Down Under In The 19th Century

"There's a little group of isles beyond the wave - so tiny, you might almost wonder where it is"

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The huge success of H.M.S. Pinafore in Sydney and Melbourne was the reason Williamson negotiated with D'Oyly Carte for the Australian rights to the latest G & S success in London, The Pirates of Penzance. By March, 1881, Williamson had secured the rights and the new operetta immediately went into rehearsal.

Pirates Poster. Click here to see larger image

Eleven months after its opening in London, The Pirates of Penzance opened in Sydney on March 19th, 1881 (read review). J.A. South was the Major-General and J.C. Williamson was the Sergeant of Police - portraying him as an Irishman.

Sydney March 19th 1881

Silly Fact:
It is not widely known today but J.C. Williamson could not sing. He cast himself in roles that required a greater emphasis on the words than on the music. He knew only one note and he got around this vocal inability by his sheer talent for comedy. Quite wisely, after The Pirates of Penzance he ended his career in operetta.

Also in the cast was Guglielmo (Signor) Verdi as the Pirate King. Signor Verdi would become a popular operatic figure on the Australian stage during the next decade. He even formed his own (short lived) opera company in 1883.

Mr G. Verdi, courtesy of the State Library Victoria

Guglielmo (Signor) Verdi

In addition to this production the season also consisted of a revival of H.M.S. Pinafore. This proceeded Pirates with a cast that saw J.C. Williamson as Sir Joseph. On April the 9th there was an important cast change for Pirates. Maggie Moore took over the part of Ruth and Howard Vernon took his first role in a G & S operetta when he played the part of Major-General Stanley.

The critics were not too kind: "He did not know the words of his song, and by this carelessness created an uncomfortable impression. The public expects an actor to be perfect in the text; probably nervousness had much to do with the blunder, but it was an unfortunate one." By the next performance things had improved: "Mr. Vernon sang his song correctly; he has already improved the business of his part."

When the Pirates' run began to wain after seven weeks Pinafore was brought back, this time with Howard Vernon as Sir Joseph and Elsa May as Josephine.

Interestingly Mr William Ball played Dick Deadeye in this production. Mr Bell was Deadeye in the first Australian Pinafore by the Kelly and Leon Company.

Silly Fact:
Maggie Moore, as Buttercup, had the audience and cast in stitches when she slipped up at the first performance. She announced to the Captain that "the poor gipsy woman had bumboat blood in her veins". The cast found it very difficult to keep straight faces.

Howard Vernon

Howard Vernon (1845-1921)

Howard Vernon grew up in Melbourne. One of his first theatrical appearances was with the Alice May Theatrical Troupe. The company was the first to introduce 'Cox and Box' to Australia in 1872. Vernon played Box. With the Alice May Opera Company he toured New Zealand and India. In 1874 Howard scored his first major success as a tenor with the Lyster Opera Company in a production of Lily of Killarney. Wellington's Evening Post said "Mr Vernon's performance as Myles would suffice to stamp him as an actor of the first order and a very excellent tenor singer." Howard was to spend 30 years performing G & S in Australasia, becoming the leading "patter" singer in this part of the world. He married singer, Vinia de Loitte, eventually retiring from the stage in 1914. He died in Melbourne on July 27th, 1921.

New Zealand was beginning to develop a passion for G & S when the Riccardi Opera Company premiered The Sorcerer in Auckland in May, 1879. (read review)

One singer who started her career in this production was soprano Annie Leaf who went on to play Josephine in H.M.S. Pinafore for both the Riccardi Company and for R. W. Carey (who acquired the rights for the first New Zealand Pirates).
In October 1880, when Annie left New Zealand to further her career in Australia, the Cary Company put on a farewell benefit production for her of H.M.S. Pinafore. Nothing unusual about this, as she was extremely popular with New Zealand audiences, except that the benefit was performed on board a real ship (the St. Leonards) anchored in the Wellington harbour. When Sir Joseph's barge approached (rowed by half a dozen men from the Naval Brigade) real cannons and rifles were actually fired. When the First Lord actually did manage to arrive on board it was difficult for the audience not to join in a round of cheers.

Historic Note:
The first Australian production of The Sorcerer was given at the Academy of Music, Melbourne on July 28th, 1879 (read review).

