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George Selth Coppin (1819–1906)

by Sally O'Neill

This article was published:

George Selth Coppin (1819-1906), comic actor and entrepreneur, was born on 8 April 1819 at Steyning, Sussex, England, son of George Selth Coppin and Elizabeth Jane, née Jackson. His grandfather was a clergyman of Norwich claiming long descent in Norfolk; his father was disowned by his family for abandoning his medical studies at 19 to join a group of strolling players, and marrying one of its members who was twice his age. George grew up in the uncertain world of the itinerant theatre, first appearing on the stage as an infant. He attended village day schools between demands of the theatre and early learned to play the violin. By 1826 he and his sister were performing their own act together. George, solemn-faced and tubby, was found to have a flair for comic acting. At 16 he became his own master, and for the next seven years had a variety of jobs connected with the theatre, mainly in the provinces. In Dublin, acting for the Abbey Street theatre, he met Maria Watkins Burroughs, an actress nine years older than himself. They lived together in 1842-48.

In 1842 Coppin decided to leave England for lands of greater promise and, since a toss of a coin decreed Australia and not America, they left England in the Templar and on 10 March 1843 arrived in Sydney. There negotiations with Joseph Wyatt gave Coppin a season at the Royal Victoria Theatre despite competition from other new arrivals. He used his quick-earned theatre profits to buy a hotel, lost money and left Sydney for Hobart Town. He arrived there in January 1845 and joined Mrs Clarke of the Royal Victoria, who gave him some managerial control of her theatre. When he moved to Launceston in March he took most of her players with him as members of his own company. In June the company, bound to work for Coppin alone, went to Melbourne with him. He opened that month as a rival to the Melbourne Co. led by Francis Nesbitt (McCrone) at the Queen's Theatre Royal. Melbourne saw The School for Scandal for the first time; some conservatives deprecated Coppin's innovations in stage scenery as 'evidence that upholstery was going to triumph over acting'. By mid-August he had taken over the Melbourne Co. and leased the theatre 'for a short season'. In August 1846 he left for Adelaide, where on 10 September he arranged to convert the billiard room of the Temple Tavern, Gilles Arcade, into the New Queen's Theatre capable of holding 700 people. The theatre opened on 2 November and Coppin's company included recruits from Melbourne and for a few months the proprietor of the rival Royal Adelaide Theatre. In 1848 John Lazar returned to Adelaide and Coppin, now licensee of the Auction Mart Tavern and a race-horse owner and breeder, transferred the management of the theatre to him. As an hospitable young hotelier, Coppin provided for banquets, political assemblies and other functions where patrons reflected his multifarious interests in business, mining, racing and Freemasonry. He imported luxuries, the first shipment of ice, live turtles, deer for venison. Personal tragedy struck him when on 10 August Maria died after a brief illness, aged 38.

In 1850 he returned to manage the theatre in partnership with Lazar and in December they reopened the old Queen's Theatre as the renovated Royal Victoria, which remained Adelaide's principal playhouse until 1868. Three months later Coppin opened the White Horse Cellar at Port Adelaide. His adjoining theatre was opposed on moral grounds by William Giles who threatened to withhold use of the South Australia Co.'s fire engine should it catch fire.

