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Simmons, Joseph (1810–1893)

by H. L. Oppenheim

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Joseph Simmons (1810?-1893), actor and manager, arrived from England in Sydney as a settler in May 1830 and became an auctioneer at 61 George Street. He claimed to have been connected with English provincial theatres and minor London houses since he was 12 and may have been one of the amateurs who appeared at Barnett Levey's early concerts. In 1832 Simmons left for England; while in Hobart Town in November he gave a concert under the name of Joseph Ray and stated his intention of bringing a theatrical company to the colonies.

Back in Sydney in January 1834 Simmons opened Paddington House, a 'fancy bazaar' in George Street. At this time Levey was advertising for a partner with capital for his young Theatre Royal, specifying that 'such only as are prepared to give their personal attention to the management of the concern can be accepted'. In February Simmons became part-proprietor and manager of the theatre and also made his début as actor. The critics praised his first-rate talent as comic performer, especially in Irish characters, but he played a much wider range of parts and was Sydney's first Macbeth; his best Shakespearian parts were Mercutio and Iago. As manager, however, Simmons was less successful; 'the warmth of his temper and the impetuosity of his disposition' led to constant friction and litigation and the partnership with Levey ended in February 1835. Simmons continued his business activities and there were persistent rumours of his planning to start a second theatre in Sydney. But he was one of the six lessees who in April 1835 took over the Theatre Royal and he once again became its manager. In November the other partners withdrew, leaving Simmons as sole lessee and manager until May 1836. After another furious row with Levey he left for Launceston and Hobart where he gave several concerts and dramatic readings, this time under his own name. His stay in Hobart coincided with the shareholders' meeting which was to decide on the letting of Hobart's new Theatre Royal; Simmons was considered as a lessee but he returned to Sydney as partner in the new firm of Simmons & Marks, auctioneers and ironmongers. When the partnership dissolved in September 1837 Simmons gave concerts and dramatic readings in Sydney; in July 1838 Joseph Wyatt, one of his fellow-lessees of the Theatre Royal, engaged him for his new Victoria Theatre. In March 1839 Simmons became licensee of a public house but he remained at the theatre until October. In 1841-42 he made several unsuccessful applications for a licence to open a second theatre in Sydney but he missed the opportunity and an outsider opened the Olympic Theatre in February-May 1842. In April Simmons was back as manager and performer at the Victoria Theatre and soon afterwards achieved the greatest success of his career as actor and singer. A burletta, The Mock Catalani in Little Puddleton, for which Charles Nagel claimed authorship although it was the adaptation of an older German play, offered in its title part full opportunity for Simmons's special talents as comic actor and counter-tenor; already he had delighted audiences with a 'Mock Italian Aria'.

In September Simmons left the Victoria to concentrate on preparations for his own theatre. The government still was disinclined to allow a second theatre but a new power had arisen: the City Council of Sydney backed Simmons's application to open his City Theatre in 'Mr Burdekin's large store, at the corner of Market Street'. With his partner, James Belmore, a highly skilled machinist from the London theatres, who had worked in the Sydney theatres and had been important in the building of Hobart's Theatre Royal, Simmons converted the store into a beautiful little theatre and most of the Victoria's leading players joined his company. Yet the small City Theatre, which opened in May 1843, could not compete with the Victoria and had to close after a few weeks.

Back at the Victoria Simmons enjoyed great popularity as an actor, especially in comedy parts. For his benefit in August 1844 he presented his own drama, The Duellist, which he claimed to be 'the first truly original drama ever produced in the Colony'; it was performed only twice. A month later he became owner of the Tavistock Hotel at the corner of King and York Streets and there he gave free concerts three nights every week. He still appeared occasionally in comedy parts at Victoria Theatre until his final row with Wyatt in April 1845. 'My theatrical career in New South Wales is ended', Simmons wrote in a letter to his public with whom he had been so popular for eleven years.

Heads of the People, 6 November 1847, in an article, 'The Country Storekeeper', with portrait drawing, tells of a later phase in the life of Joseph Simmons; 'in every circle where his name is mentioned, it carries with it an idea of fun and good humour'. Almost half a century after his first arrival in Sydney, in June 1879, a Grand Complimentary Benefit was given in Sydney's Theatre Royal to Joseph Simmons senior, 'the old favourite actor and manager'. He played one of his early parts, Benjamin Bowbell in The Illustrious Stranger; a critic wrote that 'notwithstanding that he is not so young as he once was, he made a very amusing portraiture'. He died in Sydney on 9 August 1893.

Citation details

H. L. Oppenheim, 'Simmons, Joseph (1810–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/simmons-joseph-2663/text3621, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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