Impresario, R.W. Cary, paid Williamson £400 for the sole right to perform The Pirates of Penzance in New Zealand for eight months. The work premiered in Wellington on 27th June, 1879, barely 18 months after its joint US and English productions (read review). This production had a distinct pantomime feel with the casting of male performer Cecil Riverton as Ruth. The reviewer in the Evening Post said at the time "Mr. Riverton's Ruth was excessively comic, dramatically, but musically would have improved by some of the phrases being taken an octave higher, as the part was really written for a contralto."

The company then headed for Christchurch and then toured around the country even playing at smaller centres like Timaru and Oamaru. Annie Leaf played Ruth in most performances. There was such a demand for the piano score that it out sold the revised edition of the New Testament. The result was that some Christians voiced a grievance over whether New Zealand was a Christian country! On a bit of a sad note, Cary lost around £800 on the whole venture and filed for bankruptcy in June 1882.

Pirates Ad

Silly Fact:
Cecil Riverton's real name was Robert Gant. He was born in England in 1854 and came to New Zealand in 1876. He lived in Wellington and was apprenticed to a chemist. He joined the local theatre where he specialised in female roles, always using the pseudonym of Riverton. In the 1880s Gant moved over to the Wairarapa where he continued his career as a chemist as well as acting in, and directing, local theatrical groups.

Robert Gant as Buttercup. Picture courtesy of Dr Chris Brickell and the Alexander Turnbull Library. PA1-q-963-19-1

In 1899 he moved back to Wellington, and by 1910 he had retired. he died in 1936.

From information supplied by Dr Chris Brickell, Dunedin.


A company that had been making an impression on New Zealand audiences at this time was "The Lingards" led by English actor-manager W. Horace Lingard and his wife Alice Dunning Lingard. They toured the country with a variety of productions, including several of Gilbert's plays and the 'original' (licensed from J. C. Williamson) production of H.M.S. Pinafore.

Horace Lingard

Horace Lingard as Sir Joseph

It was at the end of this season of Pinafore that the Lingards mounted their very own follow up...The Wreck of the Pinafore! An original Comic Opera, in two acts and a hurricane. The libretto was by Horace Lingard and the music was by the conductor, Luscombe Searell.

Luscombe Searelle
Historic Note:
Luscombe Searelle was born in Devon, England, in 1853, but was raised in New Zealand from the age of nine. He worked as pianist, then conductor and composer at Christchurch. He wrote several unsuccessful operas. Only Estella became a smash hit in Australia where it was mounted by the Montague-Turner Opera Company in 1884. He became bankrupt in 1886 and left for the U.S.A. Searelle died in 1907.

The operetta opened to generally favourable reviews (read reviews) on November the 29th, 1880. There were two performances in Dunedin and the company performed it again in Auckland, opening January 1st, 1881.

The Wreck of the Pinafore! is a continuation of the G & S original. The characters from the earlier work, before they enter the bonds of wedlock, embark on a cruise. A hurricane sets in and they get wrecked. Ralph Rackstraw, instead of proving himself 'the foremost man' on the ship neglects Josephine and looks after only himself. Sir Joseph shows himself to be a thoroughly brave fellow and quickly intergrates himself into Josephine's good books. The Captain likewise discovers that Buttercup is an ill-bred woman and beneath his station, and so marries Hebe. Buttercup when taxed, admits that her story about mixing the babies was untrue, and the absurdity of it is shown by the fact that the Captain is so much Ralph's senior in years. The Opera closes with the shipwrecked people being rescued.

The programme for the first English production of 'The Wreck of the Pinafore'

Eventually Searell made his way to London. He added an 'e' to the end of his name and gained access to the Opéra Comique, where H.M.S. Pinafore had its first performance. He revived The Wreck of the Pinafore! It had its first performance there on May the 27th, 1882. The Opera gained him more notoriety than he had bargained for. The work was taken off after only four performances. Incidentally George Temple, who played Samuel in the 1880 D'Oyly Carte production of Pirates, played the role of Bill Bobstay in this London production. Also Fred Clifton, who took the part of the Sergeant of Police in the New York premiere of Pirates played Dick Deadeye.
The Times reviewer on May 29th, 1882, said "The music, though for the most part a meaningless jingle, did in one or two songs and choruses rise above the level of the libretto and so afforded an opportunity to a friendly section of the audience to express their approval."


