Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Jefferson (1829–1905)

by Dennis Shoesmith

This article was published:

Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905), by Davies & Co.

Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905), by Davies & Co.

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H24472

Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905), actor, was born on 20 February 1829 at Philadelphia, United States of America, son of Joseph Jefferson, actor, and his wife Cornelia Frances Burke, née Thomas. He grew up among theatre people, began his stage career at 4 and, after his father died in 1842, relied on acting for a living. At 21 he married Margaret Clements Lockyer. In 1856 he visited Europe and in September joined Laura Keene's company in New York. In 1861 his wife died, leaving four children.

With his eldest son, Jefferson went to San Francisco for a season and then sailed for Sydney, hoping to recover his health. He arrived in the Nimrod on 13 November and opened with Rip Van Winkle, Our American Cousin and The Octoroon. In March 1862 at Melbourne he played a season at the Princess Theatre for about six months. He was immediately popular. Within a week or so in Melbourne, 'not to have seen Jefferson was equivalent to exclusion from conversation in society of all classes'. Critics praised his 'fresh and genial' acting and his refined taste; in retrospect an admirer claimed that his acting combined 'the delicacy, the exquisite finish, the grace and airiness of French comedy with the naturalness and the blended humour and pathos of the best school of English comedians'. He was described as a slender but wiry, compact figure with the intellectual face of a Hamlet: 'a singularly charming companion for a conversational hour'.

In September Jefferson was engaged for the opening of George Coppin's Royal Haymarket Theatre, playing in Our American Cousin. He also played in the country districts of Victoria, including Ballarat and Bendigo. Between theatre seasons Jefferson spent some weeks at a station in the Western District and explored the Murray River. With Melbourne as his base he went first to Tasmania where he played, among other things, The Ticket of Leave Man to an appreciative audience including many ex-convicts. Then in April 1864 he played a season at Dunedin, New Zealand, returning via Sydney. In April 1865 he left Melbourne for London where he arranged with Dionysius Boucicault's father a revised version of Rip Van Winkle. The play was a great success and he went to America where his role as Rip Van Winkle became legendary. He retired from the stage in 1904 and died on 23 April 1905 at Palm Beach, Florida; he was buried at Buzzard Bay, Massachusetts. His second wife Sarah Isabel, née Warren, whom he had married on 20 December 1867, survived him. Jefferson was also a talented amateur artist and a keen fisherman. His attractive Autobiography (London, 1890) included an account of his Australian years and was reported with interest in the colonial press.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Winter, Life and Art of Joseph Jefferson (New York, 1894)
  • A. Bagot, Coppin the Great (Melb, 1965)
  • Examiner (Melbourne), 5 Apr 1862
  • Australasian, 21, 28 Dec 1878, 28 June 1890, 29 Apr 1905.

Citation details

Dennis Shoesmith, 'Jefferson, Joseph (1829–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 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

Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905), by Davies & Co.

Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905), by Davies & Co.

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H24472

Life Summary [details]


20 February, 1829
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America


23 April, 1905 (aged 76)
Palm Beach, Florida, United States of America

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.