Minstrelsy in Australia : A Brief Overview.
The beginning of the legitimate theatre is generally regarded as when
Mr.Barnett Levey attained permission for the establishment of plays in the
saloon of the Hotel Royal,Sydney. The license being given on the 22/12/1832 for
a trial period covering from 26th december,1832 until the end of May,previous
to this occurrence their were periodic musical entertainments at the above
hotel by local amateur artists with not always the best of reviews.
(note:plays were performed well before this date,ie Sidaway's Theatre,Sydney in 1796,etc).
Along with the increase in activity generated with the opening of Levey's
theatre,there were also advertisements issued by a Mr.Edwards around July,1828
mentioning the transfer of his various musical instruments & music to the shop
of Messrs.Ferris & Chapman,instruments included violins,guitars,portable
Contrary to the generally held belief that minstrelsy dates back to when
Charles Backus toured Australia in 1855,minstrelsy had its initial appearance
in Sydney back on the 28th August,1838 when a Mr.Ferguson sang "the celebrated
popular comic song"-'Jim Crow' at the Royal Victoria theatre.subsequently,
numerous renditions of various minstrel songs were performed by local artists
including the actor/manager Mr.Joseph Simmons,("Jump Jim Crow"-17/8/1839),as
well as numerous other local performers such as John Hyde who approx.thirty
years later was loosely affiliated with Corbyn's Georgia Minstrels,when "The
Octoroon" was performed at the Bijou Theatre,Melbourne on the 9th June,1877.
all this no doubt was directly attributed to T.D.Rice's(Daddy Rice) success
in England from his tour of 1836,with the play of "Jim Crow" first being
performed in Sydney at the Royal Victoria theatre on the 11th April,1839 for
Joseph Simmons benefit night,featuring local performers.the popularity
of this piece was such that Jim Crow hats were advertised for sale in the
The first minstrel group to appear in Sydney was in 1850 with the
arrival of Henry Burton who etched his name into history by being one of the
founders of the circus in Australia:besides his great contribution to the circus,
Henry Burton on his arrival in 1849, teamed up with a group of artists including
Mr.Charles V.Howard, Mr.George.B.Howard,Mr.James W.Reading.these artists
including Henry Burton as Blythe Waterland opened their Sydney season at the
Royal Hotel on the 1st of April,1850 as Blythe Waterland's Serenaders featuring
banjo duets,flutina (1) solos,etc.songs & tunes included items such as :-
"Lynchburg Town","Walk along John","Johnny Boker","Dandy Jim",
"Old Grey Goose","Ole Dan Tucker","Boatman's Dance","Jenny get your hoe
With the subsequent break-up of the Waterland troupe,members appeared
in various groups sometimes in competition to Henry Burton,giving musical
lessons & later as was the case with Charles V.Howard,managing various
theatrical groups that included minstrel acts,freak shows,etc.these groups were
the first to tour extensively throughout the goldfields & districts.The
following years gave rise to local amateur ethiopian serenader concerts as well
as tours by other professional groups such as the New York Serenaders,Backus
Minstrels,New Orleans Serenaders,Rainer's Serenaders as well as female
ethiopian serenaders,& the creation of the N.S.W.Christy Minstrels who were a
feature of the Sydney scene for many years at the various picnics & functions
at holiday periods such as at Manly beach,Cremorne,etc they also performed with
the touring troupe of professional Christy's Minstrels in the 1860's.minstrel
troupes were to continue to tour throughout the 1860's & 1870's e.g. Billy
Emerson's Minstrels,Hiscock's Federal Minstrels,etc.
The popularity of minstrelsy was such that printed songfolios were marketed
for the popular troupes from this period & could be purchased from the music
saloon of Mr.Grocott's or Mason's bookstall,etc.
Minstrelsy was not confined to the established theatres but was also
part of the entertainment at taverns such as the Crown & Kettle,Bull & Mouth,&
Evan's saloon,etc.generally these venues had free admission.
The first black minstrel troupe to appear in Australia,"featuring real
negroes from the slave states" were Sheridan Corbyn's troupe of Georgia
Minstrels who appeared at the School of Arts in Sydney on Boxing night,1876.
they were soon followed by C.B.Hick's Georgia Minstrels(organised in 1865)
who also toured Australia over the same period opening in Melbourne at
St.George's Hall on Monday the 13th August,1877.a number of these artists were
to stay in Australia & be a permanent feature of Australia's theatrical scene
for many years e.g.Hosea Easton,Sam Keenan,etc.
