John F Sheridan

  • Little Wunder: The story of the Palace Theatre, Sydney (Part 9)

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    ELISABETH KUMM continues her forensic look at the history of Sydney’s Palace Theatre. Part 9 focusses on the year 1908, which sees a ‘mixed bag’ of entertainment occupying the theatre’s stage, from boxing matches to magicians, as well as the final Sydney appearances of J.F. Sheridan and Frank Thornton, and a world premiere—the sensational Australian drama The Miner’s Trust.

    Following the departure of Carter, the Great Magician on 6 December 1907, the Sydney Muffs returned for a brief season from 16 December to 20 December 1907, presenting three plays: Rob Roy, The New Boy and A Village Priest.

    Boxing Day saw the first appearance of Irish-American comedian J.F. Sheridan at the Palace. Playgoers were well-acquainted with Sheridan’s special brand of comedy. Since his first trip in 1884, he had been a regular visitor to these shores. Sheridan’s speciality was ‘travestie’ roles, which is to say he played female characters, typically buxom Irish widows!

    The attraction at the Palace was Cinderella, a Christmas pantomime devised by J.F. Sheridan and Fred W. Weierter, with topical allusions by journalist Pat Finn (son of Edmund Finn, who as ‘Garryowen’ wrote Chronicles of Early Melbourne). Presented in association with William Anderson, this work had already been seen in Perth, Fremantle and Adelaide during the Christmas/New Year period 1906/07, though it seems it had its first outing back in 1902.1

    Naturally, Sheridan played the Baroness. Other roles were performed by Heba Barlow (Cinderella), Stella Selbourne (Prince Charming), Marie Eaton (Dandini), along with Olive Sinclair as the Fairy Queen, Miss Roland Watts Phillips and Percy Denton as the Ugly Sisters, and Joseph Lamphier as the Baron. Sheridan was the undoubted star of the show, as noted in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 December 1907:

    Probably, when the memory of this year’s Cinderella has become obliterated, or confused with other versions, there will still remain one outstanding feature of artistic distinction, and that will be John F. Sheridan’s inexpressibly quaint and ridiculous portrait of the Baroness Bounder. On his entrance the comedian presents the severe simplicity of some antique spinster of uncertain age and horribly certain ugliness, in the dress of the Early Victorian era, with crinoline, lace collar and cuffs, and a chastely discreet exhibition of fowl-like, sinewy neck. Probably an ugliness less insistent would make this character even more telling than it is because its whole value consists in the marvellous way in which the actor always keeps within the bounds of lifelike femininity. It is a real study; and the Baroness singing ‘Will he answer, Goo-Goo?’ in a prim little voice, and with a daintily dished style of old-maidenly dancing, is a thing to be remembered.2

    The song, ‘Will he answer, Goo-Goo’ was published by Allan & Co., and the sheet music cover featured a portrait of Sheridan in his costume as the Baroness.3

    The pantomime was a riot of colour and movement. As the Australian Star noted, ‘With limited stage accommodation Messrs. William Anderson and John F. Sheridan have succeeded in putting on some wonderfully good spectacles with more than 100 performers on stage.’ One of the highlights was the Porcelain March. Other attractions included a Snow and Robin ballet, Sappho and Rainbow ballets, and an amusing routine entitled ‘five minutes on ice’ by American champion roller-skater Fred Norris.4

    Cinderellaran until 30 January 1908, and the following night, for one performance only, the company presented Fun on the Bristol, in which Sheridan played his most enduring character, that of the Widow O’Brien.

    Thereafter, the company took Cinderella to Newcastle, and then on to New Zealand. In October 1908, Sheridan returned to Sydney and was seen in a matinee benefit at the Tivoli in aid of the NSW Vaudeville Club, in what would be his last appearance in the city. Two months later, in Newcastle, about to open his Christmas season, he died of heart failure. He was 65.

    Thereafter a ‘mixed bag’ of tenants occupied the Palace stage.

    Following the departure of the Sheridan company, Spencer’s Theatrescope Co. returned for a six-week season of novelties, from 2 February to 27 March.

    From 28 March to 2 April, the NSW Sports Club Ltd presented amateur boxing and wrestling tournaments.

    On 3 April, the Bank of NSW Musical and Dramatic Society staged the A.W. Pinero comedy The Parvenu.

