April 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Selth Coppin, actor, theatre owner and entrepreneur. Simon Plant pays tribute to a man whose contribution to this country’s advancement stretched beyond just things theatrical.
George Selth Coppin—actor and impresario, parliamentarian and philanthropist—was always chasing the next best thing. A new act, a new speculation. Something to entertain and amuse colonial audiences who expected nothing less from the man they dubbed ‘The Father of Australian Theatre’.
One day in March 1865, in New York City, forty-five-year-old Coppin found himself sitting still in front of a camera at Charles D. Fredericks’ Photographic Temple of Art.
This palatial establishment on Broadway was the biggest, most stylish photographic studio in Gotham and specialised in portraiture, producing small albumen prints mounted on card—known as a carte-de-visite—which could be pressed into albums.
Coppin, who had arrived on America’s West Coast three months earlier, had already left some of his plain calling cards at theatres he hoped might host a season of Shakespeare starring the eminent British tragedians Charles Kean and Ellen Kean. But this industrious English-born entrepreneur faced an uphill battle. These were the dying days of America’s terrible Civil War. England was unpopular, seen to have sympathised with the soon to be defeated South. And Broadway theatre managers were prospering with all-American stars such as Edwin Booth (playing one hundred nights of Hamlet at the Winter Garden).
In the Colony of Victoria, his adopted home since the early 1850s, Coppin was a household name. One of the most prominent men in the burgeoning city of Melbourne. Friends and enemies alike referred to him as ‘The Artful Dodger’ because of his numerous enterprises in and out of the theatre world. But in New York, he was just another showman hustling for business. So, on his second or third day in America’s show business capital, Coppin was ready for his close-up.
George Coppin, New York, 1865. Photo by Charles D. Fredericks.
George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS8827/13/217
Portrait of Charles and Ellen Kean, New York, 1865. Photo by Matthew B. Brady.
State Library of Victoria, H31489
The Fredericks studio—favoured by American Presidents, Generals and eminent actors—was renowned for capturing not just the look of a person but the very essence of their character. Coppin’s portrait, taken slightly side on, suggests a strong personality. A stocky block of a man whose partially unbuttoned waistcoat strains to contain an expanding waistline. The camera lens accentuates all the positives: Coppin’s high domed forehead and squarish jaw, full lips and penetrating gaze. But there are deep bags under those arresting eyes. Having been on the road with the Keans for more than six months, Coppin was fatigued and anxious about finding a suitable theatre in Manhattan. His ‘old enemy’, gout, was also giving him hell.
‘Your poor old hubby is having a great deal of knocking about,’ he confessed in a letter home to his young wife Lucy Hilsden. ‘Since I left you (in October, 1864) I have travelled ... 17,821 miles.'
But Coppin’s journey up and down America’s East Coast had only just begun.
Indeed, after the Fredericks photograph was taken and pressed into a Biblical looking album of carte-de-visite celebrity portraits, he had another 40 years of busy public life in front of him: a period during which he won a seat in Victoria’s Parliament, established Old Colonists’ cottages for retired actors, set up a post office savings bank, helped form the St John Ambulance and bankrolled the seaside resort of Sorrento. All this in between managing Melbourne’s Theatre Royal, staging lavish pantomimes, importing stars (such as the American duo James Cassius Williamson and Maggie Moore) and giving numerous ‘farewell performances’.
Coppin’s life in Australia was no less frantic in the 20 years before his North American adventure. Within a fortnight of arriving in Sydney in March 1843, in the company of an older actress (Maria Watkins Burroughs), this young gun was ‘on the boards’ and winning plaudits for his ‘low comedy’ characters.
Coppin’s sly alter egos—Paul Pry, the meddlesome snoop, Jem Baggs, the vagabond fiddler, Billy Barlow, the salty yarn spinner—would be staple parts of his comic repertoire for decades to come.
His biographer Alec Bagot writes: ‘Coppin knew the pieces in which he excelled ... characters that demanded the best of the comedians’ art.’
Successful seasons followed in Van Diemen’s Land, the Port Phillip District and South Australia. By 1848, the year Maria died, Coppin was a resourceful manager as well, with theatrical and hotel holdings in Adelaide—not to mention a few racehorses.
An ‘incurable gambler’, to quote author Hal Porter’s description of him, Coppin’s good fortune was invariably followed by adversity. In the early 1850s, he invested in copper when everyone else was chasing gold. Then, trekking out to the diggings himself, he struck nothing but trouble and trudged home ‘without sixpence in his pocket’.
George Coppin (in top hat) in the bar of one of his many theatres, c. 1860, possibly the Crystal Bar at Cremorne Gardens. Copy of 1860s' photo by Talma, c. 1900.
Coppin Collection, National Library of Australia, PIC Box P863 #P863/17
Facing insolvency, Coppin bounced back by entertaining the miners. Comedies and concerts, melodrama and opera ... everything was grist to his mill as the manager of two theatres in Geelong. By 1855, Coppin had repaid creditors and was ready to unveil his biggest ‘amusement’ yet: a five thousand pound prefabricated theatre for Melbourne, imported from Manchester.
