In the second of a two-part article, SUE-ANNE WALLACE concludes her look at the Shakespearean actor Walter Bentley and his involvement in one of Australia’s first actors’ unions, the Actors’ Association of Australia.

The AAA’s Benefit Fund and other charitable activities

Bentley was recognised for his business sense as a canny Scot as much as for his philanthropic gestures.Picture10‘A Trump Card Walter Bentley the Silver King and Money’, Green Scrapbook. State Library of NSW, ML MSS 8395, Box 1X, p.35.

In September 1893, the veteran actor George Collier died, destitute. He and Bentley, with Lachlan McGowan, had appeared on the stage together in Auckland in 1873. Apparently when Bentley was starting his journey on the stage, he ‘received many a little word of kindly advice from the now dead and gone actor’. Hearing the news of George’s death, Bentley gave his widow £5 and paid the expenses of the funeral.

This trait was one he had grown up with, following the example of the generosity of his father, the Reverend Dr James Begg, one-time moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, and his aunt, philanthropist and feminist, publisher and journalist, Emily Faithfull, who had financially supported Bentley as he began his acting career and introduced him to Henry Irving in 1874. In contrast, Bentley’s father railed against his son, never condoning his theatrical career. This was the clash of Church and Stage. Bentley gave as good as he got, running a vigorous crusade in the press and through public lectures, excoriating the church’s objections to the stage. Many an editor and cartoonist was on Bentley’s side, as were the audiences who packed the theatres.

‘Bentley, of course, was not the only actor widely recognised for assisting in various charitable efforts. From its inception, the actors and actresses of the AAA strove to support those in the profession who had fallen on hard times through the Benefit Fund. To raise funds for these worthwhile purposes, members of the AAA held frequent benefit performances in Sydney and Melbourne, and elsewhere in Australia.


But beneficiaries were needed! Public announcements in newspapers in late September, and again in October 1912, called for applications from Melbourne’s and Sydney’s aged actors and actresses desirous of support from the Benefit Fund, irrespective of their membership of any association or union. A committee comprising Messrs V. Prince, G. Cass, N. Montagu, W.S. Percy and W. Bentley would deal with all claims sent to the office of the AAA at 554 George Street, Sydney. Some actors made public donations, including 10 guineas from Oscar Asche and Lily Drayton. Bentley hoped others would heed the call and follow suite.

Actors’ Day was inaugurated by the AAA in September 1912 to support the Benefit Fund. Right from the start there were great ambitions for Actors’ Day, presenting a huge variety of attractions, drawing on Sydney’s prominent actors and actresses and even offering rehearsals of a new but unnamed play to close a long day of celebration, from 1.30pm until late in the evening.

Growth of the association was rapid, and the AAA’s fundraising successes were published, undoubtedly with great pride. In 1912 the AAA had £24/12/- to its credit, in 1913 £375, largely from a bequest by J.C. Williamson, and in 1914 £1247/18/8, certainly due in part to the success of Actors’ Day that year [Sunday Times Sydney 12 April 1914].

J.C. Williamson’s beneficiaries included the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, the Hospice for the Dying, the Newboys’ Home in Sydney, the Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and the AAA. Williamson’s racing and breeding stud were auctioned, around £300 of the proceeds going to the AAA, along with his theatrical library and prints. Williamson’s estate, disbursements from which were made to family, as well as the charities, was sworn for probate in October 1913 at £193,038 [equivalent to almost $24 million]. With the death of J.C. Williamson, the AAA ‘agitated’ [Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1914] to start a fund for a memorial to him. Work on the proposed Williamson Theatre began in Melbourne at the corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale Streets in November 1913. The Williamson Wards were erected at the Sacred Heart Hospice in Sydney.

Of course questions were soon asked: where does the money go? Titheradge responded to a gathering in Her Majesty’s Theatre, outlining that over the previous year charity disbursements had been made to those of the theatrical profession who were in need. He announced that the AAA had taken over the care of ‘the Home in Melbourne’ [it’s not clear what this institution was, for elderly actors and actresses? or orphans?] and acknowledged appreciatively J.C. Williamson’s bequest. It was announced that no actor or actress who had applied had been turned away. Almost a year later, in 1914, it was noted that none of the beneficiaries were members of the AAA and it was decided that hereafter benefits would ‘shortly’ be restricted to members only.