    Magic returned from 4 April to 27 May with the Maskelyne and Devant’s Mysteries. Though neither John Nevil Maskelyne nor David Devant was in the company, the tricks that they perfected at the Egyptian Hall in London formed the basis of the show. Magician and illusionist Owen Clark was the principal performer, supported by Gintaro, a Japanese juggler, with comedian Barclay Gammon at the piano. Clark proved to be an able and popular performer, though on opening night he upset the gallery boys who not being able to see the stage clearly due to a piece of stage apparatus blocking their view, shouted to Clark to have it raised. But not understanding their calls, an altercation ensued, and the management had to bring the curtain down while the problem was rectified.5

    12aDecorative program for the 1908 Australian and New Zealand tour of Edward Branscombe’s Scarlet Troubadours. Reed Gallery, Dunedin Public Libraries, New Zealand.

    On 30 May and the following week, the Scarlet Troubadours made their first appearance in Sydney, having already achieved success in Perth, Adelaide, and Melbourne. Described as a ‘costume concert company’, this troupe was under the direction of the enterprising concert promoter Edward Branscombe. He had visited Australia several times before, notably with the Westminster Glee Party in 1903. Branscombe would go on to establish The Dandies, individual troupes of performers distinguished by the colour of their costumes—Red Dandies, Green Dandies, Pink Dandies, etc. During the summer months, these troupes performed throughout Branscombe’s network of open-air theatres.

    6894408208 8fec1510ff oThe Scarlet Troubadours, 1908. Maude Fane is second from the left in the middle row. HAT Archive.

    The line-up of the Scarlet Troubadours comprised eight performers. One of the ladies in particular, Maude Fane, would go on to enjoy a successful career in musical comedy with JCW. She was described as ‘a discovery of Mr. Branscombe … gifted with a soprano of unusual clearness and sparkle’.6

    Then on 6 June, West’s Pictures settled in, presenting the ‘latest novelties and surprises in cinematography’, accompanied by De Groen’s Vice-Regal Band.

    From 31 August, McMahon and Carroll commenced a four-week season of films.

    Finally on 5 September, comedy returned to the Palace when Frank Thornton commenced a four-week farewell season, presenting revivals of his two most popular plays: The Private Secretary (in which he played the hapless cleric the Reverend Spalding) and Charley’s Aunt (where he excelled as Lord Fancourt Babberley, aka Donna Lucia, the Aunt from Brazil—‘where the nuts come from’!). Thornton was supported by an ‘all new’ company that included Templer Powell, Charles Stone, Belle Donaldson, Clare Manifield and Harriet Trench.

    Like Sheridan, Thornton had been a regular visitor to Australia, making six tours between 1885 and 1909. Thornton made his final bow before a Sydney audience on 9 October, the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 October 1908, reporting:

    Laughter reigned supreme, however, until the very end, when, in a touching and dignified speech of farewell, Mr. Thornton revealed to a surprised and regretful audience his resolution to retire from the stage. In doing this he remarked that his heart was too full on that occasion of long leave-taking to do justice either to himself or them … He was now terminating his sixth return to the country he had learned to love so well.7

    Thornton concluded his tour with appearances in Brisbane and Melbourne, and on his return to England, true to his word, he settled into quiet retirement. He died in 1918, aged 73.

    Saturday, 10 October 1908 saw the return of Meynell and Gunn’s Dramatic Company. During the following five weeks they presented two plays: Two Little Sailor Boysand A Miner’s Trust.

    Two Little Sailor Boys, a drama by Walter Howard, the author of the highly successful The Midnight Wedding, was being presented for the first time in Sydney. The title characters were played by Louise Carbasse and Maisie Maxwell, though it seems they did not make an appearance until the last act. The real focus of the drama was the ‘handsome adventuress’ Lola (played by Lilian Meyers), described as an ‘utterly callous fortune hunter’. She is the mother of one of the sailor boys, Tom Yorke, who almost drowns when she pushes him into a swirling river, only to be saved by Cyril Grey, the other sailor boy of the title.

    Sydney-born Louise Carbasse, who played the role of Cyril, would go on to have a successful career as Louise Lovely appearing in some fifty Hollywood movies between 1915 and 1924.

    Other roles were played by Conway Wingfield, Maud Chetwynd and Lorna Forbes.

