The online magazine of Theatre Heritage Australia
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In light of a recent development application to expand Melbourne's Comedy Theatre  and construct a 25-story office tower at the rear of the site, it seems an opportune time to revisit RALPH MARSDEN’s history of the theatre. First published in On Stage in 2004, Part 1 looks at some of the early entertainment uses of the site, beginning in 1852 with Rowe’s American Circus.

The comedy’s long but broken entertainment history can be dated from 29 June 1852 when Joseph A. Rowe opened Rowe’s American Circus on this prominent corner. Arriving from California just as the first bounties of the gold-rush were flooding into Melbourne, Rowe is said to have made a fortune in the two years his circus stood here. Reputedly laden with cash and treasure, he returned to California in February 1854 and an advertisement in The Melbourne Morning Herald on the following 14 October by his wife Eliza, announced the closure of the circus and the auction of the buildings, horses and theatrical properties.

The circus was housed in a permanent wooden amphitheatre with seating in a dress circle, boxes and pit. After Rowe’s departure the building was occasionally used by concert artistes or minstrel troupes such as Rainer’s Ethiopian Serenaders. Shortly after this, the foundation stone for the first ‘legitimate’ theatre to be built here was laid on the corner of Lonsdale and Stephen (now Exhibition) Streets.

This theatre was made up almost entirely of cast iron. prefabricated in England and shipped out in individually numbered pieces for assembly on site. It was built for George Coppin, the energetic English born actor and entrepreneur who, when touring his homeland in 1854, had commissioned its design from Fox & Henderson of Birmingham and its fabrication from E. & T. Bellhouse of Manchester. Coppin had signed up the Irish tragedian Gustavus Vaughan Brooke to tour Australia and, according to Alec Bagot’s biography, Coppin the Great, although he considered Sydney’s theatres adequate for such an important engagement, he thought the Queen’s—at that time Melbourne’s only existing playhouse—‘a wretched hole’.

The foundation stone for the as yet unnamed theatre, which was laid by Brooke, with Coppin and other members of his company and the press in attendance on 18 April 1855, recorded that the architect for the building was C.H. Ohlfsen Bagge and the builders George Cornwell and Company. The theatre was eventually christened the Olympic in honour of Brooke who had had his first success as Othello at London’s Olympic theatre. Coppin’s competitors immediately derided it as ‘the Iron Pot’, however, the name by which it was soon popularly known.

Some six weeks after the cast iron components had arrived on site the Olympic was close enough to completion to be opened for the first public performance on 11 June 1855. This was by the Wizard Jacobs, ‘conjurer, ventriloquist, acrobat, rated as the world’s best one man entertainer’.

The Olympic, whose entrance faced into Lonsdale Street, was described thus in The Argus of 11 June 1855: ‘The iron walls are for the most part cased with brick …’ while the interior presented a ‘light and exceedingly elegant appearance … The arch of the proscenium is broad and flattened; it has a span of thirty-three feet … surmounting the proscenium is an elegant casting in papier mâché of the royal arms, and the arch is supported by six Corinthian pillars, the flutings and capitals of which, being gilded, have an exceedingly rich effect. The ceiling ... has been judiciously painted a blue white and spangled with gold stars.’

The decorations by William Pitt Sr (whose son later became the foremost Australian theatre architect of his day) were in green, pink and French white. Seating capacity was variously estimated at between 1150 and 1500 in pit, stalls, dress circle and a variety of boxes. What seems to be the sole surviving photograph of the Olympic’s exterior was taken by visiting English photographer Walter Woodbury about 1855 or 1856.

An ‘Old Playgoer’, reminiscing in The Australasian of 14 August 1886, recalled the Olympic as ‘hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Internally it resembled a chapel, with a rectangular gallery for a dress circle; and the adjacent bar was nearly half as large as the theatre itself. But it was the custom in those days for the greater portion of the male part of the audience to rush out for “refreshment” at the end of each act, and a nobbler of brandy was regarded as the cement of friendship.’

