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Catherine Hayes (?–1861)

by Dennis Shoesmith

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Catherine Hayes (1825-1861), by George W. Mason

Catherine Hayes (1825-1861), by George W. Mason

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an7978987

Catherine Hayes (1818?-1861), soprano, was baptized on 8 November 1818 in Limerick, Ireland, daughter of Arthur Williamson Hayes, musician. In 1838, after an impecunious childhood with her mother and sister, she won the patronage of Edmond Knox, bishop of Limerick, and sang at private concerts before the city's Protestant aristocracy. A subscription enabled her to study singing in Dublin and her first public appearance was at the Rotundo on 3 May 1839. She saw a performance of Norma in September 1841 and decided on a career in opera rather than concerts. She left for Paris in October 1842 and studied with Manuel Garcia and in Milan with Felice Ronconi. She made her continental début with the Italian Opera at Marseilles in Bellini's I Puritani on 10 May 1845 and was soon engaged as prima donna with La Scala, Milan. On 10 April 1849 she made her London début with the Royal Italian Opera of Covent Garden. The Times was reasonably enthusiastic, Queen Victoria invited her to Buckingham Palace, the public adored her. In 1851, following the dazzling example of Jenny Lind, she decided to tour America. At New York on 23 September Lind's ex-agent, William Avery Bushnell, became her manager. Her progress through the United States and Canada was triumphant: at San Francisco from November 1852 to May 1853 her fees averaged £650 a month, the 'semi- civilised' gold miners bidding up to £1150 to hear her sing.

Under Bushnell's direction Catherine went to Sydney where her arrival in September 1854 aroused 'an excitement wholly unparalleled in the theatrical annals of this colony'. The Sydney Morning Herald exhausted its vocabulary of praise in detailing every nuance of her appearance at the Victoria Theatre on 3 October. Audiences respected her bravura passages from opera but were more affected by her singing of such simple ballads as 'Home Sweet Home' and 'Oh Steer My Bark to Erin's Isle'. On 18 October Judge (Sir) Roger Therry farewelled her before a huge crowd at Circular Quay with assurances that she would be remembered with 'admiration, respect and esteem', and Catherine gave the proceeds of her farewell concert to the Destitute Children's Asylum. Her Melbourne season was almost as spectacular. Her first concert in the redecorated Queen's Theatre was, according to the Age, 'a great event in our local history'. She visited Geelong, gave a concert in Adelaide and then left for Calcutta where she arrived unannounced in January 1855. The audiences were not affluent and she returned to Sydney.

At the Prince of Wales Theatre she initiated a daring season of grand opera complete with elaborate sets, supporting soloists and large choruses. The season was launched on 14 August with Bellini's La Sonnambula. Through the efforts of the prima donna the experiment was a huge success although the sets lacked stage machinery, the supporting artists were uncertain and the choruses were ragged. The season continued with the Bohemian Girl and Norma until on 17 September she left for Melbourne. The performances suffered some initial setbacks but on 22 October at the new Theatre Royal La Sonnambula was presented to 'a house gorged almost to suffocation'. Early in November the public rejected Lucia di Lammermoor and she decided to end her engagement, but her farewell appearance in Norma convinced the management that audiences were still interested. The season was revived by the Bohemian Girl, Elisir d'Amore, La Sonnambula and Lucrezia Borgia with performances of Norma when attendances lagged. Her last Melbourne appearance was in Linda di Chamounix on 21 December. In 1856 she returned to London where on 8 October 1857 she married Bushnell. She occasionally appeared in London theatres and toured the country districts but restricted her performances after her husband died in France on 2 July 1858, aged 35. Her health had suffered from her tours and from a riding accident in America. She died on 11 August 1861 in London and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery, leaving an estate of £16,000.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Blom (ed), Groves' Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Lond, 1954)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vol 6 (Lond, 1968)
  • 'Our Portrait Gallery: Catherine Hayes', Dublin University Magazine, vol 36, Nov 1850, pp 584-95
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Sept, 4, 18, 19 Oct 1854, 16 Aug 1855
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 14, 21 Oct 1854, 18 Aug 1855, 14 Aug 1861
  • Age (Melbourne), 30 Oct, 7-9, 23 Nov 1854, 23 Oct, 2, 9, 20 Nov, 22 Dec 1855
  • Bengal Hurkaru, 8, 12, 19 Feb 1855
  • 'Madame Catherine Hayes', Times (London), 13 Aug 1861, p 7.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Dennis Shoesmith, 'Hayes, Catherine (?–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Catherine Hayes (1825-1861), by George W. Mason

Catherine Hayes (1825-1861), by George W. Mason

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an7978987

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Bushnell, Catherine

11 August, 1861
London, Middlesex, England

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.