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Charles Wittowitto Cawthorne (1854–1925)

by Suzanne Edgar and Joyce Gibberd

This article was published:

Charles Wittowitto Cawthorne (1854-1925), music-seller and concert-manager, was born on 30 June 1854 in Adelaide, eldest son of William Anderson Cawthorne and his wife Maryann Georgina, née Mower, a pianist. His father had come to South Australia in 1841 and established the Victoria Square Academy in that year; he taught until 1862 when he became founder and secretary of the National Building Society. He had a serious interest in and knowledge of Aboriginals and published The Islanders (1854), an enlightened account of white-Aboriginal relations in South Australia before colonization, and The Legend of Kuperree, or the Red Kangaroo … (1858), concerning the traditions, customs and dialect of the Port Lincoln tribe. He had held an exhibition of his water-colours in 1855 and died in 1897.

At 14 Charles began studying piano with Louis Eselbach and violin with F. Draeger. He also became proficient on the bassoon. In 1870 he began work with his father in a newsagent's business in Morphett Street. The firm became Cawthorne & Co. with father and son as partners in 1884, and they soon occupied part of a new building in Grenfell Street and Gawler Place; they now advertised for the first time as 'music-sellers and artists' colormen'. By 1887 Charles ran the business alone. In 1911 a prime site in Rundle Street was leased and named Cawthorne's Building.

By 1896 Cawthorne's were carrying sheet music from sixty publishers from England, France and Germany. Cawthorne would sit at the piano and try the new songs, throwing those he considered 'rubbish' on the floor. The 'music warehouse' also stocked instruments, books, opals and fine art. The firm acted as a box-office for most musical events in Adelaide, and by 1900 was also printing and publishing original compositions.

On most nights of the week Cawthorne was busy conducting, performing in and organizing musical entertainments. At 18 he was conducting the Adelaide Amateur Orchestra of forty players and had composed a prize-winning waltz. Another successful piece, the Olivia Waltz, sold well in London as the Southern Cross Waltz. On 9 September 1885 he married Amanda Dorothea Lellmann who shared his musical interests.

In the early 1890s Cawthorne formed a group of fifteen players known as the Adelaide Orchestra, which from 1893 formed the nucleus of Herman Heinicke's Grand Orchestra; Cawthorne continued to play bassoon and was secretary and treasurer. They became very popular: by 1896 they were staging thirteen concerts a year and the town hall was too small to hold all their patrons. In 1898 he began managing the short-lived students' Conservatorium Grand Orchestra. By now he was seen as a peerless manager. The two orchestras amalgamated to form the Conservatorium Grand Orchestra, soon renamed the Adelaide Grand Orchestra with Cawthorne as bassoonist and business manager. On Christmas night 1899 they combined with the Adelaide Choral Society and the Orpheus Society in a splendid production of The Messiah. This became an annual highlight. Cawthorne continued composing: his orchestral piece Romance won the prize at a concert judged by public ballot in 1902. In 1910 he became founder and conductor of the Adelaide Orchestral Society.

In World War I he leased the German Club which became Queen's Hall, a venue for patriotic concerts. Cawthorne's 'breezy personality attracted talented musicians from all over Australia'. He also managed concerts for and helped to promote Clara Serena (Kleinschmidt), the Adelaide Choral Society, the Bach Choir, the Adelaide Liedertafel Society, the Metropolitan Male Voice Choir and the Adelaide Glee Club. He encouraged young musicians of talent and helped raise money for them to study abroad.

The portly Cawthorne, though usually jovial, could become somewhat peppery and outspoken. In 1924 a limited company was formed and his eldest son 'Gus', who had joined the firm in 1903, became managing director. Two other sons were directors and Cawthorne himself was chairman. Predeceased by his wife and survived by his four sons, he died of cerebro-vascular disease on 26 June 1925 at his home at King's Park, and was buried in North Road cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £7927.

Select Bibliography

  • W. A. Cawthorne, Menge, the Mineralogist (Adel, 1859)
  • Cawthorne's Ltd, Music in the Nineties (Adel, 1925)
  • Universal Publicity Co., The Official Civic Record of South Australia (Adel, 1936)
  • H. Brewster-Jones, ‘Music’, Progress in Australia, vols 5-6 (1934-36), and ‘Pioneers and problems’, Australia Musical News, Oct 1936
  • J. Horner, ‘A short history of music in South Australia’, Australian Letters, Mar 1960
  • J. J. Healy, ‘The treatment of the Aborigine …’, Australian Literary Studies, May 1972
  • ‘Trade notes’, Music (Adelaide), Nov, Dec 1896, Apr 1897, June, July, Dec 1898, Dec 1899, June, Aug, Oct 1900
  • Critic (Adelaide), 21 June 1902
  • Observer (Adelaide), 2 Oct 1897
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 25, 27 Dec 1899, 27 June 1925
  • Adelaide Orchestral Society minutes, 1879-80 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Cawthorne notes 1047/64 (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar and Joyce Gibberd, 'Cawthorne, Charles Wittowitto (1854–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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