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Spencer, Cosens (1874–1930)

by Diane Collins

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Cosens Spencer (1874-1930), film entrepreneur, was born on 12 February 1874 at Hunston, Sussex, England, and named Spencer, third son of Cornelius Cosens, farmer, and his wife Ellen, née Wheeler. Fired by tales of gold, in 1892 he went with his brother Arthur to British Columbia, Canada. Although well educated, he did whatever came to hand — splitting rails, driving cattle near Vernon and working in a store. Joined by another brother Sidney in 1894, they founded Cosens Bros, universal providers, at Fairview and Camp McKinney; their horsemanship earned them the sobriquet the 'Cayoose Cosens'.

In 1898 Spencer was a clerk at Vernon. Soon after, he began screening moving pictures and reversed his names. He met and married vivacious, Edinburgh-born Mary Stuart Huntly; known professionally as 'Senora Spencer', she became his chief projectionist and business partner. A handsome, dark-haired, dapper man, with a closely trimmed beard and moustache, Spencer was short and stout, and loved jewellery. On 1 July 1905, after exhibiting in New Zealand, the Spencers opened the 'Great American Theatrescope' at the Lyceum Theatre, Sydney. Having made a very profitable tour of Australia, the pair remodelled the Lyceum as a permanent picture theatre from June 1908. That month Spencer established a film production company under Raymond Longford's direction, with Ernest Higgins as photographer. Their output of narrative, newsreel and scenic films included features such as The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole (1911) and Sweet Nell of Old Drury (1911). In August 1912 Spencer opened an elaborate new studio at Rushcutters Bay.

The success of the Lyceum enterprise led Spencer to acquire picture theatres across Australia, as well as overseas agencies for film releases, which ensured the continued quality of his programmes. His screenings ranged from footage of the San Francisco earthquake and the Burns-Johnson fight to the American classic, The Great Train Robbery, and the Italian epic, Quo Vadis? The largest importer of films in Australia by 1912, Spencer made the cinema attractive to middle-and working-class audiences by publicity and by providing salubrious premises with ambitious musical and special effects.

In 1911 he had mistakenly placed his diverse interests under the control of a public company, Spencer's Pictures Ltd. Next year, while he was overseas, the board voted to merge with the combine, Australasian Films Ltd, which had no interest in local film-making. Isolated and betrayed, Spencer cajoled Australasian into making a feature, The Shepherd of the Southern Cross, but its box office failure precluded further productions and he resigned from the board. Legally prohibited by the agreement with Australasian Films from active involvement in exhibition, Spencer maintained links with the industry through his wife who continued to run cinemas at Newcastle and in Brisbane. He lived at Darling Point and contributed generously to war loans. In 1918 the Spencers were sued by Spencer's Pictures Ltd, Australasian Films Ltd and Union Theatres Ltd for an alleged breach of contract; following settlement out of court, Mary sold her exhibition interests to the 'combine'.

The Spencers quit Sydney; by 1923 they had acquired Chilco ranch in British Columbia. Spencer drowned himself in the Chilcotin River after fatally shooting his storeman and wounding another man on 10 September 1930. His wife survived him. His estate was sworn for probate in Canada at $346,059; in Australia his debts exceeded his assets by £8840. He left the residue of his estate to the 'Orphanages of Sydney'.

Select Bibliography

  • Spencer's Pictures Ltd, Souvenir Programme … August 16, 1912 (Syd, 1912)
  • A. Pike and R. Cooper, Australian Film, 1900-1977 (Melb, 1980)
  • D. Collins, Hollywood Down Under (Syd, 1987)
  • Theatre (Sydney, Melbourne), 2 July 1906, 1 Jan 1907, 1 Oct 1910, 1 Jan 1915, 2 Sept 1918
  • Lone Hand, Sept 1918
  • Everyone's, 17 Sept, 22 Oct 1930
  • M. E. Darling, ‘Arthur Cosens, 1872-1949’, Okanagan Historical Society Journal, 1949
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1, 3 July 1905, 30 July, 1 Aug 1918
  • Bulletin, 6 Feb 1906
  • coroner's inquest on Cosens Spencer, records (Provincial Archives, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada).

Citation details

Diane Collins, 'Spencer, Cosens (1874–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spencer-cosens-8604/text15027, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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