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Julia Mathews (1842–1876)

by Jean Gittins

This article was published:

Julia Mathews (1842-1876), by William Bardwell, 1858-66

Julia Mathews (1842-1876), by William Bardwell, 1858-66

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H10272

Julia Mathews (1842-1876), actress, was born on 14 December 1842 in London, daughter of James Mathews, sailor and artificial flower maker, and his wife Sarah, née Irviner, music teacher. Julia was taught dancing by her mother and went with her parents to Sydney, where on 28 August 1854 she made her début at the Royal Victoria Theatre, impersonating Little Pickles in Spoiled Child. After some training as a singer she joined a light opera company to tour the Victorian goldfields. At Beechworth she is said to have attracted R. O'Hara Burke.

Julia made a most successful entrance to the Melbourne stage in the second of two plays shown at Coppin's Olympic Theatre on 24 August 1855. In the farce Old and Young she impersonated four characters of widely diverse temperaments: in the first affectionate and engaging; in the next boisterous; in the third a self-willed young gourmand; and an exquisitely provoking precocity in the last. Coppin had made a find. In October she was Arthur in his production King John, playing a difficult part with propriety and pathos. By January 1856 she had become a favourite with Melbourne audiences, surpassing herself as the Duke of York in a burlesque Richard ye Third. Still little more than a child she was said to have exhibited surprising versatility, and a golden future was predicted. In 1858 she made a second appearance on the goldfields.

Julia was playing at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne in August 1860 when Burke proposed marriage to her. She was then well known as a soprano singer 'whose auburn curls and charming voice captured his heart'. Burke was about to start on his disastrous expedition to cross the continent. Julia refused him but on hearing that the expedition was in difficulty she was one of the first to approach the Argus to agitate for a search party.

On 17 September 1863 Julia was given a benefit by the Melbourne Garrick and Orpheus Clubs at the Princess before she left for New Zealand. Warmly received by a crowded house she was presented with an illuminated address and a handsome gold bracelet; at the end she spoke her lines of farewell, specially written for the occasion by W. M. Akhurst. At Dunedin on 23 April 1864 she married her New Zealand manager, William Mumford; they had three children.

In 1867 Coppin presented her at Sydney's Prince of Wales Theatre for her farewell Australian season. With her parents and family she left for England and on 18 November won distinction as the first Australian-trained singer to appear at Covent Garden Opera House. She played the part of the duchess in an English version of Offenbach's La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein. Australian papers reported high tributes from the London press but one review described her as 'a lady newly-arrived from Australia whose vocal powers are not at all remarkable but who is lively and clever as an actress'.

The only value that Mumford placed on his wife was as 'a machine for grinding out golden sovereigns for him to waste in drink and debauchery'. She bore with his failings till patience wore out and in 1870 obtained a judicial separation. Her father was careful to save sufficient money to keep her children from want, but he died in 1874, leaving his wife to sustain the family while Julia toured Europe and America under various managers mostly in opéra bouffe. She was devoted to her father and became a devout Catholic after his death. At St Louis, Missouri, she contracted a malarial disease and died in Mullanphy Hospital on 19 May 1876.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Bagot, Coppin the Great (Melb, 1965)
  • Empire (Sydney), 29 Aug 1854
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 23 Sept 1854
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 Aug, 9 Oct 1855, 21 Jan 1856, 17 Sept 1863, 21 June 1876
  • Illustrated London News, 23 Nov 1867
  • ‘Covent Garden Theatre’, Times (London), 20 Nov 1867, p 9
  • Australian Journal, 1 Feb 1868
  • St Louis Despatch, 20 May 1876
  • St Louis Daily Globe Democrat, 21 May 1876
  • Era (London), 28 May 1876
  • Entr'acte, 3 June 1876.

Citation details

Jean Gittins, 'Mathews, Julia (1842–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Julia Mathews (1842-1876), by William Bardwell, 1858-66

Julia Mathews (1842-1876), by William Bardwell, 1858-66

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H10272

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Matthews, Julia

14 December, 1842
London, Middlesex, England


19 May, 1876 (aged 33)
St Louis, Missouri, United States of America

Cause of Death


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