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Paper no 4 Part 2









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By Paul Bentley
October 1999

The Crown of Wattle, 1851-1900

The population increased dramatically from the 1830s. Assisted immigration schemes, unemployment, urban overcrowding and poverty in Britain, and land opportunities in Australia, encouraged free settlement to compete with transportation and, by 1850, the population stood at about 400,000. The discovery of gold increased the momentum.

The rapid influx of people brought social changes. The cities became larger and more cosmopolitan. The population reached further into country areas. There were changes in education, discrimination and taste, changes in social and intellectual expectations. A wealthier population had more disposable time and money for the enjoyment of literature and entertainment.

Theatre expanded rapidly and gained respectability. Between 1850 and 1900, 60 new theatres opened in the capital cities, 40 of them in Sydney and Melbourne. Melbourne became the theatre capital of Australia.

This post gold rush expansion was driven along chiefly by young English immigrant actors, whose enterprise and determination moulded them into formidable Australian actor-managers.  


George Coppin (1819-1906), a comic actor, selected Australia over America as his land of opportunity on the toss of a coin. He arrived in Sydney on 10 March 1843, exploring theatre and other business interests in Sydney, Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne and Adelaide with fluctuating success. Financial difficulties in Adelaide led him to the Geelong goldfields, where he retrieved his position, entertaining the miners. After paying his debts in Adelaide, he returned to England, where he engaged the tragedian G.V. Brooke for a tour of Australia. Brooke opened at the Queen's Theatre, Melbourne, with a triumphant season of Othello in 1855. 

Briefly in partnership with Brooke, Coppin expanded his control of Melbourne theatres, and for the rest of the century played a vital role in Australian theatrical life as theatre owner, manager, entrepreneur and actor, often in competition with his political commitments as a member of the Victorian Parliament between 1858 and 1895. His theatrical career is highlighted by his use of celebrity imports, notably the American actor Joseph Jefferson in 1862, Charles and Ellen Kean in 1863, and, in 1874, J.C. Williamson and Maggie Moore.

Other English immigrants - notably George Darrell (1841-1921), Alfred Dampier (1847-1908) and Bland Holt (1853-1941) - achieved popularity as masters of melodrama, using spectacular and unusual theatrical effects. George Darrell's adaptation of The Double Event included the running of the Melbourne Cup, featuring 20 thoroughbred horses ridden by professional jockeys. Bland Holt's production of Riding to Win featured a fast and furious bicycle race and a real dog which rescued a drowning murder victim from the Yarra River (a hidden water tank).

But it was an American immigrant who made the biggest impact of all.

After his triumphant tour of Australia for George Coppin in 1874, J.C. Williamson returned in 1879 and three years later established a theatre enterprise which dwarfed all others for almost a century.

While the big entrepreneurs made their fortunes in the capital cities, touring companies - local and foreign - explored the growing country markets, often under very primitive conditions. These included men like Dan Barry, described by J. C. Williamson as "the worst actor and best showman in Australia". The Dramatic Year Book of 1891 provided advice to English managements on the routes and viability of places like Albury, Wagga Wagga, Goulburn, Newcastle, Maitland, Tamworth, Ipswich, Toowoomba, Windsor, Bathurst, Young, Hay, Echuca, Sandhurst, Castlemaine, Kynston, Daylesford, Creswick, Ballarat, Geelong, Colac, Warrnambool, Port Fairy, Portland, Hamilton, Ararat, Stawell, Horsham, Broken Hill and many towns in between.  


These were also the paths of the itinerant circuses which traversed the eastern states in search of modest financial returns - among them the circus of Henry Burton and the Ashton and St Leon families and, towards the end of the century, the Perry, Wirth and Fitzgerald families. American circuses - "the Yankee big shows" - appeared intermittently between 1851 and 1892, mainly in the capital cities, including J.S.Noble, J.A.Rowe, Chiarini's Royal Italian Circus and Cooper & Bailey, the forerunner of Barnum and Bailey.

During this period, the circus evolved from the essentially equestrian and gymnastic displays of the mid-nineteenth century to include clowning and more versatile forms of acrobatics, trapeze acts in 1865, and wild animals in 1882. Brass bands were a feature from the mid-1850.

Among the wandering musicians to find employment under the big top were three Bavarian brothers, Joachim, Johannes and Peter Wirth. They performed at goldfields, dance halls, races, agricultural shows and the occasional circus during the late 1850s and 1860s before Joachim and his sons, John, Harry, Philip and George, joined Ashton's. After Joachim died, his sons formed their own circus in 1882 and quickly overtook St Leon's as the premier Australian circus of the 1880s. In 1893, with the depression casting its shadow, Wirth's travelled to South Africa in search of financial reward - the beginning of a seven year tour round the world, leaving Fitzgerald's as the leading circus at home.  


Brass band musicianship spread rapidly in the second half of. the 19th century. Apart from professional opportunities provided by the circuses, this amateur strand in Australian music making developed from British and German influences, particularly in mining districts, and from the Salvation Army movement which reached Australia in 1880. British and German influences were also important in the development of the choral societies which were formed from the 1850s onwards. However, music very much revolved round the piano in the home: "it had become a sort of sacred object, symbolic either of what the colonists had left behind or of the hopes they had for the future." 4 Sales of both pianos and sheet music were high.


Opera had been performed in Australia as early as 1796 and there were performances occasionally throughout the 1830s and 1840s. George Coppin had organised a season in Melbourne in 1856. But, with the arrival of W.S. Lyster and his company in 1861, regular seasons of a high standard were held until Lyster's death in 1880. Indeed, the Lyster years have been described as a golden age in Australian opera.


For Australian authors, newspapers and periodicals of a high quality provided the main avenue for publication of their literary efforts. Booksellers also took a greater interest in publication of Australian literature, notably George Robertson (1825-1898), a Scottish immigrant with bookshops in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane and London. Robertson, described by George Ferguson as "the true father of Australian publishing", published about 600 titles, including the works of local authors Adam Lindsey Gordon (1833-1870), Henry Kingsley (1830-1876), Marcus Clarke (1846-1881) and Rolfe Boldrewood (1826-1915).

Although Australians had, by the 1880s, established a reputation as avid readers and buyers of books, there was still little demand for local literature and it was impossible for local authors to make a living from writing. Publications were subsidised either by the author or the publisher.

This situation was challenged in the 1880 when J.F.Archibald (1856-1919) published the first issue of The Bulletin, which became a stimulant to the Australian literary endeavours and Australian nationalism and a creator of a local market as it introduced Australians to the works of A. B. Paterson (18641941), Henry Lawson (1867-1922), James Furphy (1843-1912), and Bernard O'Dowd (1866-1953), among others. In 1888, the firm of booksellers, Angus and Robertson, published its first work, A Crown of Wattle, and in 1895, Paterson's The Man from Snowy River. Regular publishing of Australian literary works had begun

Next Section Strike Me Lucky! 1901-1950




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