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Charles Robert Thatcher (1831–1878)

by Hugh Anderson

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This is a shared entry with Richmond Thatcher

Charles Robert Thatcher (1831-1878), goldfields entertainer, and Richmond (1842-1891), journalist, were the eldest and youngest sons of Charles Robert Thatcher and his wife Sophia, née Hornsby (Hossey). Charles was born in Bristol, England, but the family later moved to Brighton where Richmond was born and where their father, sometimes described as 'conchologist', owned a curio shop. As a boy, Charles was taught the flute and he later played in London theatre orchestras.

Arriving in Melbourne in November 1852 in the Isabella, Charles tried the Bendigo diggings but soon became an entertainer. He joined the orchestra at the Royal Victoria Theatre, Sandhurst, and filled in between plays by singing new words to popular tunes. In these songs he described the troubles of the new chums, the excitement of rushes, fisticuffs, horse-racing, cricket, the nuisance of dogs around the township and other topical events. He soon attracted large audiences and in May 1854 was given top billing at the Shamrock Hotel, which remained his base for several years; he also toured other goldfields. Big, broad-shouldered and weighing some fourteen stone, he was considered handsome with his well-cut hair, clean-shaven face and drooping moustache. With a pleasant but slight voice, he sang 'in that jolly off-handed style that suits so well a rattling, rollicking bit of comicality'. Other singers were vocally superior but none could match his ability to write catchy local songs.

Aged 30, on 8 February 1861 at Geelong, Thatcher married a widow Annie Vitelli, née Day, a singer. In December they left via Hobart Town for Dunedin, New Zealand. They stayed in various parts of New Zealand until the latter half of 1866. Back in Victoria Thatcher performed on his own, appearing at the Polytechnic in Melbourne in November-December 1867. In June 1869 he returned to New Zealand, but about May next year rejoined his wife and two daughters in Melbourne and from there they went to England. He settled in London, collecting and selling curios from Europe and Asia. He died of cholera in Shanghai, China, in September 1878.

Fourteen of Thatcher's songs were sold as broadsides, many appeared in newspapers, but most were published as collections, including the Victoria Songster (1855), Thatcher's Colonial Songster (1857) and Thatcher's Colonial Minstrel (1859). Booklets of his New Zealand songs appeared after 1862 and his Adelaide Songster was issued in 1866. A few have been collected as Australian folk songs, others have appeared in books of reminiscence; he himself wished them to be 'regarded as a popular history of the time'. Recent historians have spoken of Thatcher as the vocal equivalent of the artist S. T. Gill.

Richmond (Dick) Thatcher was to some a 'typical Australian Bohemian' but was more generally known as a facile and forcible journalist and theatre publicity agent. As a youth he had sailed as midshipman to India, China, the Cape, and Western Australia but about 1861 he joined Charles in New Zealand. He tried the diggings but, apparently unsuccessful, he spent some years collecting shell specimens for (Sir) F. McCoy of Melbourne and Dr J. C. Cox of Sydney.

In the late 1860s Thatcher was in the Pilbara region of north-west Australia, from where he contributed a series of articles to various southern newspapers on pearling in the Flying Foam passage. He also mentioned having taken part in an expedition to Minderoo station in the Ashburton district to ‘disperse the natives’ in July 1869. Thatcher was the author of a poem, ‘The Battle of Minderoo’, an eye-witness account of an engagement between white settlers sworn in as special constables, and armed with repeating rifles and Navy Colt pistols, and Indigenous members of the Thalanyji clan who had only spears. There were no white casualties; the resident magistrate who authorised the expedition, R.J. Sholl, later estimated the Aboriginal death toll at 21. The poem was published under pseudonyms in Perth’s Sunday Times newspaper in an abridged form in 1918, and again, in full, in the Western Mail in 1935.

Although Thatcher had contributed to Sydney Punch and other periodicals, he gained further newspaper experience as editor of the Fiji Times in 1870; from 1871 he lived in New South Wales and worked for several newspapers: he founded the Upper Hunter Courier (from Murrurundi), edited the Western Independent at Bathurst and wrote for the Empire, the Evening News, and the Town and Country Journal. Between 1875 and 1885, Richmond's publications included two anthologies, three novels, and Life and Times of Jem Punch (Sydney, 1885).

In the late 1870s Thatcher became theatrical agent for artists, including Mrs Scott Siddons and Miss Ada Ward, whom he accompanied to England, Europe and South Africa; in 1884 he went to England as advance agent for an Australian minstrel troupe. At the end of 1888 'his brain gave unmistakable signs of giving way' but he seemed to recover. Within a month of taking up a trading job in the New Hebrides in 1891 Thatcher contracted a fever and returned to Sydney where he was also found to have Bright's disease. Aged 49, he died soon after on 9 June and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. He had married first Maria Blunt on 4 January 1872 at St Alban's Church of England, Muswellbrook, and second, Alice Emma Smith on 29 March 1881 at Surry Hills. He was survived by his second wife and a son and a daughter of the first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Mackay, Annals of Bendigo (Bendigo, 1912)
  • P. Serle, Bibliography of Australasian Poetry and Verse (Melb, 1925)
  • G. H. Scholefield (ed), A Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (Wellington, 1940)
  • H. Anderson, The Goldrush Songster (Melb, 1958) and The Colonial Minstrel (Melb, 1960)
  • Australasian, 23 Nov 1867
  • Table Talk, 19 June 1891
  • New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal, 12 May 1894
  • Thatcher manuscripts (State Library of Victoria)
  • K. Forrest, The Challenge and the Chance: The Colonisation and Settlement of North-West Australia 1861-1914 (Perth, 1996)
  • T. Gara, pers. comm. to P. Gifford, 19 April 2018
  • P. Gifford, ‘The Battle of Minderoo’, in J. Gregory and B. Oliver (eds.), War and Emotions, Studies in Western Australian History 32, 2018, Nedlands, pp. 89-94
  • Western Mail, Perth, 21 February 1935, p. 9

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Hugh Anderson, 'Thatcher, Charles Robert (1831–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Brighton, Sussex, England


September, 1878 (aged ~ 47)
Shanghai, China

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