Fundraising efforts were collegial, such as a matinee at Her Majesty’s in October 1919 which raised £500. Every company then playing in Sydney contributed to the performance and more than 500 offers of assistance were received, undoubtedly making coordination of the event challenging.

An association for its members

The AAA served its members in many ways. Their first rooms were at 554 George Street, Sydney, a three-storey building built after 1880, on the intersection of Bathurst and George Streets, diagonally opposite St Andrew’s Cathedral. Next was the then- and still-trendy Cunwulla Chambers at 67 Castlereagh Street where the AAA settled in 1914. These chambers were Sydney’s first skyscraper, comprising twelve stories and completed in 1912, remaining Australia’s highest building for 45 years. In 1916, the AAA moved again, to the Penzance Chambers at 29 Elizabeth Street, where their neighbours from 1917 included the Imperial Services Club and the Liberal Catholic Church.

Having new rooms was a good reason for a party, and a delightful one was held for the opening of the rooms in Penzance Chambers. ‘Theatrical folk are splendid company at parties, especially when they are quite at their ease’ said the Newcastle Morning Herald [6 October 1916]. Modelled on the “at homes” of the Lamba Club in New York, theatrical people could certainly be at their ease, especially Walter Bentley, who was described as in his element, mingling with every well-known actor in Sydney [Daily Mail (Brisbane), 17 June 1918].

The AAA was their club and members were always welcome to use the rooms for letter writing and socialising, and to receive mail in the chambers.

The Council of the AAA represented members at various events, many of which were celebratory afternoons and evenings. The highest levels of society sought invitations to their social occasions, and of course a deal of lobbying was undertaken on the side. Bentley was one of the best networked members and he used his connections to great advantage.

Even hard-nosed journalists were overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of the AAA. Its calendar in Sydney, likely provided by the energetic secretary, was hectic and impressive [Sunday Times (Sydney), 10 May 1914]:

  • Monday morning meet the Commissioner of Railways to seek reductions in fares for members, a privilege then reserved only for managers;
  • Monday afternoon the weekly Council meeting in the Cunwulla Chambers;
  • Wednesday morning welcome Ellen Terry and present her with an address at the Railway Station, now Central Station;
  • Thursday afternoon a benefit performance for Mr William Holman at the Theatre Royal with George Titheradge as Jacques, a role which must have been familiar to actors at that time, H.R. Roberts playing Orlando in an excerpt from As You Like It, while Walter Bentley and William Holman selected the third act of Othello, Bentley as Othello and Holman as Iago.

Presumably the AAA’s Council members had other activities and personal commitments to slot into their week! For example, towards the end of the month, on Empire Day, 22 May, Bentley delivered an address. He continued to run his College of Elocution and Dramatic Art, support the Walter Bentley Players in their monthly costume recitals in St James’s Hall, King Street Sydney, which also served as fundraisers, and continued his engagement with various other associations such as the Highland, Shakespeare and Burns Societies. Bentley was a favourite for the Burns Society, as he claimed a relationship to Robbie Burns because his great grandfather’s brother, Mr John Begg, had married Isabella Burns, the poet’s sister!

The AAA was also present at funerals, particularly those of AAA members, among which were those of George Rignold in December 1912 and George Titheradge in 1916. Two commemorative services were arranged for Henry Irving, who had died in 1905, and his son Lawrence Irving, who died in May 1914. Bentley may have been instrumental in organising these services, both held in 1915, as he had been juvenile lead to Henry Irving for three years. At the time of the commemorative services, H B Irving, Henry Irving’s oldest son, was playing in Australia and the AAA sent condolences to him.

On a brighter note, the AAA welcomed and farewelled actors and actresses arriving and departing. One headline arrival was the English actress Ellen Terry who arrived, probably by steamer in May 1914, and returned to Sydney by train five months later. Bentley would have been keen to welcome Ellen Terry, with whom he had a personal relationship from his days at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Indeed, there must have been a mutual feeling as she presented Bentley with a clock which remains with his family. It wasn’t a premeditated gift as the clock was manufactured by Hardy Brothers in Sydney! While in Sydney, Terry gave two farewell Shakespearean recitals. Bentley suggested she play Portia in the trial scene in Merchant of Venice with George Titheradge as Shylock, Bentley and Roberts taking minor roles. With the indifferent acoustic properties of the Town Hall, the program took place at Her Majesty’s.