The official opening of the Olympic took place on 30 July 1855 when a proper stage had been installed for the first dramatic season. Despite torrential rain and the streets being ‘ankle-deep in mud’ the house was ‘crowded in every part’, according to The Age of 31 July. After a much applauded prologue declaimed by Brooke, there was a ‘renewal of the applause, and to vociferous calls for “Coppin”, who, however, did not make his appearance’, The Argus of the same date reported. Without further delay, the first act of the opening play, Bulwer Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons proceeded.

Brooke’s leading lady was 22-year-old Fanny Cathcart, who later became one of the most popular and versatile local players. She had signed an onerous two-year contract with Brooke in England, and her fiancé, English actor Robert Heir, was also a member of Brooke's company. Heir soon became dissatisfied with the secondary roles he was given, however, and persuaded his wife to beak her contract so that they could star together under the rival management of John Black at the Theatre Royal. Although a court case ensued which Cathcart lost, Brooke eventually agreed to alter her contract to more favourable terms and the couple returned to his company in October 1855.  

The Olympic was immediately thrown into direct competition with the Theatre Royal which had opened only two weeks earlier. When that management reduced admission prices Coppin was forced to do likewise, although he publicly admitted that by doing so he was running at a loss. Once, when Lola Montes was the rival attraction at the Royal, Coppin included a burlesque of her famous spider dance in his program: ‘after cavorting all over the stage in a ridiculous manner’, Coppin (according to Bagot), ‘withdrew from under an extremely scanty skirt an enormous animal resembling a spider’, and chased it across the boards. The people in the audience ‘literally rolled out of their seats with laughter... His imitation was a riot. saved from a charge of vulgarity only by the side-splitting roars of laughter it provoked.’

The partnership of Brooke, the brilliant tragedian, and Coppin, the popular comedian and shrewd showman, soon won over the majority of the audiences—even though the Royal was much bigger, more opulent and better placed. In spite of this hard won supremacy there was still unrelenting competition from too many theatres: the combined capacities of the Royal, the Olympic, Astley’s Amphitheatre and the Queen’s was close to 8000 people. In addition to these the Salle de Valentino, Cremorne Gardens, the Exhibition Building and numerous lesser halls and hotels all sapped a share of the potential audience from a population of only 70 000.

After tours of the goldfields and Tasmania, Brooke returned to the Olympic for a ‘farewell’ performance on 1 December 1855 and, prior to an announced departure for California, appeared before a crowded house. The departure was postponed however and Brooke was back for a fresh season on 28 January 1856 when he appeared as Brutus in Julius Caesar ‘for the first time in the colonies’. He also gave a first Australian performance of Henry V on 25 February. Brooke’s ‘most positively ... last appearance’ was on 26 April and for once, as far as the Olympic was concerned, this was true.

Coppin and Brooke had become business partners and early in June 1856 they took control of the Theatre Royal, left in charge of the Official Receiver after the bankruptcy of its owner, John Black. From this time on the Olympic went into a sudden, irreversible decline, opening only sporadically for imported players and concert and vaudeville artistes of (mostly) the second rank.

There was nothing second rate about Madame Anna Bishop however; apart from being the estranged wife of the English composer Sir Henry Bishop, she was an internationally renowned soprano and probably the most widely travelled and adventurous opera singer of her day. Madame Bishop began a month long series of concerts at the Olympic on 13 May 1856. Mr. and Mrs. James Stark, ‘celebrated American artistes’, starred in a month-long season of drama, beginning on 18 June in Richelieu. By 20 October, however, with Coppin and Brooke now firmly established at the Royal, the Olympic was housing such attractions as ‘The Siege of Sebastopol’, a ‘Grand Exhibition of Mechanical figures, Model Scenes and Theatre of Arts… for one week only’.