During the popularity of Pinafore & Pirates it became fashionable to tour the country with a juvenile cast. This idea was first launched at the Opéra Comique, London, in December, 1879. The Children's Pinafore roused the wrath of Lewis Carroll who was 'sad beyond words' when he heard the juvenile Captain use that 'big, big D---'. The author could not understand how Gilbert could have stooped to write 'such vile trash'.
In Australia and New Zealand the tiny tot productions became so popular that often there were two different companies touring at the same time.

Cary's Juvenile Company in 'HMS Pinafore' photographed in Auckland in 1881

Reviews praised the youngsters:
"The ship's company comprised between sixty and seventy voices, while the list of Sir Joseph's sisters, cousins, and aunts numbered between sixty and seventy more."
"The little mites all knew their proper positions on the stage, and there was no confusion or bustling."
"The jollity of the whole business grows from the commencement. The choruses are good, and the stage is so well filled that the eye of the spectator is constantly discovering something not before observed."
"A black cook takes the place of the sailor who dances the hornpipe, which is a commendable change. The young lad who takes the part dances capitally in the negro breakdown style."

Of course, not all concerned were positive. This note in Wellington's Evening Post (May 9th, 1881):
"Can nothing be done to put a stop to the employment of children of tender years on the stage? The law is very strict in prescribing the number of hours adult women shall be employed in factories...However, there seems to be absolutely no protection for the poor little babes who are collected night after night before the garish footlights...Who does not remember the pathetic story of the poor little fellow at Sydney, whose unnatural exertions, night after night, in 'Pinafore', cost him his life, and who died singing, in his delirium, the 'Captain's Song'."

This evoked much debate in the paper's 'letters' column.



Tom Pollard was someone who was very important in the development of the Juvenile Opera Companies.

Tom Pollard was Tasmanian by birth but spent much of his life in New Zealand. Tom was born on April 28th, 1857, as O'Sullivan. James Joseph Pollard ran a small company in Tasmania in which Tom played second fiddle. Because everyone else in the orchestra were Pollard brothers and sisters, Tom adopted the family name which he retained for the rest of his life.

J.J. Pollard's company was a family business which started in Tasmania, then toured smaller Australian towns and finally moved over to New Zealand.

Tom initially took over as stage director and when J.J. Pollard died Tom carried on the Company. He married Emily Pollard, J.J.'s daughter.

Pollard's Liliputian Opera Company began its first New Zealand tour in 1881. On March 15th H.M.S. Pinafore opened at Sloan's Theatre, Invercargill.

During the period 1880-1886 the first Pollard Company performed Patience (Auckland, March 1885) and The Pirates of Penzance (Dunedin, June 1885). Also in their repertoire were Les Cloches de Corneville (Panquette), La Fille de Madame Angot (Lecocq), La Mascotte (Audran) and Gilbert's play Sweethearts.

The unique thing about the Pollard Company was that it began with a group of boys and girls - from ages ten to thirteen - and that they kept together. As the children grew up the Company changed from being called the Liliputian Opera Company to the more adult Pollard's Opera Company. Mr and Mrs Pollard cared for all the children - they dressed and educated them.

Tom Pollard

For 22 years the Pollards entertained the country with 42 different productions among them several Gilbert and Sullivan works.

The last production of the Pollard's in New Zealand was the opera Tapu, written by New Zealand author, Arthur H. Adams, and composed by another New Zealander, Alfred Hill. The New Zealand Times wrote:
"Tapu is full of melody. Mr Hill has displayed a wealth of resource in scoring picturesque, varied and spontaneous music, full of graceful and characteristic melody, and has at the same time proved his artistic judgement by avoiding the merely superficial."

The Pollard organisation finally disbanded while touring South Africa. Tom Pollard returned to New Zealand. He organised a new Juvenile Company. Its first play Bluebell in Fairyland was a runaway success. The first season in Christchurch repaid the production costs. It then toured the country returning for a second and a third season in Christchurch.

Pollard became involved in the movie business. During the Great War he acted as film-advisor to the Government.

He died in 1922.

For a complete history of the Pollard Liliputian Opera Company read the book The Pollards by Peter Downes. Click here for more information.

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