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Agnes Dobson (1904–1987)

by Rose Wilson

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Agnes Dobson (1904-1987), actor, theatre director and writer, was born, possibly on 30 December 1904, at Glebe Point, Sydney, only child of New Zealand-born parents Collet Barker Dobson, actor and travelling theatre manager, and Harriet Agnes Thornton, née Meddings, an actor whose stage name was Harrie Collet. Agnes’s birth was not registered. Collet Barker was her great-great-uncle. As a child, Agnes performed with her father’s theatre company—first as a baby in a cradle—and received most of her education from her father. The family’s fortunes fluctuated.

During World War I, Agnes lived for a time in Brisbane, where her mother had purchased a tearoom with a library attached. She developed into a beauty; Hal Porter described her as a `slender reddish-brunette, five feet five inches [165 cm] tall, with green eyes’. At 15 or 16 she acted the lead role in Camille with (Sir) Benjamin Fuller’s stock company. In 1917 she made her silent film début as a young sideshow dancer in The Hayseeds’ Backblocks Show; in 1919 she appeared in The Face at the Window and Barry Butts In. On 18 April 1921 at the district registrar’s office, Newtown, Sydney, aged 19, she married a widower, Frederick Stanley Holah, who was an actor and playwright known as Ronald Riley. Their son, William John, later known as Bill Barclay (d.1970), was born in December that year. Three months later she was touring again, to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and New Zealand, acting with Fuller’s Dramatic Players and Hugh J. Ward’s, J. & N. Tait’s and J. C. Williamson’s companies.

Having divorced Holah, on 16 February 1924 at Christ Church, Enmore, Sydney, Dobson married with Anglican rites George Oliver Clapcott Barclay, a motor salesman. She wrote poetry and a dramatic sketch, `The Secret of the Confession’ (1924). In 1931 she settled in Adelaide. Divorced that year, on 27 January 1932 at the office of the registrar-general, Adelaide (claiming her age to be 26), she married Wilfred Thornton, branch business manager. This marriage was dissolved in 1934. She acted, directed and produced plays for Ab Intra Studio, Adelaide Repertory and Workers’ Educational Association Little theatres, and the Esmond George Players. Co-founder (1936) of the Independent Group, she ran the Stage-Craft Studio for the Development of Individuality in Stage Work and Voice Production and briefly taught drama at the Wilderness School. She wrote plays: The Immortal Road, Legend, The Halfcaste, My Own Land, and Dark Brother, which was runner-up in the South Australian Centenary play competition (1936). She regularly performed on radio, for both the Australian Broadcasting Commission and commercial stations.

In 1940 Dobson moved to St Kilda, Melbourne. Using the pseudonym Agnes Grey, she presented talks and book reviews for the ABC. She wrote scripts for radio plays and school broadcasts, and played parts in serials, including that of the tyrannical Mrs Sharpshott in `The Village Glee Club’. In the 1950s and 1960s she freelanced as an actor, appearing in films and television dramas, mainly for Crawford Productions Pty Ltd. She was principal (1953-57) of the Crawford School of Broadcasting. Eventually incapacitated, she lived in a nursing home at Oakleigh, supported by the Actors’ Benevolent Fund. She died there on 26 February 1987 and was cremated with Churches of Christ forms. Colin Ballantyne later recalled that he had `never met anyone with her vitality or anyone with a better grasp of the fundamentals of theatre’. An unpublished autobiography is held by the Performing Arts Collection of South Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (1965)
  • A. D. McCredie (ed), From Colonel Light into the Footlights (1988)
  • Journal of Australian Studies, no 71, 2001, p 45
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 Feb 1981, p 14
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 3 Mar 1987, p 14
  • series SP767/1, Dobson (National Archives of Australia)
  • Agnes Dobson papers (National Library of Australia and Performing Arts Collection of South Australia).

Citation details

Rose Wilson, 'Dobson, Agnes (1904–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Holah, Agnes
  • Barclay, Agnes
  • Thornton, Agnes
  • Grey, Agnes

30 December, 1904
Glebe, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


26 February, 1987 (aged 82)
Oakleigh, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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