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Williamson, James Cassius (1845–1913)

by Helen M. Van Der Poorten

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

James Cassius Williamson (1845-1913), by unknown photographer

James Cassius Williamson (1845-1913), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L17245

James Cassius Williamson (1845-1913), actor and theatrical manager, was born on 26 August 1845 in Mercer, Pennsylvania, United States of America, son of James Hezlep Williamson (1820-1857), physician, and his wife Selina, née Campbell (d.1878). About 1856 the family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where James was educated and made a clandestine theatrical début in 1857. In 1861 he worked for the theatrical company of 'Messres. Hurd and Perkins' as call-boy, general assistant and a maker of scenery and props; next year he joined the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Toronto, Canada, and then went to New York. He became known as a dialect comedian. In 1871 he moved to San Francisco and met comedienne Margaret Virginia Sullivan, whom he married at St Mary's Cathedral, San Francisco, on 2 February 1873. On 23 February they starred in Struck Oil, a sketchy script bought for $100 and rewritten by his friend Clay M. Greene, and delighted audiences in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Williamsons visited Australia under contract to George Coppin. On 1 August 1874 Struck Oil opened at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne; having taken £7000, they moved on to the Queen's Theatre, Sydney. After revisiting Melbourne and touring Adelaide they left in October 1875 wealthy and famous, to tour England, Europe and the United States until 1879.

In July, with the Australasian rights to H.M.S. Pinafore purchased from W. S. Gilbert for £300, the Williamsons left again for Australia. They opened on 23 August 1879 under Coppin's management at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne. A successful Sydney season followed, after which Williamson took out injunctions against illicit performances of Pinafore. In 1880 he formed his (Royal) Comic Opera Company and on 8 September next year became sole lessee of the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, introducing enormous technical facilities and lavish sets. After a tour of New Zealand, in 1882 he entered into partnership with Arthur Garner and George Musgrove. Coppin believed that both Williamson and Garner were too ill-tempered to agree. The 'Triumvirate' was often criticized for creating a monopoly, crushing the old repertory system and discouraging local actors, but it brought to Australia such artists as George Rignold and Dion Boucicault senior, as well as training new talent such as Nellie Stewart. In December 1886 they opened the luxurious (New) Princess's Theatre in Melbourne with The Mikado.

Professional rivalry over Nellie Stewart caused Musgrove to secede from 'the Firm' in 1890, but Williamson, Garner & Co. triumphed when they brought Sarah Bernhardt to Australia in 1891, giving their business stroke the look of artistry. At the end of the year Williamson bought Garner out, but Maggie Moore left him for the actor Harry Roberts, making extensive financial claims upon Williamson. Despite his assertion that he would 'rather go to jail than pay for her debts', she persisted and in March 1894 successfully appealed against an injunction by his solicitors against her performing Struck Oil. Divorced by his wife for adultery in June 1899, he married his paramour Mary Alice Weir, a dancer, on 15 August in Sydney at the Registrar-General's Department.

Musgrove had rejoined Williamson in 1892, and in January 1896 they broke records with an original Australian pantomime, Djin Djin. Musgrove later went to London as the firm's agent, but fell out with 'cautious Jimmy', over some risky London ventures. The dissolution of their partnership in 1899 caused animosity, and Williamson continued as sole lessee of the Princess's Theatre until May 1900. He renovated the old Alexandra Theatre, Melbourne, renaming it Her Majesty's and filling it with imported stars. He also leased the Sydney Her Majesty's, and in February 1902 mounted Ben Hur at a cost of £14,000. A bubonic plague outbreak temporarily closed the theatre and it was burnt down on 23 March with huge losses; but Williamson organized a Shakespearian company at the Theatre Royal, and rebuilt the theatre by August 1903. Next year he entered partnership with George Tallis, his Melbourne manager, and with Gustav Ramaciotti as legal adviser. Visually sensational shows were now 'the Firm's' speciality, and 650 people were on the permanent payroll.

From 1907 Williamson withdrew from some managerial work into private life at Tudor, Elizabeth Bay, with his wife and their daughters Marjorie and Aimée. In 1910 a proprietary company J. C. Williamson Ltd was formed with Ramaciotti as managing director; next year the company absorbed (Sir Rupert) Clarke and (Clyde) Meynell Pty Ltd; Williamson was governing director. They achieved outstanding successes with tours by H. B. Irving and (Dame) Nellie Melba. Williamson, with much to gain from protecting his right to import stars, successfully opposed an application by Australian actors to the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration to form a union in 1913.

In his latter years Williamson took a great interest in racehorses; his Blue Book dead-heated in the Caulfield Cup of 1909, and Cadonia won the Australian Jockey Club St Leger in 1911. He spent most of his time in Europe but in February 1913 he performed in a benefit in Sydney for the widows of Captain Robert Scott's Antarctic expedition. Returning to his family in France via the United States his heart condition worsened; he died in Paris on 6 July 1913, attended by his wife and daughters. He was buried, contrary to his wishes, in the Williamson section of Oak Woods cemetery, Chicago, Illinois. He left an elaborately divided estate, valued for probate at £193,010.

Williamson was Australia's most successful theatrical entrepreneur. His non-theatrical middle-class background gave him an understanding of what the public wanted to see, and he retained a child's 'fairy-tale' view of the theatre's magic; nevertheless, his distaste for the avant-garde and his consolidation of the long-run and starring system have often been criticized. Possibly an authoritarian manager, and temperamental in his youth, he still earned the adulation of his employees.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Williamson's Life-Story Told in His Own Words, A. G. Stephens ed (Syd, 1913)
  • N. Stewart, My Life's Story (Syd, 1923)
  • G. B. Shaw, A letter From George Bernard Shaw to J.C.Williamson (Cremorne, 1955)
  • G. Lauri, The Australian Theatre Story (Syd, priv print, 1960)
  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Adel, 1965)
  • V. Tait, A Family of Brothers (Melb, 1971)
  • I. G. Dicker, J. C. W.: A Short Biography (Rose Bay, 1974)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 Aug 1874
  • Australasian, 12 Dec 1891, 23 Mar 1895, 18 Mar 1899, 7 May 1904
  • manuscript and printed catalogues under J. C. Williamson (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen M. Van Der Poorten, 'Williamson, James Cassius (1845–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williamson-james-cassius-4859/text8117, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

James Cassius Williamson (1845-1913), by unknown photographer

James Cassius Williamson (1845-1913), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L17245