    Three weeks later, on 31 October, the same company presented A Miner’s Trust by Jo Smith, ‘for the first time on any stage’. A former Melbourne businessman, Smith would go on to have further success with The Bushwoman (1909) and The Girl of the Never-Never (1912). With respect to ‘home-grown’ talent, Anderson was one of the few managers who was prepared to back Australian plays. This new piece, which was having its ‘world premiere’, was set in part on the Australian goldfields in the early days. The melodramatic plot concerns two miners, Alan Trengrove (Conway Wingfield) and Jack Howard (Wentworth Watkins), who having amassed considerable fortunes are returning to England after ten years in Australia. The two men are similar in appearance—and when Howard is murdered en route for home, Trengarth takes his place; not for any sinister reason, but to save Howard’s blind sweetheart, Alice Medway (Lorna Forbes), from certain shock should she learn the truth about the death of her fiancé! But the hero faces numerous dilemmas, when among other things, he falls in love with Alice’s sister Ida (Lilian Meyers) and having changed his name learns that as himself he has been left a fortune following the death of his uncle. A Miner’s Trust played until 13 November.

    The Prince ChapAdvertising postcard for The Prince Chap, Criterion Theatre, London, 1906. Author's collection.

    The following evening, H.R. Roberts (under the management of Harold Ashton and Allan Hamilton) made his debut at the Palace. This New Zealand-born actor, well-known in Sydney, was making his reappearance in Australia after nine years abroad. Roberts’ opening play was The Prince Chap, a comedy-drama by Edward Peple, based on Peple’s 1904 novel of the same name. This was the first Sydney production; the play having already been seen in Christchurch on 1 June 1908 and in Melbourne on 15 August 1908.

    When The Prince Chap was premiered in New York at Madison Square Theatre in September 1905, the principal role of William Peyton was created by Cyril Scott. Roberts, however, played the role in London, when it received its British opening at the Criterion Theatre on 16 July 1906. Other players in the company included Hilda Trevelyan, Sam Sothern, Lilias Waldegrave, Janet Alexander and A.E. Greenaway.

    Peple was taken by H.R. Roberts portrayal of William Payton. Quoting a letter from Peple to Roberts, the Daily Telegraph recorded:

    It is rather a remarkable coincidence that, in writing both the play and the novel, I should have described the leading character as a man whose personality and temperament are so eminently in accord with your own; and indeed, had I called upon you originally as a model for the man himself, I could not have been more accurate in portraying the spirit and individuality of my hero.8

    Set in London, it tells the story of a young sculptor whose loses the affections of his sweetheart when, after seeing him with a young girl, mistakenly believes he is the father. The girl, Claudia, is the daughter of one of his models (who in the play’s prologue, asks William to look after her daughter, before dramatically dying in his arms)—and he raises her as his own. The play spans some thirteen years, and when the final curtain falls, Peyton, now a successful artist, realises that he is in love with Claudia, who is now a young woman. The play’s three acts are subtitled: The Child (Act 1), The Girl (Act 2) and The Little Woman (Act 3), and to represent Claudia at each of these times, she is played by three different actresses.

    In Australia, Claudia was played by Vera Huggett (Act 1), Beryl Yates (Act 2) and Justina Wayne (Act 3). Australian actor A.E. Greenaway reprised his London role of the Earl of Henningford, while other newcomers included Frank Lamb (Marcus Runion) and Mary Keogh (Phoebe Puckers), with Vera Remee as Alice Travers (Peyton’s former sweetheart).

    The play was enthusiastically received, but due to the short season it only played for a fortnight. On 28 November, the company produced A Message from Mars. This play had been seen at the Palace back in 1901 with the Hawtrey Comedy Company. In this current revival, Roberts played Horace Parker, with A.E. Greenaway as the Messenger from Mars, and Fanny Erris as Minnie Templar.

    Six nights later, Maggie Moore joined the company. She was reappearing after an absence of six years. Her last Sydney season had been at the Palace in June 1903. Maggie and Roberts, who had been performing together since the early 1890s, had ‘tied the knot’ in New York in April 1902. Maggie had first come to Australia in the mid-1870s with her then husband J.C. Williamson, but the two had separated by 1891, finally divorcing in 1899.9

    On Saturday, 5 December 1908, Maggie joined her husband in a revival of Struck Oil, a play they had performed in together on many occasions, though it was Maggie and Williamson who had first created the characters of Lizzie Stofel and her father John Stofel back in the 1870s. In this current revival, Maggie introduced two new songs: ‘Dixie and the Girl I Love’ and ‘I’ll Be Waiting, Dearie, When You Come Back Home’.