Anna Bishop returned for ‘one night only’ on 8 January 1857 and four nights later came the actress Marie Duret in a season of plays. Duret had once been Brooke’s mistress and according to his biographer, W.J. Lawrence, ‘after feathering her nest for years ... without a word of warning, she ran off to America…’ Duret was evidently a versatile actress with a penchant for male roles for she first appeared as the highwayman Jack Sheppard then as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. She also played ‘three different characters’ in A Duel in the Dark and The French Spy and essayed as many as eight parts in Winning a Husband. Appearing in two plays per night, on some nights Duret portrayed as many as eleven separate characters! Energy and versatility notwithstanding, her season, although originally announced for 24 nights, was terminated half way through and The Argus of 26 January noted that ‘Mademoiselle Duret has been playing … with very equivocal success ...’

It soon became clear that the Olympic was no longer viable as a theatre and, after the closure of a short-lived ‘Polytechnic Exhibition’, it was reopened on 11 May 1857 as ‘The Argyle Assembly Rooms’ for ‘Terpsichorean pastimes’. The building remained a dance hall until 30 November 1857 when it was briefly reopened as ‘Coppin’s Olympic’ for a return season by the Wizard Jacobs. Another minstrel troupe began a season there on 1 February 1858 but by 22 May it had been converted back to the ‘Argyle Rooms’ where a ‘Full Dress Ball’ was held two nights later.

A fresh novelty was advertised in the Melbourne press in November 1858: ‘Great Pedestrian Feat. 1000 miles in 1000 hours. Alan McKean who so successfully accomplished this trial of strength, endurance and perseverance at Ballaarat, will walk his first mile in Melbourne on Tuesday 23 November at Seven O’clock in the evening at the Olympic Theatre and terminate the undertaking (D.V.) 3rd January 1859. Hours of walking, a quarter before and one minute after each even hour. Tickets for the 1000 hours £1.1s.’

In February 1859 Coppin and Brooke dissolved their partnership and sole ownership of the Olympic reverted to Coppin. Bagot reasons that Coppin retained the Olympic (which cost £200 per week to run and was mostly running at a loss) in favour of the profit-making Royal on sentimental grounds: ‘the building was so much his own conception that no thought of relinquishing it seems seriously to have entered his mind!’

Coppin had been elected an MLC in the Victorian parliament in 1858 and, preoccupied as he was with a political career, he leased the Olympic to Frederick and Richard Younge who reopened it on 30 June 1859 with a program of comic plays. Coppin himself returned to the Olympic’s stage for two short seasons of charity performances—the first from 23 to 30 July and again from 24 August to 3 September. In spite of his good intentions, Coppin attracted criticism for this from a conservative element who considered it unseemly for an MLC to appear on stage. Coppin retorted that if other MLCs could practice their professions, why couldn’t he?—and very sensibly continued to perform.

The last quasi-theatrical attraction at the Olympic was a ‘Female Pedestrian Feat’ beginning on 4 January 1860 in which a Miss Howard and a Mrs. Douglas were matched to walk 1500 miles in 1000 hours, After this the theatre was advertised as ‘to let or for sale’. As there were no takers, Coppin himself eventually converted part of the building into ‘Australia’s first Turkish Baths’. He reminisced in an Argus interview of 10 April 1899: ‘The green-room became the first hot room, the property-room the second and a dressing room the third. The ground under the stage was made into a swimming bath, and there was also a shallow bath in the space occupied by the pit. Tents were pitched in rows in the dress circle to serve as dressing rooms... But I could not make any money at it.’

Fire destroyed the baths and most of the old theatre building early in the morning of 29 November 1866. All that remained were ‘the bare walls and iron fittings’, according to The Age of 30 November. But as late as 10 June 1933 a correspondent to the same paper reports that a portion of the ‘Iron Pot’ was still ‘working out its destiny’ as a wharfside shed at Hokitika in the South Island of New Zealand.