The Olympic, or ‘Iron Pot’ as it was nicknamed, was located in the heart of the city and hosted a hugely popular season of plays starring the acclaimed English Shakespearean actor Gustavus Vaughan Brooke. Emboldened by their success, Coppin and Brooke went into business together, adding the Theatre Royal, Astley’s Amphitheatre and Richmond’s Cremorne Gardens to their property portfolio.
Cremorne Gardens—on the banks of the Yarra near the Punt Road crossing—was the jewel in the crown. Purchased by Coppin and Brooke in 1856, this amusement park and pleasure garden boasted an open air theatre (Pantheon) and bandstand, sideshows and shooting galleries and spectacular pyrotechnic representations of Vesuvius erupting.
Cremorne was also the site of ‘instructive novelties‘, most notably the first balloon ascent in Australia. Coppin ran it all with clicking efficiency but his enthusiasm for entertainment waned as a life in politics beckoned. First as a Richmond councillor, then as a Member of the Victorian Legislative Council.
‘My part as an actor is played out,’ he declared in June 1858. Three years later, Coppin was compelled to ‘resume the active duties of my [theatre] profession’ due to ‘a series of unforeseen financial misfortunes’.
Not only had Coppin’s partnership with Brooke dissolved. He had also invested unwisely in suburban railways. As Bagot observed: ‘Coppin, apprenticed to the stage since birth, was forever trying to leave it but always, by force of circumstance, compelled to return’.
George Coppin, aged 6, playing the overture to Lodoiska, 1825.
State Library of Victoria, H39751
George Coppin, 1849. Drawing by S.T. Gill.
State Library of South Australia, B 341
Born to a family of strolling players in Sussex, in 1819, young George was just six when he made his first stage appearance playing a ‘cuckoo solo’ on the violin. A sketch made at the time depicts him holding a fiddle half as big as himself but Bagot observes this ‘tubby little lad’ looks ‘preternaturally serious ... if not a prodigy, at any rate a boy of exceptional precocity’.
On the road with his parents, Coppin learnt the mechanics of his profession. He absorbed its language, customs and superstitions along with the air he breathed. But unlike his father, the rebellious son of a clergyman, he was not content to be a busker touting at taverns.
Impatient and fired with energy, Coppin struck out on his own as an itinerant actor and secured ‘low comedy’ spots with touring companies. Larger character roles followed in plays including Polonius in a production of Hamlet starring a young Charles Kean. Coppin’s intimate association with Burroughs was forged on a stage in Ireland and together, the pair decided to ‘elope’ to Australia in late 1842.
Coppin quickly connected with colonial audiences. Sociable and at ease among ordinary folk, especially if a round of sherry and bitters was being served, he had an instinctive feel for popular taste. His characters were, for the most part, common men. And disguised as Billy Barlow, an apparently daft but shrewd commentator, Coppin was able to make topical allusions on stage that would have been considered litigious if pronounced in the public domain.
His voice, sometimes raspy, had great carrying power while his gift for mimicry knew no bounds.
‘He parodies everyone,’ one observer marvelled. Coppin’s burlesque imitation of Lola Montez’ famous ‘Spider Dance’ was so accurate, writes Bagot, it was ‘only saved from a charge of vulgarity by the side splitting roars of laughter it provoked’.
He stood barely five foot six but barrel-chested Coppin gave the impression of greater size. Especially when he threw punches, turned somersaults and slapped his stomach like a bass drum.
Mme Céleste de Chabrillan, wife of the first French consular agent in Melbourne, noticed how ‘the audience adores him [Coppin], they applaud with all their might,’ and was enchanted by his habit of going down to the bar at interval.
‘He keeps his stage costume on while serving his customers,’ she wrote. ‘He’s director, artist, wine merchant and waiter all in one’.
Even his toughest critics admired Coppin’s ability to ‘lose himself’ in another character. Five vignettes of him in ‘various costumes’, photographed in 1864, shows just how transformative he could be.
Coppin as Paul Pry, 1860s.
George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827
Five vignettes of Coppin in various costumes, c. 1864. Photo by A. McDonald, Melbourne.
State Library of Victoria, H9470
Behind the scenes, Coppin was a dedicated, if unconventional, family man. Marrying Harriet Hilsden (Brooke’s sister in law) in August 1855, he domesticated Cremorne—planting it out with mazes, shrubs and ferns—and enjoyed coming home late, in his carriage, and finding supper ready for him, ‘kettle steaming on the hob’.
The marriage was short-lived. Giving birth to their third child, Harriet died in 1859. Eighteen months later, in a move that raised many eyebrows, Coppin married his 17-year-old stepdaughter Lucy.
‘Neither of the contracting parties was perturbed,’ writes Bagot, ‘least of all the bridegroom to whom matrimony was no new venture’.
This time, Coppin was rarely at home. Losing control of the Theatre Royal, and unable to discharge his debts, he was compelled to tour the gold fields and New Zealand.
