the Philosophical Society of Australasia was set up in 1822; in 1827, the Australian Subscription Library opened its collection of 1000 volumes to members in Sydney and the first Mechanics' Institute was established in Hobart Town. For those who found the cultivation of the mind or convict life too hard to bear, a mental asylum had also been established at Castle Hill.

In 1817, the Earl of Bathurst questioned whether the settlement was fulfilling its role as a penal colony. By 1824, free settlers in the population of nearly 40,000 were in the majority. One of their number, Barnett Levey, a merchant and auctioneer, was convinced the time was ripe for regular, night-time entertainment. Advocacy in 1824 was followed by action in 1827, when he laid the foundation stone for a theatre to be built in a warehouse he was building in George Street, Sydney.

The five feet two inch Levey was not short of ideas and energy, but he did lack diplomacy. And one of those with whom he crossed swords was the new Governor, Ralph Darling, who blocked Levey's application for a theatre licence - even though a convict-run theatre had been permitted 56 kilometres west of Sydney at Emu Plains.

Levey had to contend not only with the prevailing conservative attitude and the hostility of Darling, but with his own propensity for taking on too many things. He had gone ahead with the construction of the theatre, calling it the Royal Assembly Rooms instead, and had held concerts there in 1829. But his neglect of his other business interests led to financial difficulties which forced him to sell his collection of buildings in George Street, including store, warehouse, hotel, theatre, granary and mill in December 1830.

In 1832, his plans for a theatre resurfaced. Darling had left the colony and Governor Sir Richard Bourke, more favourably disposed to public entertainment than his predecessor, granted a theatre licence on 22 December 1832. Four days later, in the saloon sub-leased from the new owners of the Royal Hotel, he opened his first season of 30 plays and farces.

By October 1833, the theatre behind the hotel had been completed and, on 5 October, Levey's second season of plays opened at the Theatre Royal. Apart from a break in 1835 and 1836, he continued to manage the theatre until his death on 2 October 1937.

The infant theatre industry was precarious and volatile.

The Royal employed up to 100 people, many of them earning 2 pounds to 3 pounds a week, except on benefit nights, when popular performers could earn as much as 90 pounds. The production quality was not high and Levey was subjected to frequent criticism not only from the press but from his own employees. There was little discipline among the inexperienced actors, who were known to walk out of the theatre in a fit of pique just before performances were about to begin.

Theatres were not places for respectable people. Audiences were unruly and prone to violence: actors often had to duck bottles, stones, fruit and other missiles; actors and members of the audience sometimes indulged in fisticuffs on the stage. Whores plied their trade in the theatre and patrons ran a gauntlet of abuse from the footpath drunks outside the hotel. 

The Theatre Royal was destroyed by fire in 1840, after it had closed in 1838, the same year in which Joseph Wyatt opened Sydney's second permanent theatre, the Royal Victoria.

The prime mover of theatre in Van Diemen's Land was a Mr Sampson Cameron who rented Freemanson's Tavern for performances on 24 December 1933. In 1834, homage to the crown as again in evidence when a Theatre Royal opened in Argyle Street, Hobart, only to close in 1836. Another Theatre Royal, in Campbell Street, opened in 1837. Adelaide's Theatre Royal was established in 1838, followed by the Royal Victoria in 1839, the Argyle Rooms in 1840, Queen's Theatre (the first real theatre building) in 1841, the Pavilion in 1845, the Royal Adelaide in 1846, another Queen's Theatre in 1846 and the Dramatic Hall in 1850.  Melbourne made its start in 1841 with the Royal Pavilion, followed by the Queens Theatre in 1845.

Some of the early theatre ventures were short-lived, but the spark ignited by Barnett Levey, by 1850, was inextinguishable.  


Circus was introduced to Australia in 1841 at Joseph Wyatt's Royal Victoria Theatre by Luigi Dalle Casse, a gymnast, equestrian and "specialist in living statues". The following year, Signor Dalle Casse opened the first arena theatre, the Australian Olympic, in Sydney, a venture which lasted for only three months. A more successful enterprise was begun in Launceston by hotel proprietor, Robert Radford, whose Royal Circus (Radford's Royal Circus) opened in 1847. It was here that two men who were to make a lifetime contribution to the development of the colonial circus made their first appearances on Australian soil - John Henry Ashton and John Jones [later St Leon].

Musical life

The early musical life in the colonies mainly found expression in the military ceremony, social ball and parlour. In 1826, Barnett Levey and others had formed the Sydney Amateur Concert Society which presented 8 variety concerts during the year. And later, the Theatre Royal offered employment to musicians as well as actors.

One of those serving in the pit of the Royal was John Phillip Deane, manager of the first Theatre Royal in Hobart. Deane had arrived in Van Diemen's Land in 1822. There he had established a livelihood as merchant, hotel proprietor and auctioneer and, from 1825, had been involved in the musical life of the town as a teacher, church organist and concert promoter. When his business failed, he moved his family to Sydney in search of better financial rewards for his musical talent. Deane is credited with introducing chamber music to Australian audiences in 1836. Of his seven children, four were musicians and continued to be involved in performance and teaching after Deane's death in 1849.  


The printing press which arrived with the First Fleet was first operated by convict George Hughes, who was employed to produce government orders, broadsides and several playbills from 1796. It was Hughes who issued the earliest surviving playbill in Australia - publicising a performance of The Recruiting Officer at Sidaway's theatre in 1800.

Hughes was replaced as government printer by another convict, George Howe, who in 1802 published the first book in the colony, New South Wales Standing Orders.  In 1803, he published the first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser and, 16 years later, the first literary work, The First Fruits of Australian Verse, by Judge Barron Field. Howe's sons, Robert and George Terry, continued their father's work in Sydney and Van Diemen's Land. Robert was responsible for the first periodical to appear in Australia, The Australian Magazine; or Companion of Religion, Literature and Miscellaneous Intelligence, and in 1826, Wild Notes from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel, the first books of poems by an Australian-born poet, Charles Thompson.

Early publishing in Australia was sporadic and for more than one hundred years depended on the interest and publishing enterprise of local booksellers. James and Samuel Tegg were prominent between 1835 and 1847 and, in their stock, was a work which they no doubt believed would not only sell but would provide other benefits to the colonial population - Manual for Intellectual Improvement, Volume One.

       Next section  The Crown of Wattle 1851-1900   



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