The baths were rebuilt, but replaced by a furniture warehouse in 1873 and this remained until 1891. After standing vacant for several years the site came full circle when The Australian Hippodrome was built here in 1894. An Argus advertisement on opening day, 25 August announced: ‘£1000 spent on the property £500 spent on new canvas £250 spent on timber £100 spent on chairs £300 spent on new costumes and uniforms £200 spent on electric and gas lighting £100 spent on upholstery, carpets and decorations £300 spent on advertising.’ The Argus of 27 August 1894 reported: ‘The hippodrome is surrounded by a high wall, and was specially prepared for the circus. A large new tent has been erected inside and is comfortably seated.’ Fillis’s Circus and Menagerie was the opening attraction and remained here until 29 September 1894. Other circuses occasionally used the Hippodrome over the next few years but it seems never to have been very popular—possibly because of the relatively small size of the site—and by 1903 Sands and McDougall’s Melbourne Directory lists the address as vacant once more.

Edward I. Cole, a flamboyant tent showman who liked to dress up as famed American frontier scout, Buffalo Bill, with shoulder length hair, flowing moustache and wide sombrero, brought the site back to life in 1906. After successfully establishing a tent theatre in Sydney with a repertoire of melodramas that usually featured cowboys, Indians and horses as well as actors, Cole split his Bohemian Dramatic Company in two to set up a second base in Melbourne.

Cole had already commissioned plans for a ‘People’s Theatre and Circus Building’ from Sydney architects Parkes and Harrison which, while not specifically designed for the site, were at one stage submitted to the Melbourne City Council for approval. Now held in the council’s archives, and dated February 1905, these show a quite elaborately decorated iron roofed auditorium of brick and stucco with an arched and colonnaded facade enclosing both stage and circus ring. Unfortunately, no surviving detailed written or pictorial records of the site at this time have so far come to light but it seems unlikely that any part of this ‘People’s Theatre’ was ever built there. Cole probably renovated whatever remained of the earlier building and opened his season of ‘Drama Under Canvas’ at ‘The Hippodrome’ about 19 December 1906.

A four-act bushranger melodrama, King of the Road, was the first offering but on Christmas night a sacred concert and biograph entertainment replaced the cowboys and horses—this leading on, a year or so later, to a series of Sunday night charity concerts and film shows that became a regular fixture. Circus-melodrama remained the staple, however, and weekly change plays followed into the new year. Although the emphasis was on outdoor action, Cole’s repertoire also included such popular dramas as Boucicault’s The Octoroon and the perennial East Lynne and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Bohemian Company’s first season closed in mid November 1907 and ‘Broncho George’s Team of Wild Australian Outlaws and Rough Riders’ was the attraction from 16 November until a fortnight before Cole’s return on 21 December. The Bohemians played several more Hippodrome seasons up to mid June 1909 although by now the company was appearing here only on Friday and Saturday nights and touring the suburbs the rest of the week.


To be continued


Published in Stage by stage

coppin header George Coppin, New York, 1865. Photo by Charles D. Fredericks. George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS8827/13/217

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.

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    George Coppin, New York, 1865. Photo by Charles D. Fredericks.

    George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS8827/13/217

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    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’. 

  • Nla.obj 142851096 1

    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’.

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    George Coppin, aged 6, playing the overture to Lodoiska, 1825.

    State Library of Victoria, H39751

  • George Coppin By ST Gill B 341 SLSA

    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.

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    Coppin as Paul Pry, 1860s.

    George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827

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    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 Selth Coppin C. 1895 99 By Tom Roberts NPG

    Portrait of George Coppin by Tom Roberts,
    c. 1895-1899.

    National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2003.212

  • The Anchorage Sorento. Propt. Hon. George Coppin Esq SLV

    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!’



George Coppin, aged 6, playing the overture to Lodoiska, 1825.

State Library of Victoria, H39751

George Coppin By ST Gill B 341 SLSA

George Coppin, 1849. Drawing by S.T. Gill.