In the second half of 1851 the unforeseen exodus to the Victorian goldfields and the collapse of his copper mining speculations left Coppin unable to meet his commitments. Insolvent, he left for the goldfields himself in December but lasted only two days on the diggings; he had already gauged a means of certain fortune in entertaining miners on the spree in Geelong. In 1853 he returned to Adelaide to give his creditors a banquet and cheques for 20s. in the £. He left immediately for England. In London he hired the Haymarket for a night as a gesture of self-advertisement and won lucrative recognition as a comedian. In Birmingham he met the tragedian, Gustavus Brooke, and engaged him for an Australian tour, guaranteeing £25 for each performance and half the net receipts. He had a prefabricated iron theatre built for him in Manchester and prepared to equip it with special scenery and a lavish wardrobe. Back in Melbourne on 6 December 1854 he opened at the Queen's Theatre on the 18th with his old favourites: Paul Pry, as Villikins in The Wandering Minstrel, Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer, Demosthenes Dodge in The Artful Dodger and the topical and often vulgar Billy Barlow. Brooke joined him on 23 February 1855 and three nights later opened at the Queen's with his triumphantly acclaimed Othello. The opening in July of the prefabricated Olympic Theatre, nicknamed the Iron Pot, increased competition between Coppin and John Black, the lessee of the Theatre Royal newly built for £95,000. Black became insolvent and by June 1856 Coppin had taken over the theatre. In September he and Brooke went into partnership and at the same time Coppin bought Cremorne Gardens, Richmond. The two now held jointly the Olympic, the Theatre Royal, where they presented alternate seasons of drama and opera, the Cremorne Gardens Amusement Park, Astley's Amphitheatre (later Princess Theatre) and four hotels. Coppin's marriage in August 1855 to Brooke's sister-in-law, Harriet Hilsden, née Bray, was a further bond. A hurried trip to England in search of new talent, and Coppin was back by February 1858 to stage the first balloon ascent to be held in Australia.

In 1858 Coppin entered politics. In April he was elected to the Richmond Municipal Council. In June he retired from the stage and in October was elected by a narrow margin to represent South-western Province in the Legislative Council. His public duties led to the break-up of his partnership in February 1859, Brooke taking over the Royal Hotel and Theatre Royal and Coppin the Olympic and Cremorne Gardens. This arrangement proved costly for Coppin as the Theatre Royal had carried the other ventures. He converted the Olympic into Melbourne's first Turkish baths but Cremorne Gardens continued to drain his resources. As a councillor he could afford to appear as a comedian only for charity and then at the risk of public censure. Brooke was mismanaging the Theatre Royal and steadily going into debt. In December 1860 he and Coppin were publicly reconciled and Coppin took over the theatre management. Brooke's departure in May 1861 ended the partnership, 'that fortunate combination of histrionic ability and worldly sagacity, professional effort and managerial tact'. Harriet had died on 2 September 1859 after her third child was born, and her 18-year-old daughter Lucy Hilsden had taken charge of the household. On 4 June 1861 Coppin married Lucy at the Melbourne Registry Office; their first child was born on 5 January 1862.

Early in 1862 Coppin lost control of the Theatre Royal. Using old tactics he decided to build a larger and more luxurious theatre, the Haymarket, with the adjoining Apollo music hall. It was completed in September and Joseph Jefferson was engaged for the opening performance. Five months later Coppin sold Cremorne Gardens, which the buyer later converted into a private lunatic asylum. Too late to save his fortune but with plans to recover it, Coppin resigned from the Legislative Council on 18 February 1863. In his first term in parliament he had carried through the measure which gave him much pride, the Real Property Act 1862, based on his friend (Sir) Robert Torrens's Real Property Act of South Australia. He returned to the stage in earnest, touring the Victorian goldfields, Sydney and then Dunedin, New Zealand. In October 1862 he had engaged Charles Kean and his wife Ellen for an Australian tour. They arrived in September 1863 and played in Melbourne, Sydney and Ballarat; just before they left for California Coppin paid his creditors in full. At a farewell dinner the citizens of Richmond presented him with 300 sovereigns as a token of appreciation and as a gift for his wife. Coppin accompanied the Keans as their agent from San Francisco in October 1864 to New York a year later; they parted with little sorrow but much more wealth. 'Mr Coppin', wrote Charles Kean to his daughter Mary in May 1864, 'is a good businessman and I believe a truly honourable and upright man but he is a common man and possesses a certain rudeness of manner which is very unpleasant when things do not run smoothly and at the present time he dives both hands deep into his side pockets and looks both blank and black and gives short and curt answers … a well bred man of the world has the art to hide such feelings'.

Coppin went to England where he saw Brooke, and engaged him for another tour. News of Brooke's ship, the London, foundering in the Bay of Biscay reached Coppin a few weeks after his own safe return to Melbourne in January 1866. Soon afterwards he was persuaded to contest the Richmond seat for the Legislative Assembly; he was defeated but succeeded five years later. In 1874-77 and 1883-88 he was the 'rather silent' member for East Melbourne in the assembly, and in 1889-95 he represented Melbourne in the Legislative Council.

