Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Conrad Theodore Knowles (1810–1844)

by H. L. Oppenheim

This article was published:

Conrad Theodore Knowles (1810-1844), actor and manager, was born in England, the son of John Knowles, a Wesleyan minister. He had a sound classical education and some legal training. In April 1830 he arrived in Hobart Town where he seems to have spent some time as a tutor before moving to Sydney. Without any theatrical training or experience Knowles took a leading position amongst the performers when Barnett Levey opened his Theatre Royal in December 1832. During the first season he called himself Mr Cooper; from the second season onwards when he was made acting manager, he played under his own name many melodramatic, comic and tragic parts while singing and dancing in interludes. Since the beginning of his theatrical career Knowles's name was linked with that of the actress, Mrs Harriet Jones, who already in 1826 had appeared in Sydney amateur concerts; she called herself Mrs Love during the first season and from 1839 was generally known as Mrs Knowles.

Knowles was a firm favourite with Sydney audiences. He played two or three parts at every performance in the early years of the Theatre Royal and was Sydney's first Romeo, Othello and Shylock and Australia's first Hamlet and King Lear. Critics praised his deep voice, his figure and personal appearance, and the 'ease and elegance of the gentleman in his deportment' which distinguished him from any other local actor. He was very versatile, successful in comedy parts, even in the French language, but especially in the characters of contemporary melodrama and domestic tragedy. The 'square and massive contour of his features' helped his characterization of old men. The strongest criticism brought against him was that he did not properly study his parts but the critics realized that he was permanently overburdened with far too many roles and frustrating managerial duties.

In May 1837 Knowles left for London to join his brother's legal firm but for health reasons returned to Sydney in October 1838; he made his début as Hamlet at the opening of the third season of the Victoria Theatre. His acting had become more refined since he had seen in London the great actors of his day, especially William Charles Macready (1793-1873), and his Sir Peter Teazle in The School for Scandal won special praise.

In 1840 he again became stage manager and his acting suffered from lack of study. When in February 1842 the Olympic Theatre opened in competition to the Victoria, Mr and Mrs Knowles with other leading players joined the new undertaking but were back at the Victoria three months later. There changes had taken place; a new leading player had appeared, F. Nesbitt McCrone whose professional background gave him an advantage over the self-trained Knowles. The year 1842 also saw the introduction of 'colonial drama' in the Victoria Theatre. Knowles contributed Salathiel, a conventional and uninspired dramatization of E. Lytton Bulwer's novel Leila; or the Siege of Granada (London, 1838), which was performed twice. In May 1843 Knowles left the Victoria for another rival Sydney house, Joseph Simmons's City Theatre. It soon closed and Knowles, after a short tour of Tasmania, went to Melbourne; there in November 1843 he obtained a licence for the temporary theatre in Bourke Street, which he called the Victoria Theatre and unsuccessfully tried to run it on professional lines. He died after a short illness on 19 May 1844, aged 34.

According to the Sydney Monitor, 19 January 1838, 'Knowles was a candle lit at both ends, by nature and breeding a gentleman. His talents by nature were of the first order, but he was self-taught and overworked'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Knowles, Salathiel
  • or the Jewish Chieftain: A Drama in Three Acts (Syd, 1842).

Citation details

H. L. Oppenheim, 'Knowles, Conrad Theodore (1810–1844)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cooper, Conrad



19 May, 1844 (aged ~ 34)
Victoria, Australia

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