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Dampier, Alfred (1843–1908)

by John Rickard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Alfred Dampier (1848-1908), by unknown photographer

Alfred Dampier (1848-1908), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H10260

Alfred Dampier (1843-1908), actor-manager, was born on 28 February 1843 at Horsham, Sussex, England, son of John Damper, builder, and Mary Ann Simmonds. He was educated at Charterhouse School and began work in a barrister's office, but an interest in amateur theatricals diverted him to a stage career. His main experience in England was in the Manchester company headed by Henry Irving. In 1866 Irving moved on to London and fame, and in the following years Dampier graduated to the rank of leading man.

In 1873 Dampier was invited to Melbourne by H. R. Harwood, representative of a theatrical syndicate which included George Selth Coppin. He made his colonial début at the Royal Theatre, playing Mephistopheles in his own adaptation of Goethe's Faust. He formed his own company and in 1877, as Hamlet, made his first appearance in Sydney. For the next thirty years Dampier and his company were a notable part of the Australian theatrical scene. Although he retained a reputation as a Shakespearian actor, Dampier found himself committed by necessity to the popular medium of melodrama, and he used, according to the tastes of the time, an increasing amount of spectacular scenic effects. Many of his plays were either his own adaptations or those of friends and colleagues; in 1876-82, for example, he staged five plays by Francis Hopkins, all derived from European works despite their local authorship.

Dampier's distinction for promoting a native Australian drama seems to date from his successful production in 1886 of For the Term of His Natural Life, which was followed by Robbery Under Arms in 1890 and The Miner's Right in 1891; all three were adapted for the stage by Dampier himself. Although advertised as plays of literary importance, Dampier took great liberties with the originals, particularly in providing happy endings. It is clear that these plays were of no great quality, but many applauded the Australian spirit of the productions. He also produced several of his own melodramas, amongst them Marvellous Melbourne (1889, co-author T. Somers), This Great City (1891), and To The West (1896, co-author K. Mackay). While relying on traditional devices of the form, these melodramas used a range of stock Australian characters and revealed an aggressive, nascent nationalism. Marvellous Melbourne, timed for the 1888-89 exhibition, was a particular success; it concluded, appropriately, with the heroine's horse winning the Melbourne Cup off stage.

Contemporary reviews suggest that as an actor Dampier was sound rather than brilliant. He was generally praised for his elocutionary powers, presence and sense of restraint. His company toured Australia and New Zealand, but was particularly associated with the Alexandra Theatre in Melbourne and the Royal Standard in Sydney. He visited the United States in 1878 and made several trips to England; there he produced Hopkins's All For Gold in 1881 and Robbery Under Arms in 1894, but neither appears to have been successful. In the depression of 1893 he became insolvent but soon recovered.

At Birmingham in 1866 Dampier had married Katherine Alice, daughter of T. H. Russell, R. A. Katherine had been a pianist, but in Australia she and her children appeared regularly with her husband's company. Dampier died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 23 May 1908 at his home in Paddington, Sydney, and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his wife, who died aged 66 in the United States on 8 March 1915, and by one son and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • P. McGuire et al, The Australian Theatre (Melbourne, 1948)
  • G. L. C. Rees, Towards an Australian Drama (Sydney, 1953)
  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Adelaide, 1965)
  • N. Campbell, 'Alfred Dampier', Shakespearean Quarterly, vol 3, no 1, Jan 1924, pp 28-30
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 7 June 1906
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 May 1908
  • manuscript catalogue under Alfred Dampier (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

John Rickard, 'Dampier, Alfred (1843–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dampier-alfred-3360/text5067, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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