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Maggie Oliver (1844–1892)

by Helen M. Van Der Poorten

This article was published:

Maggie Oliver (1844-1892), actress, was born on 14 December 1844 in Sydney, daughter of Michael Walsh, blacksmith, and his wife Catherine, née Fitzgerald. Baptized a Catholic, she was married to John Edward King, banker, on 21 March 1869 by J. D. Lang at Scots Church; they were later divorced.

As Maggie Oliver, she had joined in 1862 the Redfern Dramatic Society in Sydney which claimed to stage plays 'of a high-class character'. Known for her excellence in Irish comic parts, she was later involved with a dramatic club which performed in a renovated iron building in Sussex Street and impressed audiences with her lively sense of comedy. Her favourite part was Paddy Miles in The Limerick Boy, which required some male impersonation. A fellow player, W. J. Holloway, suggested that she and other actors should turn professional and form a company to tour the goldfields and country towns. When Maggie and Holloway left the amateur stage is uncertain but in 1866 she was engaged as principal comedienne by the Princess Theatres of Forbes and Grenfell. On Boxing night she played Princess Negroni in Lucretia Borgia at Grenfell and also as Paddy Miles. Irish parts seem to have formed the main part of her repertoire and her experience as a touring comedy actress helped to develop the rapport with audiences that was to characterize her work.

By 1868 Maggie was performing at the Royal Victoria Theatre, Sydney, where the stage manager, John Bennett, described her as 'a really good girl and a capital actress'. Critics pointed to her ability to breathe life into even the most wooden of farcical parts. By 1869 she was well established as a character actress capable of changing her voice and appearance to an extraordinary degree; at Sydney's Theatre Royal she performed with Lingard, an actor specializing in the impersonation of famous historical figures. In a legitimate theatre world dominated by visiting stars acting in Shakespearian tragedies, a native Australian actress with Maggie's special talents had little room, so she joined the Theatre Royal Adelphi in Sydney, which concentrated on contemporary 'sensation-dramas' such as Formosa by Dion Boucicault. She became Australia's best-known Arrah in the title role of Boucicault's Arrah Na Pogue.

At the Adelphi in September 1871 Maggie met the West Indian actor, Morton Tavares; in his Queensland Theatre Co. She opened in Brisbane on 21 April 1874. Although she seems to have played extensively in Queensland, her appearances in Sydney, mostly at the Adelphi, received the consistent critical acclaim accorded to those whose worth is in no doubt. In 1875 she was associated with Australian playwright W. H. Cooper and Australian actors Charles and Clarrie Burford and Holloway. When she appeared as Audrey in Mrs Scott-Siddons's star presentation of As You Like It on 12 May 1876 her colonial birth was noted.

In later years Maggie often supported 'serious' actors such as George Darrell with what the Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 1878, called 'low comedy'. She was also accepted as an important comic actress playing Irish parts, character roles of all kinds and even principal boys in Melbourne pantomime. Less was said of her skill than of her 'kindness and goodness in private life'. An old theatre critic writing in the Sportsman, 18 March 1908, recalled: 'It was her ill-fortune to marry, and, ill-mated, she was hurried to an early grave'. She won little notice after 1888 and when she died of cirrhosis of the liver at Sydney Hospital on 21 May 1892, the Bulletin described her as 'alone and quite forgotten'. She was buried in the Catholic section of Waverley cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Empire (Sydney), 2 May, 8 Sept 1871
  • ‘Stageland’, Evening News (Syd), 4, 11 Jan, supp, 1902
  • ‘Mummer's memoirs’, Sportsman (Sydney), 18 Mar, 1 Apr 1908
  • J. Palmer, The Origin and Development of Dramatic Art in Brisbane (State Library of Queensland)
  • Queensland miscellanies (State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

Helen M. Van Der Poorten, 'Oliver, Maggie (1844–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 15 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

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Walsh, Maggie
  • King, Maggie

14 December, 1844
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


21 May, 1892 (aged 47)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.