Coppin's defeat in 1866 left him free to carry on his theatrical activities. He appeared in the Haymarket in January and then made intercolonial tours. Troubled by gout in 1868 he announced his impending retirement but no one was to believe him for another decade. Meanwhile he gained control at last of the Theatre Royal only to see it burned to the ground in March 1872, uninsured. He promptly acquired a ninety-nine-year lease of the land and formed the Theatre Royal Pty Association Ltd which raised capital for a theatre costing £24,000, insured for £10,000 and built by Christmas. Coppin was not active in its management and retired in June 1882. In 1874 he engaged J. C. Williamson and his wife Maggie Moore. In 1881 Williamson became sole lessee of the theatre in a transaction from which evolved J. C. Williamson Ltd. Coppin's retirement performances at 62 took him to other Australian colonies and lasted for nearly a year. He retained a stake in the Theatre Royal and its profits saved him in the 1890s when he was badly hit in the bank crashes, for he had become a director of the Commercial Bank of Australia at the instigation of his friend, Henry Turner. Another source of income to stand him in good stead was his copyright agency which operated on behalf of the Dramatic Authors' Association. He acquired the nucleus of what later amounted to the performing rights covering some eight thousand works in November 1865; the first of many lawsuits to test the validity of these rights for 'Australasia' was won in the Supreme Court of New South Wales in February 1866.

Coppin showed a marked talent for applying his energies to the promotion of specific reforms or institutions which had caught his attention. In the Victorian Legislative Council in 1863 he campaigned for the introduction of Post Office savings banks based on the English Act of 1861. More often his philanthropy worked independently or in the municipal sphere. He was prominent in establishing the Victorian Humane Society and the St John Ambulance in Melbourne, and founded free dispensaries at Richmond. He formed the Old Colonists Association in 1869 and was instrumental in the building of the Old Colonists' Homes at North Fitzroy. An energetic Freemason he became the first grand master of Victoria. He organized the Dramatic and Musical Society in 1871. Another project was the promotion of Sorrento, where he had a house, as a holiday resort, although he lost a lot of money in building a private tramway there in the late 1880s. After an illness at Sorrento in March 1906 he returned to Pine Grove, Richmond, where he died on the 14th, survived by his wife and their two sons and five daughters, and by two of the three daughters of his first marriage. He left an estate valued at £9709.

Coppin has been credited with both fathering the Australian theatre and inaugurating its second phase of development by introducing the 'pernicious “starring tours” of visiting celebrities'. The first claim can well be disputed. Undoubtedly his enterprise was irrepressible; the business of entertainment suited his talents but, more important, he had an ingrained love of the theatre. He acted to make money but he found a stage in many other spheres. His progressive approach to the theatre was evident in his methods of advertising, his insistence on correct costuming and his recognition in 1871 of the need for a school of acting to develop Australian talent, but he was not always scrupulous in dealing with rivals.

Select Bibliography

  • Men of the Time in Australia. Victorian series, 1st ed (Melb, 1878)
  • A Century of Journalism: The Sydney Morning Herald, 1831-1931 (Syd, 1931)
  • P. McGuire et al, The Australian Theatre (Melb, 1948)
  • P. Hartnoll (ed), The Oxford Companion to the Theatre (Lond, 1951)
  • C. J. Kean, Emigrant in Motley, J. M. D. Hardwicke ed (Lond, 1954)
  • J. Kardoss, A Brief History of the Australian Theatre (Syd, 1955)
  • J. F. Field, These Joyous Sands (Sorrento, 1959)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • A. Bagot, Coppin the Great: Father of the Australian Theatre (Melb, 1965)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • G. Fischer, ‘The Professional Theatre in Adelaide 1838-1922’, Australian Letters vol 2, no 4, Mar 1960, pp 79-97
  • H. Oppenheim, ‘Coppin—How Great?: Alec Bagot's "Father of the Australian Theatre"’, Australian Literary Studies, vol 3, no 2, Oct 1967, pp 126-37
  • Coppin collection (State Library of Victoria).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sally O'Neill, 'Coppin, George Selth (1819–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 June 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

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