Inscribed Walter Bentley/from Ellen Terry/1914

The AAA welcomed in the new year in late January 1917 with a reception which attracted 100 members and a decision was taken to hold innovative social Sunday evenings in their rooms. A reception in March for the American actor Hugh Ward, managing director of J.C. Williamson from 1913, following Williamson’s death, was hosted by Mr and Mrs Bentley—now that’s a surprise because Bentley did not legally marry until 1918. It was at least his third marriage!

Almost immediately he became president in 1919, Bentley invigorated the AAA’s charm campaign, presenting the Lord and Lady Mayoress with badges as associates of the AAA in Sydney’s Town Hall. The Lord Mayor, who had expressed an early penchant for the stage, said he had always ‘regarded thespians as particularly good citizens, always the first to come to the fore in any call for help’ [Sunday Times (Sydney), 18 May 1919]. It seems eternally the way, doesn’t it?

The AAA and the war movement

Among others, the beloved Madame Melba encouraged the theatrical profession to help the wounded. Patriotic actors and actresses heeded the call in no small measure. Moreover, they continued to raise funds for the AAA’s Benefit Fund and the Comic Opera Sick Fund, both of which needed support as significant donations had been diverted to the war effort. Members of the AAA threw themselves into contributing to the war effort. Their secretary spoke at recruiting events and took the high moral ground on drinking, especially with newly-recruited troops.

A gala event was planned for the AAA’s third Actors’ Day in February 1914, a whole day of performances at White City, Sydney, a pleasure park at Rushcutters Bay, commencing at 2 o’clock, to support those going to the war front. It was to be a veritable theatrical carnival, various shows and booths were installed, including a gypsy fortune teller; Jack Cannot, and his famous freak show; ‘The Merry Whirl’; the American Burlesque Company in charge of an American candy wheel; a ducking pond, for which a number of actors volunteered to straddle a wooden bar beneath which was a tank of water, drawing tens of thousands of throws at a penny each and sufficient frequent duckings; the Lilliputians who were represented by the smallest of the group, ‘Little Spec’; the largest collection of reptiles; a hat-trimming competition, hats to be trimmed by actors and then sold by auction; the Richardson show, a 20 minute show of burlesque with high drama and plenty of violent deaths, with Julius Knight, Harry Roberts, Walter Bentley and others. Yet more actors were to be placed outside various shows, spruiking the entertainment. At 2.45pm and again at 4.45pm—if he was feeling well enough—dancing comedian Fred Leslie was to meet the famous American lightweight boxer Harry Stone, a championship event for the Australia Hotel, with a silver belt presented by Prouds Ltd. A photographer was present to take photos of patrons with any star they chose. But what? There’s more?—yes, a Parade of Stars at 11.15pm, in which all the members of the profession participated, to be followed by a theatrical revue and ‘tango tangie’ to which the public was invited. Heavens, what a day was had! You can be sure the event was exceptionally enjoyable, not to mention profitable, raising £923 [equivalent to $111,000 today]!

When Actors’ Day in February 1915 was looming and a call went out for ‘lady helpers’ at act as ushers. Bentley was in charge of the details and applicants were encouraged to contact him at Cunwulla Chambers. In May, there was another war-time effort to assist Belgium Day.

The first Australia Day was the next big date on the calendar, held on 30 July 1915. The day we now call Australia Day, 26 January, was in the early nineteenth century called Foundation Day. It wasn’t until 1935 that 26 January was renamed Australia Day in all states and territories. The purpose of the national event in 1915 was to raise funds for the troops wounded at Gallipoli. It was a significant step for the nation, three months after the landings at Gallipoli and 14 years since Federation. In Sydney, a gala performance was planned for the Lyceum Theatre on the afternoon and evening of the commemorative day, while the combined theatre managers were presenting a matinee at Her Majesty’s. The day was a great success. There were countless community events across the states, raising £839,000 [equivalent to $88 million] in NSW and £311,500 [equivalent to $32.5 million] in Victoria. Incredible efforts!