State Library of South Australia, B 341


George Coppin, c. 1855. Photo attributed to Thomas Glaister.

Dixon Library, State Library of New South Wales, DL Pa 54


Coppin’s Olympic Theatre, 1855.

WG Alma Conjuring Collection, State Library of Victoria, P.326/No. 113

Cremorne 1857

Cremorne Gardens, 1857.

Private Collection

Capture Theatre Royal December 1961

The first Theatre Royal, Melbourne, with Stephenson’s team of English Cricketers in the foreground, 1861.

Private Collection

Nla.obj 142851096 1

George Coppin (in top hat) in 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

George Selth Coppin C. 1863 By Unknown Artist NLA

George Coppin, c. 1863.

National Portrait Gallery, 2010.36

Charles Ellen Kean

Portrait of Charles and Ellen Kean, New York, 1865. Photo by Matthew B. Brady.

State Library of Victoria, H31489

Coppin 1865 Detail

George Coppin, New York, 1865. Photo by Charles D. Fredericks.

George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS8827/13/217


Five vignettes of Coppin in various costumes, c. 1864. Photo by A. McDonald, Melbourne.

State Library of Victoria, H9470


Coppin as Crack the Cobbler in The Turnpike Gate. Photo by E.C. Waddington & Co, Melbourne.

The Coppin Portfolio, George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827


Coppin as Paul Pry, 1860s.

George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827


Coppin as Paul Pry, 1860s. Photo by E.C. Waddington & Co, Melbourne.

The Coppin Portfolio, George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827


Coppin as Daniel White in Milky White. Photo by E.C. Waddington & Co, Melbourne.

The Coppin Portfolio, George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827


The second Theatre Royal, Melbourne, 1877. Photo by N.J. Caire for Anglo-Australasian Photo Co.

State Library of Victoria, H84.3/17


Complimentary Benefit to George Coppin, Exhibition Hall, Geelong, 22 July 1882.

George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827

The Anchorage Sorento. Propt. Hon. George Coppin Esq SLV

The Anchorage, Coppin’s home in Sorrento, c. 1880s. Photo by Fred Kruger.

Album of Victoria Views, State Library of Victoria, H41138/26

Nla.obj 142849640 1

Pine Grove, Coppin’s Richmond house, c. 1880. Photo by J.P. Lind.

Coppin Collection, National Library of Australia, PIC Box P863 #P863/4

Nla.obj 142852140 1

George Coppin, First Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Victoria, July 1885. Photo by Harrison & Co.

National Library of Australia, PIC Box P863 #P863/24

George Coppin B 22860 SLSA

George Coppin, c. 1890. Photo by Hibling & Fields, Melbourne.

State Library of South Australia, B 22860

Portrait Of George Selth Coppin C. 1895 99 By Tom Roberts NPG

Portrait of George Coppin by Tom Roberts, c. 1895-1899.

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


Plaque dedicated to the memory of George Coppin, installed in the foyer of the Comedy Theatre, site of the Coppin’s Olympic Theatre, 1939

State Library of Victoria, H13044



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, (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

Published in General articles
Sunday, 30 April 2017

COPPIN, George (1819-1906)

English actor, manager & theatre owner. Né George Selth Coppin. Born 8 April 1819, Steyning, Sussex, England. Son of George Selth Coppin and Elizabeth Jane Jackson. Married (1) Maria Watkins Burroughs (actress) (de facto), (2) Harriet Bray, 1855, (3) Lucy Hilsden. Died 14 March 1906, Richmond, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

On stage in Australia from 1843. Entrepreneur and low comedian. See biography by Alec Bagot for further information.

Riley/Hailes Scrapbook, pages ii, 21, 36, 212.