    Struck Oil held the stage until 24 December. On Boxing Day, Edwin Geach took over the theatre, presenting two shows daily: the Christmas pantomime Robinson Crusoeat 2pm and the drama The Woman Paysin the evening.

    Robinson Crusoe, with libretto and score by Fred W. Weierter, featured an ‘all-juvenile’ cast headed by Louie Crawshaw (Robinson Crusoe), Florrie Johnson (Polly Perkins) and Walter Cornock (Will Atkins). The piece had been seen in Sydney the previous Christmas when it was staged at William Anderson’s Wonderland City, transferring to the Oxford Theatre in George Street in mid-January.

    The pantomime was a hit: ‘the pretty little playhouse was packed with parents and their children, and a capital entertainment on a modest scale at popular prices was given by a great troupe of well-trained juveniles’.10

    The evening show was in compete contrast. Written by Frank M. Thorne, The Woman Payswas a sensation drama in which ‘Thrilling incidents follow one another in quick succession, and the action of the drama is worked out in melodramatic fashion’, including a spectacular waterfall scene and a shipwreck. ‘The old story of man’s inhumanity to woman, and of the woman’s revenge’, the central characters were played by Nellie Fergusson (Madge Threadgold), Kenneth Hunter (Sid. Armstrong), Jefferson Taite (Roger Marchant), and Ethel Buckley (Polly Stokes).11 Having had its UK premiere in Gateshead in 1907, the piece was being performed in Sydney for the first time, the company having given the Australian premiere at the Victoria Theatre, Newcastle, on 8 September 1908, and it had been produced in Melbourne the following month.

    At the Palace, The Woman Pays attracted crowded houses, but due to the brevity of the season, it was withdrawn on 8 January 1909 and replaced by the ‘the most popular drama of the century’, East Lynne, with Nellie Fergusson in the dual role of Lady Isabel and Madam Vine. It played for six nights—and on 15 January 1909, both it and Robinson Crusoe were performed for the last times. 

    To be continued



    1. See

    2. Sydney Morning Herald, 27 December 1907, p.6


    4. Australian Star, 19 December 1907, p.8

    5. Magical Nights at the Theatre, pp. 145-146

    6. Bulletin, 28 May 1908, p.9

    7. Sydney Morning Herald, 10 October 1908, p.16

    8. Daily Telegraph, 18 April 1908, p.17

    9. See Leann Richards, How Mrs J C Williamson Struck Oil | Stage Whispers

    10. Sydney Morning Herald, 28 December 1908, p.3

    11. Sydney Morning Herald, 28 December 1908, p.3


    Eric Irvin, Australian Melodrama: Eighty years of popular theatre, Hale & Iremonger, 1981

    Allardyce Nicoll, English Drama 1900–1930: The beginnings of the modern period, Cambridge University Press, 1973

    Peter Sumner, Australian Theatrical Posters 18251914, Josef Lebovic Gallery, 1988

    J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 19001909: A calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 2nd edition, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014


    The Australian Star (Sydney), The Bulletin (Sydney), The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), The Gadfly (Adelaide), The Referee (Sydney), The Sphere (London), Sydney Mail, The Sydney Morning Herald, Town and Country Journal (Sydney)



    Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

    HAT Archive

    National Library of Australia, Canberra

    Powerhouse Collection, Sydney

    Reed Gallery, Dunedin Public Libraries, New Zealand

    State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

    State Library Victoria, Melbourne

    With thanks to

    John S. Clark, Judy Leech, Rob Morrison

  • SHERIDAN, John F. (1848-1908)

    American actor. Born 7 October 1843, Rhode Island, USA. Married (1) Alecia Jourdain (male impersonator), (2) May Livingstone (actress), (3) Gracie Whiteford (actress). Died 25 December 1908, Newcastle, NSW, Australia.

    On stage in England, India, USA, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Popular comedian best remembered for playing the Widow O’Brien in Fun on the Bristol.

    Riley/Hailes Scrapbook, page 65.