Breaking with Brooke, who returned to England, Coppin claimed to have ‘always lost money by Shakespeare without a first class star’.
In 1862, Coppin found the stars he needed to stave off insolvency: Charles and Ellen Kean. They were British theatre royalty, renowned for expensive, historically accurate productions of the Bard, and their appearances at Coppin’s new Haymarket Theatre drew appreciative audiences.
The Kean’s grand tour of the Australian colonies lasted nine months. Pressing on to California, the Midwest and New England, again under Coppin’s management, they made a small fortune. Coppin prospered, too, returning to Melbourne in early 1866 with new ‘speculations’ ranging from soda water fountains to roller skates. As always, his mind moved by flashes and whims, some enterprises paying off (his roller-skate rink, the first in Australia, was a big hit), others not.
Coppin’s resilience was legendary. When his Theatre Royal burned down in 1872, uninsured, he promptly built another one. Another source of income to stand him in good stead was his copyright agency. It was badly needed in the 1880s, when Coppin’s ambitious promotion of Sorrento as a tourist destination swallowed vast sums.
Worse still was the ‘bank crash’ of the 1890s. Coppin, ‘greatly aggravated by mental anxiety’ over his finances, was only saved from insolvency by box office receipts at his happily revived Theatre Royal.
Portrait of George Coppin by Tom Roberts,
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2003.212
George Coppin in his garden at Pine Grove, c. 1905. Photo by J.P. Lind.
Views of Pine Grove, Coppin Papers,
State Library of Victoria, MS 8827
This indefatigable showman kept making ‘farewell appearances’ until 1901, when the effects of advanced age—and gout—confined him largely to his beloved Richmond home ‘Pine Grove’. Photographs taken around the turn of the century show him enjoying the garden but Tom Roberts’ 1895 portrait of him is more illuminating.
Here is the legend caught unawares, shifting his considerable weight in a chair and looking ruddy cheeked. Coppin’s receding hair is almost frosted white but there’s a jaunty air about him, a twinkle in those blue eyes.
Taken ill at Sorrento, Coppin took his final bow in Richmond on 14 March 1906.
How great was ‘Coppin the Great’? Other entrepreneurs made their mark on colonial Australia—Henry Deering and Bland Holt, George Darrell and J.C. Williamson to name a few—but having his hand in so many amusements in so many places over so many years, Coppin is the undisputed colossus. The pre-eminent entertainment figure in the second half of the nineteenth century.
It could be argued that this self-made man stretched himself too thin, that he might have achieved even more in the theatre world had he not kept chasing ‘respectability’ in the political sphere. But Coppin’s roller coaster career—a series of advances, retreats and comebacks—was part of his enduring appeal with Australians, magnifying his fame while pointing up his human qualities.
Coppin’s own comic performances spanned the reign of Queen Victoria, an astonishing feat and a tribute to his prodigious energy. He was by no means the most innovative actor of his day—familiar character types were his forte—but down the decades, as an impresario, he was never afraid to embrace the new and the novel.
On the 200th anniversary of his birth, perhaps it is Coppin’s role as ringmaster that stands as his greatest legacy. He opened up spaces for performances by others—bellringers and minstrels, conjurors and Shakespearean actors—and the parade of tricks and marvels he orchestrated over 60 crowded years hugely enriched Australia’s popular culture.
Late in life, Coppin delighted in telling friends how his 1840s journey from England to the Antipodes was decided on the flip of a coin. It was heads America, he said, and tails Australia.
‘Fortunately for the colonies—and myself—Australia won!’
Alec Bagot, Coppin the Great, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1965
Brian Carroll, Australian Stage Album, Macmillan, Sydney, 1976
Manning Clark, A History of Australia: IV The Earth Abideth Forever 1851-1888, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1978
George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827
Sarah Engledow, ‘The Multifarious Career of George Selth Coppin’, Portrait 13, Spring 2004,
https://www.portrait.gov.au/magazines/13/the-multifarious-career-of-george-selth-coppin (accessed 11 March 2019)
Kate Flaherty and Edel Lamb, ‘The 1863 Melbourne Shakespeare War: Barry Sullivan, Charles and Ellen Kean, and the play of cultural usurpation on the Australian stage’, Australian Studies, vol. 4, 2012, pp. 1–17
J.M. Hardwicke, Emigrant in Motley: the journey of Charles and Ellen Kean in quest of a theatrical fortune in Australia and America as told by their hitherto unpublished letters, Salisbury Square, London, 1954
John Kardross, A Brief History of the Australian Theatre, New Century Press, Sydney, 1955
Benjamin McArthur, The Man Who Was Rip Van Winkle: Joseph Jefferson and nineteenth century American theatre, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2007
Helen Musa, ‘George Coppin’, entry in Philip Parsons, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1995, pp. 161–162
Hal Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, Rigby, Adelaide, 1965
John Poynter, The Audacious Adventures of Dr Louis Lawrence Smith, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2014
Simon Plant, Acting Their Age: Kean and Sullivan playing for fame in the Southern Hemisphere, Viglione Press, Black Rock, VIC, 2017