Published in Biographies
Sunday, 20 July 2014

George Coppin & Bland Holt


In the talk entitled "Hidden Theatrical Gems Revealed"!" on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 at the State Library of Victoria, we were shown a selection of playbills, posters, photos and memorabilia from the SLV's George Selth Coppin Manuscript Collection by theatre historians Mimi Colligan and Elisabeth Kumm. These items had been in the possession of George Selth Coppin's daughter Lucy (one of his seven daughters - there were also two sons, young George and Frederick).

Lis Kumm & Mimi Colligan at SLV MSElisabeth and Mimi with some items from the Coppin Collection. Photo Judy Leech

When Miss Lucy Coppin died, in 1960 at the age of 87, she had been assisting E.D.A.(Alec) Bagot in the preparation of a biography of her father. Miss Coppin left the papers to Alec Bagot providing, once the book was completed, he gave them to the Commonwealth National Library of Australia - now the National Library of Australia. Coppin the Great duly appeared in 1965. When Bagot died, three years after the book was published, his widow and son complied with Lucy Coppin's directive. After some time, most of the collection was distributed to the State Library of Victoria.

The selection shown represents just a tiny fraction of a vast collection, one containing a wealth of Australian theatre history - material that has been worked intensively and extensively by the State Library of Victoria's Joan Maslen and Shona Dewer.

Among the items displayed by Mimi and Elisabeth were:


Playbills for "Coppin's Farewell" as Billy Barlow (Geelong's Theatre Royal, December 1853); Cremorne Gardens (November 1856); Dion Boucicault's "Elfie, or The Cherry Tree Inn" (July 1871) - a world premiere; "The Streets of New York" (March 1872) and Opening of the New Theatre Royal (Melbourne, September 1872).

Photographs of Madame Celine Celeste as Miami in "Green Bushes" (1867); Mr. and Mrs. Coppin in their homes in Richmond (Pine Grove) and Sorrento (The Anchorage); hand-coloured portrait of George Coppin as Sir Peter Teazle in "School for Scandal" (1845) plus a carte-de-visite of Coppin (New York, 1865);

Bland HoltBland Holt, Falk Studios, SLV Pictures


Playbill for "The Breaking of the Drought" (1902); Posters for "The Great Rescue" (1907) and for the film "The Derby Winner"(1915), a British silent film adapted from the 1894 play by Augustus Harris, Henry Hamilton and Cecil Raleigh; Photos of his wife Florence Bland Holt (née Griffiths Anderson); vision scene settings of "The Breaking of the Drought" (1902) and photographic stills from the Franklyn Barrett film of the same name (1920); Postcards advertising 'real water effect' in the production "Never Despair" (date); Drury Lane album of scenes and photographic reference for the 1893 (London) play "A Life of Pleasure" set in England and Burma.

George Selth Coppin was born in Sussex in 1819 in a village not far from the seaside towns of Brighton and Worthing. His father was an actor, and by 1826 George too was acting, singing and playing the fiddle in England, Ireland and Scotland. In 1843 at the age of 24 he travelled to Sydney with Maria Burroughs, an actress nine years his senior - she took the name Mrs. Coppin.

They toured New South Wales and Tasmania for the next three years and in June 1845 formed a company in Launceston, moving to Melbourne for a season at the newly opened Queen's Theatre, at the corner of Queen and Little Bourke Street. The repertoire included "The School for Scandal", plus Melbourne's first performances of ballet. The following year Coppin spent some time in Adelaide. Not only involved in theatre he had interests in hotels, politics, racing, mining and freemasonry.

In 1849, after a short illness, Maria died. A period in Geelong and the Victorian Goldfields followed for George, plus a return to London, in 1853 (the Haymarket Theatre) where he engaged the tragedian Gustavus Vaughan Brooke for an Australian tour. In December 1854 he returned to Melbourne with a prefabricated iron building which became the Olympic Theatre - the "Iron Pot" - where the Comedy Theatre now stands. The year after he married Harriet Hillsden, Brooke's widowed sister-in-law. During the 1850s he ran three theatres, four hotels and the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens in Richmond. (He was a member of various legislative assemblies and councils off and on up until 1895.)

