Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Ringrose Atkins (1851–1908)

by Helen M. Van Der Poorten

This article was published:

John Ringrose Atkins (1851-1908), theatrical manager, was born in Dublin, son of John Robert Atkins and his wife Agnes, née Campion. At Melbourne in the 1850s his father became a well-known barrister and a friend of Sir Redmond Barry. In 1862 John went to Melbourne Grammar School. After a brief but spectacular journalistic career he adopted the name 'Dan Barry' and took to the stage, performing for some years in the country. From this time he was never known as Atkins, and after his death friends offered many different suggestions about his real name. That the University of Melbourne has no record of the tertiary training Barry claimed is less important than his self-advertisement as a man of education. Certainly his habit of passing lurid melodramas to bush audiences as the work of prominent philanthropists and politicians appears to have been the work of a well-read eccentric. It is undoubtedly Dan Barry to whom Max O'Rell alludes when he tells of the 'tricky trash' served up by a country actor-manager and attributed to the evangelist, C. H. Spurgeon.

An early Melbourne performance by Barry at Mendes' Academy of Music is mentioned in the Lorgnette, 2 November 1878, but he became best known as Australia's leading outback manager. He visited inland towns as far north as Bourke on his tours, often living in local theatres to save money. Such thrift, and his habit of paying actors inadequately, was thought to account for the large personal fortune he boasted; his managerial qualities were said to be the envy even of J. C. Williamson.

The Melbourne home of Barry's company was the Alexandra Theatre, a play-house more often used by the Shakespearian actor, Alfred Dampier. Perhaps Barry's most successful city season was in 1898 when he specialized in bloodthirsty melodramas presented with the utmost realism and often set in Melbourne. In January the Tatler claimed that he 'has never failed to turn the luck of the Alexandra', and by 28 February his audiences were sufficiently large to justify a weekly change of repertoire. For the Argus critic an amusing aspect of the season was Barry's flamboyant style of advertising. With The Relief of Lucknow on 20 January, for instance, audiences were invited to 'Pulsate with Proud Patriotism', and in Days of the Land Boom Dan promised that Melbourne would be depicted as 'Frenzied with the Fierce Financial Fever of the Day'. The most remunerative presentation of the season was The Kelly Gang, commencing on 14 March with Barry playing Ned as an 'amiable sort of murderer', but other features were Black Thursday which capitalized on recent fires in Gippsland, and on 5 March Factory Girls of Melbourne in which Melbourne policemen and public figures were satirized. Dan Barry was said to have composed such pieces. His company left for the country on 1 May, but not before they had taken 'full advantage of the war spirit now in the air' by presenting The Roll of the Drum at the outbreak of the Spanish-American war.

Barry had never been exclusively concerned with dramatic presentations, and is recorded as having connexions with a circus in Bendigo. In 1907 he organized 'Paradise', a picture and concert entertainment at St Kilda Beach. His last venture was an inevitable tour of Victorian country towns. Survived by his mother, he died unmarried at South Yarra on 1 July 1908.

The legendary proportions he attained make him one of the most elusive figures in Australia's stage history. After his death most journals carried anecdotes about his practical jokes or pet bulldog, although their accuracy may be questioned; he was undoubtedly one of Victoria's notorious personalities. As an actor he was barely competent as clergymen and villains, but as a manager his understanding of audiences' weaknesses was unequalled by any of his great metropolitan contemporaries.

Select Bibliography

  • M. O'Rell (L. P. Blouet), John Bull & Co. The Great Colonial Branches of the Firm (Lond, 1894)
  • R. M. Jukes (ed), Liber Melburniensis, centenary edition (Melb, 1965), p 19.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen M. Van Der Poorten, 'Atkins, John Ringrose (1851–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Dan Barry
  • Barry, Dan

Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


1 July, 1908 (aged ~ 57)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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