Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Fanny Cathcart (1833–1880)

by Helen M. Van Der Poorten

This article was published:

Fanny Cathcart, by Foster &​ Martin, c.1879

Fanny Cathcart, by Foster &​ Martin, c.1879

State Library of Victoria, 49386750

Mary Fanny Cathcart (1833-1880), actress, was born in England, daughter of James Cathcart, a provincial theatrical manager mainly at Liverpool and Glasgow, and his wife Fannie, née Hubbard; her brothers James and Rowley Cathcart (b.1832) became well-known performers on the London stage.

She was discovered in 1853 by the tragedian, Gustavus Brooke, while acting in the stock company of the Theatre Royal, Liverpool, and after playing with him for a season at Drury Lane, London, she contracted to act as his leading juvenile actress for two years from September 1854. She arrived at Melbourne with Brooke's party in 1855, and made her début as Desdemona on 26 February at the Queen's Theatre Royal. Although overshadowed by Brooke in Melbourne and Geelong, she received at Sydney in May the kind of enthusiastic reception which was to distinguish her career. Her freshness and good looks inspired audiences at Sydney's Royal Victoria to lavish upon her gifts of jewellery. Although the Empire referred scathingly to 'Miss Cathcart's habit of metallic enunciation', most critics were impressed by her unusually clear delivery and surprised by her intelligent portrayals of Portia, and of Julia in The Hunchback by J. S. Knowles. On 14 July 1855, with the reluctant permission of Brooke, she married Robert James Heir (d.1868?) at St James's Church, Sydney; they had three children, all of whom died in infancy. Heir was a young English actor in Brooke's company and remained a performer of dubious competence. In 1858-59 he was manager of the Theatre Royal, Melbourne.

Back at Melbourne in August 1855 the couple left Brooke's Olympic Theatre company for higher wages at the old Queen's, then managed by John Black. After one night of performance there, Mrs Heir was restrained by a court order from Brooke. A sensational equity case followed, where personal issues were as prominent as professional ones. Although Brooke succeeded in having his contract upheld, and though the Heirs acted with him even when it had expired, their relations with Brooke were strained. For the next decade Mrs Heir occupied 'the highest position on the Australian stage', as a leading actress of Shakespeare and high comedy. As well as remaining attractive, an advantage in her best parts Beatrice and Lady Teazle, her performances were marked by a precision and careful attention to detail which drew admiring houses in South Australia, Tasmania, New South Wales and particularly Victoria. The Melbourne press regarded her as primarily a local actress and praised the unusual respectability of her private life. She was involved in most of the outstanding theatrical events of the early 1860s in Melbourne, supporting the American comedian, Joseph Jefferson, in Our American Cousin on the opening night of George Coppin's Haymarket Theatre in September 1862. In 1863 she was the leading actress in tragedian Barry Sullivan's spectacular series of Shakespearian revivals at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne. This led to her playing in vicious opposition to the Charles Kean management at the Haymarket, where the touring company included her brother James, whom she had warned of 'the wretched inefficiency of the actors' in Australia.

By 1864 Mrs Heir was losing some of her vivacity and passed such roles as Lady Teazle to younger actresses. Constant indisposition, too, may have led to her partial retirement from the stage. In March 1871, to the surprise of critics in both Melbourne and Sydney, she reappeared at Sydney's Prince of Wales Opera House, married to her second husband, George Frederick Price Darrell, and playing Camille to his Armand Duval. The flamboyant Darrell became a writer of Australian melodramas and his wife, having been the first actress to star in East Lynne and similar 'sensation plays' in Australia, was well equipped to occupy the more mature female parts.

Audiences and critics alike were delighted at the reappearance of the actress who could remind them of Brooke and the 'golden days' of the Australian stage. At Melbourne in July the Argus was not so impressed and attributed her fair success to the many personal friends she had there. Certainly her versatility had left her and earlier praises for her clear enunciation had turned into complaints that 'Mrs. Darrell has, unhappily, a disposition to declaim at all times'. In this season, strangely miscast as the youthful Ophelia, her singing voice failed completely in the mad scene and critics hinted that she was growing too old for many parts.

Between 1872 and 1877 with 'Darrell's Dramatic Company' she toured in New Zealand, America, Brisbane and Adelaide, performing in her now famous husband's plays. In July 1877 at the Royal Victoria, Sydney, she reappeared at the end of his Transported for Life season to act as Lady Macbeth for his benefit. Though she returned in March 1878 to play in her husband's Back from the Grave, she seems to have acted infrequently from this time. Her unusual popularity and the sentimental value attached to her reappearances prevented these last performances from disturbing her reputation. After a long illness she died on 3 January 1880 at her home in Carlton, Melbourne.

The Sydney Morning Herald's description of Mrs Darrell as 'the first of the great English actresses to be seen on the colonial stage' exaggerates her international importance. She reached her professional maturity in the colonies, and it is as Australia's leading mid-century legitimate actress that she must be judged. Like G. V. Brooke, her acting style dated during her career. At no time a strikingly influential actress, she nevertheless set an example of professional competence, meticulousness and versatility to her Australian colleagues.

Select Bibliography

  • manuscript catalogue under G. V. Brooke and D. Drummond (State Library of New South Wales)
  • correspondence file on Charles John Kean (National Library of New Zealand).

Citation details

Helen M. Van Der Poorten, 'Cathcart, Mary Fanny (1833–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 27 May 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

Fanny Cathcart, by Foster &​ Martin, c.1879

Fanny Cathcart, by Foster &​ Martin, c.1879

State Library of Victoria, 49386750

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Heir, Mary
  • Darrell, Mary



3 January, 1880 (aged ~ 47)
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.