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Charles Haddon Chambers (1860–1921)

by B. G. Andrews

This article was published:

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Charles Haddon Spurgeon Chambers (1860-1921), by Arthur Ellis and Walery

Charles Haddon Spurgeon Chambers (1860-1921), by Arthur Ellis and Walery

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an14057803

Charles Haddon Spurgeon Chambers (1860-1921), dramatist, was born on 22 April 1860 at Petersham, Sydney, son of Irish parents John Ritchie Chambers, public servant, and his wife Frances, née Kellett. Educated at Marrickville and Fort Street public schools, Chambers left at 13 after his father's pension was halved: he worked as a clerk for a Sydney merchant and in 1875-76 for the Department of Mines. Finding the routine irksome, Chambers became a boundary rider for two years near Camden until invited by visiting cousins to return with them to Ulster. From there he went to London, returned briefly to Sydney where he was an agent for the Montague-Turner opera company and for the Australian Mutual Provident Society, and settled in England in 1882.

As a youth in Sydney, Chambers had 'loitered in the outer courts of journalism', meeting poets such as 'Harold Grey', G. H. Gibson and Victor Daley. In London he wrote to support himself, drawing partly on his Australian experiences for the stories and sketches he contributed to Society, Truth, the Sunday Times and other journals from 1884; several were reprinted in the miscellanies of A. Patchett Martin and Philip Mennell. Chambers also wrote London letters for the Bulletin, and helped W. H. Traill to secure the services of the cartoonist Phil May.

In 1886 Haddon Chambers had his first play performed, but wider recognition did not come until 1888 when Captain Swift was successfully staged in London, with Herbert Tree in the title role of the Queenstand bushranger whose past catches up with him in England. The only Chambers play with significant Australian colour, it is chiefly remembered for the phrase 'The long arm of coincidence has reached after me'. During three decades as a playwright Chambers wrote or collaborated on some twenty plays which were staged in the West End; several had long runs and were performed also in New York. The best were the comedies The Tyranny of Tears (1899) and The Saving Grace (1917), in which Chambers displayed a lightness of verbal touch and a characteristic economy in the management of plot and characters. Among his other successes were The Fatal Card (1894), one of the best melodramas of the 1890s, and Passers-By (1911).

Chambers carefully planned his plays but seldom revised them, and had a reputation for indolence despite his sporting passions. He was a man of great personal charm: well-read, widely travelled, witty, strikingly handsome with his youthful looks and chiselled features, and a superb conversationalist. He was prominent in London club life and much in demand with society hostesses. In 1891 he published Thumb-Nail Sketches of Australian Life (New York) and later coached Melba in acting, but after Captain Swift he retained few Australian connexions. The first Australian dramatist to win recognition overseas, he was also, ironically, a striking example of the 'cultural cringe'. As a result he won repute as a 'citizen of the world' during his lifetime and was forgotten after his death.

On 29 October 1920 Chambers married 28-year-old Nelly Louise Burton, an actress known professionally as 'Pepita Bobadilla'. Survived by his wife and a daughter by his first wife Mary, née Dewer, he died of cerebro-vascular disease at the Bath Club, London, on 28 March 1921 and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery. He died intestate leaving property worth £9195.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Russell, The Passing Show (Lond, 1926)
  • A. Nicoll, A History of English Drama, 1660-1900, vol 5 (Cambridge, 1959)
  • A. A. Phillips, The Australian Tradition, (Melb, 1966)
  • J. Hetherington, Melba (Melb, 1967)
  • M. Booth, English Plays of the Nineteenth Century, vol 3 (Oxford, 1973)
  • A. Nicoll, English Drama, 1900-1930 (Lond, 1973
  • ‘The genesis of “The Bulletin”’, Lone Hand, Nov 1907
  • G. Hill, ‘Charles Haddon Chambers’, Lone Hand, Sept 1915
  • J. D. Williams, ‘A play-boy of two worlds’, Century Magazine, Dec 1921
  • Bulletin, 25 Aug 1888, 15 Feb 1912
  • Times (London), 29 Mar 1921, p 11, 2 Apr 1921, p 11, 6 May 1921, p 13
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Mar 1921.

Citation details

B. G. Andrews, 'Chambers, Charles Haddon (1860–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Haddon Spurgeon Chambers (1860-1921), by Arthur Ellis and Walery

Charles Haddon Spurgeon Chambers (1860-1921), by Arthur Ellis and Walery

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an14057803

Life Summary [details]


22 April, 1860
Petersham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


28 March, 1921 (aged 60)
London, Middlesex, England

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