The war continued and as always actors and actresses rose to the occasion. The AAA offered to assist the Win-the-War League Day, in cooperation with the NSW recruiting committee. Bentley designed an honour board, made of polished Queensland maple, for those actors serving in the war. At the unveiling, held in the AAA’s rooms in March 1918, Sir Ronald Munro Craufurd, Governor-General of Australia, said the honour board carried the names of the 70 members who had gone to the front, taking the world as their stage, and those with a VC to their credit (Victor Dartnell), and the four members who ‘had won the highest honour of all, the cross of a soldier’s grave’, namely Max Fitzgerald (known as Max Clifton), Tom Dawson, Frank Shapira and Alf Stevens. On behalf of the Council, Bentley presented the Governor-General with a badge, declaring him a member of the AAA. Referring to those who obeyed the call, Bentley said they ‘threw up big salaries to do their part in the great struggle’ [Sun, 28 March 1918].

Throughout the war years, there was a growing movement to discourage drinking among recruits and the AAA assisted, providing ‘rational amusements’ instead of those found in the bar. Six o’clock closing was the catch cry of the frequent public meetings, which attracted huge audiences in Sydney, almost always with Bentley on stage encouraging abstinence, an irony giving his early acting years and his alleged drinking habits.

The 1919 pandemic

By 1919 the first deaths were being recorded from the influenza pandemic which was to cause 15,000 deaths; 40% of the Australian population of five million were to fall ill. Theatres fell silent. Audiences disappeared. The AAA raised a deputation which met with NSW’s Attorney General, seeking compensation for Sydney actors, Bentley claiming practically everybody but actors had been compensated’ [Sun Sydney 20 March 1919]. Relief was apparently available only for those whose salaries were less than £5 a week. Accordingly, around 60 or 70 professional actors had not been authorised to claim from the relief depots. Mr Jack Cannot had provided advances to some actors but they would have to be repaid. ‘Actors’ said Bentley’ ‘were not looking for compensation of their salaries, only living expenses’ as their income had disappeared for five weeks. ‘They did not want expenses for drinks or anything like that’, he reassuringly added. Mr Hall said the request seemed reasonable. Actors had been most generous with charitable events, and patriotic fundraising efforts. He would take the case to government with a favourable recommendation. The situation seems familiar to us in 2020 when theatres closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but for six or more months rather than five weeks, with little compensation for those engaged in the theatrical industry, and less for individual actors and actresses, who generously provided the on-line entertainment for locked-down residents. 

A political actor

Whether Bentley appeared in an official or private capacity, his connection to the AAA was omnipresent, ensuring that the association benefitted from his regular public lectures, letters to editors, his acting college and performances.

Late in 1915 and until the state election in January 1916, while in the throes of campaigning for the AAA and managing its business and fighting for early closing, Bentley announced he was standing for the seat of Drummoyne as an independent, on a reform ticket and pressing for military efficiency. There were six candidates for the seat. Bentley’s move prompted newspapers to print a longish poem of which verse five went as follows:

It’s a new game for Walter Bentley,
A new game, I know;
It’s a new game for Walter Bentley,
And a darned long way to go;
Farewell, Prince of Denmark,
Farewell, fame and coin;
What a great stunt if Mr Hamlet
Were MP for Drummoyne!

[Sun (Sydney), 21 January 1916]

Bentley was accustomed to his press appearances - poems, cartoon and scoops followed him throughout his career. Cartoonists in New Zealand in particular found he was good material for their pen and wit.

Walter Bentley as Rob Roy, using the word ‘damn’, fragment of newspaper in Walter Bentley’s scrapbook, State Library of NSW, ML MSS 8395

However, there were no farewells to the stage. Although his elocutionary powers were said to hold him in good stead, Bentley came in fourth. Somehow, he circumvented his strident criticisms of government members during the campaign and resumed his AAA role, lobbying the same government for support for the theatrical profession.

Bentley’s health started to trouble him and he convalesced for some time during the year, prompting the AAA to propose a benefit matinee. Bentley’s absence possibly contributed to a quieter year for the AAA as references to the association seem thinner during this period. The testimonial to recognise Bentley’s commitment to the AAA and his public spirit was to be a collaborative affair, including participation from other associations where he played key roles - the Highland Society, Burns Anniversary Club and the Shakespeare Society of NSW.

The changing environment – the AAA moves on

The Government Gazette announced the winding up of the AAA in April 1920. Walter Bentley, Frank Percy Noble, Henry William Varna and Floris St George were appointed liquidators. After their work was complete, in 1921, Bentley resigned as president. But we know it wasn’t the end. These canny actors secured a heartier future for their association. The phoenix rose and has continued its flight, now as the MEAA and the state-based Actors’ Benevolent Funds.