Following the first tour of the Georgia Minstrels,a number of other
black troupes were to follow with an off-shoot of the world-famous Fisk Jubilee
Singers arriving in Australia in 1886 & touring extensively throughout
Australiasia with great success.from this first troupe of Fisk Jubilee
Singers,Mr.O.M.McAdoo was to see the potential of future ventures & toured
Australasia & Africa with his own jubilee & minstrel company over the
proceeding years until his untimely death in Sydney on the 17th July,1900.his
theatrical companies contained some of the best black minstrel acts as well as
singers/musicians to ever appear in Australia,with such stars as William James
Ferry(Ferry the frog),Billy McClain,Miss Flora Batson,C.W.Walker,Prof.Henderson
Smith,etc.(Billy McClain originally came to Australia with M.B.Curtis's Afro- Americans).
F.J.Loudin's Fisk Jubilee Singers original tour spurned many derivative
organisations besides the McAdoo troupe of jubilee singers with Huntley Spencer
(former member of the Era Comedy Four with Hugo's American Minstrels)being
associated with a troupe of Fisk jubilee singers as late as 1936 in New
Zealand.numerous Australian & New Zealand performers were to be in one of the
many "Fisk Jubilee Singers" groups to have flourished following the visit of
Loudin's Fisk Jubilee singers in 1886.
Another important early black minstrel troupe to tour was Charlie Hick's
Minstrels of 1888,which featured artists which were to stay for many years on
the Australasian stage,notably Irving Sayles,Charley Pope,Wallace King,Billy
Speed & the Connor brothers.their first performance was on the 1st of
September,1888 at the Opera House in Sydney.
The last overseas touring minstrel show to appear in Australia was the Hugo
Brothers American Minstrels which featured the great Billy Kersands,performing
around Sydney in July,1913(Kersands was not part of the troupe by this time)
where the Australian bandleader,Jim Davidson remembered viewing them as
indicated from his autobiography.
Though numerous individual overseas minstrel/black-face acts toured
throughout the following years on the Tivoli/Fuller circuits,no full minstrel
company ever toured again,though black companies such as Joe Sheftell's
Southern Plantation Revue(which featured elements of minstrelsy) & Sonny Clay's
ill-fated colored idea were to tour(in 1926 & 1928 respectively).
The Tivoli management did advertise that Sonny Clay's company would put
forward an "old plantation nigger show" on their second visit to Sydney,
however from their repertoire it seems ludicrous by today's standards as Sonny
Clay's company featured his up-to-date hot jazz band (plantation orchestra!)&
modern artists such as the spectacular dancing of the Four Covans & singing of
Ivy Anderson(she was to be one of Duke Ellington's favourite lead vocalists),&
the Colored Emperors of Harmony,who were touring Australia previous to joining
the clay troupe at their opening in January,1928.the minstrel show never
eventuated due to their deportation under controversial circumstances.
The tradition of minstrelsy was carried on by local companies/artists as
well as touring jubilee singers/artists (eg Randolph Forbes Kentucky Jubilee
Singers in 1929),who catered to local audiences with renditions of "Old
Black Joe",etc;thus continuing on the stage,on radio & film for many years
what had started way back in the 1830's & it does not require to much
enquiry to find influences from this form of entertainment.
Minstrelsy & the associated branching,from its very early beginnings had been
a feature of the Australian scene for well over a century & because of this
deserves to be looked at in a more detailed way(as well as the other
aspects of theatre/music)than has been in the past.
(1) the Waterland troupe was not the first minstrel group to perform
in Australia,in July,1849 a group performed at the Queen's Theatre,Melbourne
known simply as the Four Ethiopian Serenaders,these performers performed "Dance
the Boatmen","Dance the Buffalo Gals","My skiff is by de Shore".however,this
group performed as a support to other entertainment,compared to the Waterland
group's total minstrel performance.
Thanks go to Doug Seroff for his information on Huntley Spencer & to the
staff of the State & Mitchell library of N.S.W.
Under The Imperial Carpet, Essays in Black History 1780-1950
- Edited by Rainer Lotz and Ian Pegg , Rabbit Press 1986.
100 Years of the Negro in Show Business by Tom Fletcher,
Da Capo Press 1984.
From Minstrel Show to Vaudeville - The Australian Popular Stage 1788-1914
by Richard Waterhouse , N.S.W. University Press 1990.
The Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business, 1865-1910
by Henry T. Sampson, Scarecrow Press 1988.
Blacks In Blackface by Henry T. Sampson, Scarecrow Press 1980