In 1854 English actor-manager Clarance Holt (originally Joseph Frederick Holt), at the suggestion of George Coppin, came to Melbourne with his first wife Marie (nee Brown). He played in Geelong, Hobart and Launceston, Sydney, the Victorian Goldfields and New Zealand. In 1858 he returned to Melbourne with his family, including his seven year old son Joseph Thomas (later, known as Bland) Holt. Holt senior leased theatres in Victoria and New Zealand (his son received his education in both these places), but in 1864 he returned to England.

BreakingTheDroughtPoster, SLV MS 882Two years after the death of his wife Harriet, George Coppin married his eighteen year old step-daughter Lucy Hilsden. The following year, in 1862 shortly after the birth of their first child, George opened the Haymarket Theatre (and the adjoining Apollo Music Hall) in Bourke Street, Melbourne. He engaged the American actor Joseph Jefferson for the Haymarket opening. He also managed to secure English actors Charles and Ellen Kean (and in 1874, James Cassius Williamson and his wife, Maggie Moore).

In 1865 at the age of fourteen, Bland Holt was a professional actor and toured England and the United States of America for the next nine years. He settled in Australia in 1876. His father back in the UK kept in close touch and he was able to secure for his son the rights for "The New Babylon", a melodrama by Paul Merritt and George Fawcett Rowe. Bland established his own company in Sydney in 1880.

The 1880s saw George Coppin back in theatre management (although he had announced his retirement in the late 1860s - none took this seriously), he set up a lucrative copyright agency, a post-office savings bank, Victoria's St. John's Ambulance - plus Australia's very first roller-skating rink. With Bland Holt, in the 1890s, he produced several lavish pantomimes. In 1900, Daisie Coppin, his youngest daughter, appeared regularly as a danseuse at Melbourne's Bijou Theatre, under the banner of Harry Rickards.
After falling ill in March 1906 at his property in Sorrento, George returned to his home "Pine Grove" in Richmond, where he died. He was survived by his wife Lucy and their two sons and five daughters, and by two of his three daughters from his first marriage to Harriet.

Meanwhile Bland Holt had become known as the King, or Monarch, of Melodrama, and he was famed for his productions' spectacular effects - involving horses and hounds, balloon ascents, pigeons, diving feats - plus the first motor-car ever to be used on stage. He frequently starred as a comedian in these productions - which he ensured were stylish - extravagant - expensive. But they paid off!

In 1883 after the death of his first wife - stage-name Lena Edwin - Bland returned to England and stayed for almost four years. He toured sensational melodramas for Sir Augustus Harris, manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and for whom Clarance Holt was provincial agent. On Bland's return to Australia he remarried; an actress, Florence Anderson, whom he had employed in England. For the next twenty years Bland and Florence became Australia's favourite stage comedians.

Scene from Breaking of the DroughtScene from  Holt's production of The Breaking of the Drought 1902, SLV MS 882

Bland Holt's company staged meticulous, opulent and spectacular comedy-melodramas and plays right up until the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1909 both Bland and Florence decided to retire, following a tour of the Continent, North America and New Zealand, accompanied by private secretary Lucy, George Coppin's daughter. The Holts spent the next thirty years or so in some comfort and style in East Melbourne, Kew and at Miss Coppin's holiday home, The Anchorage in Sorrento,  Bland died in June 1942, Florence four years later. There were no children.

The style and business perspicacity of Coppin and Holt equalled that of their English or North American counterparts - they both, in their interpretation of theatre, shared more than a touch of the showman. The legacy of their ventures surpassed their artistic successes on stage and this legacy led the way for others - individuals who aspired to model themselves on these two great Australian actor-managers.

We are very grateful to Mimi Colligan and to Elisabeth Kumm for sharing their passions and their research with us, bringing these two men to our attention, reminding us of our fascinating theatrical heritage, and making us more aware of these two quite extraordinary men.

Published in Gallery