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Walter Montgomery (1827–1871)

by Jean Gittins

This article was published:

Walter Montgomery (1827-1871), by unknown engraver

Walter Montgomery (1827-1871), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IMP27/08/67/117

Walter Montgomery (1827-1871), actor, was born on 25 August 1827 at Long Island, United States of America, and named Richard Tomlinson. As a youth he went to England. While working with a shawl manufacturer in London he took part in amateur entertainments, appearing at the Soho Theatre in Othello. Engaged to play in provincial towns, he gained most favour in Nottingham. His first professional appearance in London was as Othello at the Princess Theatre on 20 June 1863. He gave readings of Shakespeare, Tennyson and Macaulay, and appeared in Shakespearian drama on the London stage but seems to have inspired little interest until July 1865 when at the Haymarket he won recognition for his interpretation of Hamlet. In November 1866 he played Orlando to Helen Fawcet's Rosalind at Drury Lane. He then toured America before turning to Australia.

Melbourne in the early 1860s had revelled in Shakespearian productions. In 1867 they were sustained by two newcomers: James Anderson, brought out by G. Coppin, was playing to appreciative audiences when Montgomery's arrival was advertised a week before he was due. He was to succeed T. B. Sullivan at the Royal and had a genius for exploiting publicity. His première of Hamlet on 20 July attracted a full house and enthralled his audience. According to one critic, 'His acting is so new, so fresh, so pre-eminently natural that it occasions in the mind a curious blending of surprise and delight'. Production followed production, each hailed with enthusiasm. Each portrayal, Macbeth, Othello, Shylock or King John, was pronounced equally impressive. Anderson also won support and the rivalry added interest.

With two such actors Melbourne became a centre for discussion and partisanship. Hardly a day passed without dispute over their merits. Richard the Third was shown to full houses in both theatres on the same evening. Anderson was said to be more traditional and less accomplished but Montgomery evoked the greater controversy, the major issue being whether Hamlet was indeed mad. His own sanity also became a matter for debate.

With pale complexion, graceful figure and general appearance Montgomery was well suited to his favourite role as tragedian. However ardent his admirers, opponents disliked his flamboyant nature, despised his vanity and were nauseated by his shameless exploitation of acquaintanceship with the Duke of Edinburgh during his visit in 1867-68.

Montgomery toured New Zealand with Marion Dunn, followed by an equally satisfying reappearance in Melbourne in 1868. He tried to persuade her to go with him to America and England, but instead she married Marcus Clarke. He returned to London in 1871 and on 31 July began a season at the Gaiety Theatre. On 30 August at St George's Church, Hanover Square, he married Laleah Burpee Bigelow, an American who was later reputed to have a husband still living. They were to have left for America but on 1 September he shot himself. This echoed an incident on the eve of his departure for Australia when he sent for his favourite horse, Tudor, and shot him through the head. The inquest returned a verdict of suicide while of unsound mind.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • H. McCrae, Story-Book Only (Syd, 1948)
  • P. McGuire et al, The Australian Theatre (Melb, 1948)
  • B. Elliott, Marcus Clarke (Oxford, 1958)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13, 22, 27 July 1867
  • Times (London), 4 Sept 1871, p 10.

Citation details

Jean Gittins, 'Montgomery, Walter (1827–1871)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 29 May 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

Walter Montgomery (1827-1871), by unknown engraver

Walter Montgomery (1827-1871), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IMP27/08/67/117

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Tomlinson, Richard

25 August, 1827
New York, New York, United States of America


1 September, 1871 (aged 44)

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