Archive | January, 2009

The Davenport Brothers: A Comic Twist

31 Jan

They may have grown up in humble circumstances in up-state New York, but for most of their lives Ira and William Davenport were household names throughout the West. They first came to fame as child prodigies during the spiritualist craze at the end of the 1840s – they were said to commune with spirits a la the Fox sisters, though with more spectacular results. For decades, they were revered by believers as mediums with an extraordinary capacity to slip bonds and set musical instruments a-whirl in the air. The naysayers scoffed at this, of course – and plenty of naysayers there were, who denounced the brothers’ worldwide ‘seance’ tours as a money-grabbing fraud. Some Liverpudlians rioted when the brothers staged their so-called cabinet seance there in the 1860s. And similar outrage was repeated by disgruntled Parisians soon afterwards, when the Davenports moved on to France.


In the long years since their deaths, the Davenports have continued to intrigue the Western public, forming the subject of theatrical performances and of numerous written commentaries. This is in large part because the controversy over their status as mediums represents a fascinating moment in the history of religion and notions of enlightened modernity. Some scholars have written about the impetus that the brothers provided to secular magicians keen to promote a scientific materialist worldview in the mid-19th century (see, for example, Simon During’s Modern Enchantments). Others continue to ponder the question of whether or not the brothers genuinely believed in spiritualist phenomena. But in the midst of all this serious discussion about belief, no one has seems to have discussed the fact that the Davenports were comedians.

I first became aware how humorous the Davenports’ act was when I was researching an article about their Australian tour in 1876, at the end of their career. From reviews of their shows in Victoria and South Australia, it’s clear that audiences roared with laughter throughout the night, watching the brothers make fools of important members of their local communities. At the beginning of their show, the brothers’ compère, ‘Professor’ Fay (a stage magician in his own right), would ask audience members to elect a committee of the most respectable patrons among them.  In Melbourne, audience members elected the then Premier James Service to this committee one night. Others chosen were invariably doctors or police or clergymen or naval captains – always men, and always of some standing among their peers. This  committee was sent on stage to tie up the brothers and inspect their famed cabinet. Its members remained on stage once the brothers were shut inside, charged with the responsibility of making sure no funny business was involved.

Funny business was precisely what happened as soon as the door of the Davenports’ cabinet was shut, although not of the kind that men such as James Service were expecting. To the astonished glee of the audience, ‘spirit’ hands would appear at a front window of the cabinet and donk the pompous gentlemen standing before it on the head with banjos and tambourines. Sometimes these men would go into the cabinet to vouch for the fact that Ira and William remained tied while musical instruments whirled about them. When they emerged, they would indignantly tell the audience that spirit hands had played ‘outrageously’ upon them, once again drawing shouts of hilarity.

The fact that the instruments in the Davenports’ cabinet were from minstrel-shows made a further nod to the slapstick aspect of their routine. The first part of minstrel shows invariably featured a pompous character (the interlocutor) being ridiculed by a cheeky pair of end-men. This was precisely the part the Davenports played with respect to local dignitaries silly or game enough to get up on stage – that is, the part of the tambo and bones, intent on bringing the representatives of decorum down a notch or two.

Whether or not the  brothers actually believed in spirits is beside the point here. Either way, they were taking a swipe at the seriousness with which questions of science and belief were being debated at the time – if not also having a go at social authority at large. My question, then, is this: was the comic twist to the Davenports’ performances something they amplified in the final Australian leg of their tour – a nod to the larrikin wags attracted to colonial theatrical performances? And if not, why do you think others have not discussed it with regard to their performances elsewhere?


An extended discussion of the comic aspect of the Davenports’ act may be found in:

Melissa Bellanta, ‘The Davenport Brothers Down Under: Theatre, Belief and Modernity in 1870s Australia’, in Robert Dixon and Veronica Kelly, eds, Impact of the Modern: Everyday Modernities in Australia (Sydney. University of Sydney Press, 2008).

Standard discussions of the Davenport brothers’ act may be found at Wikipedia, in the following piece by Joe Nickell: ”The Davenport Brothers: Religious practitioners, entertainers, or frauds?’, Skeptical Inquirer 23(4) (July/August 1999): 14-17, and in plenty of other online sites locatable through a basic search engine.

The State Library of Victoria website has plenty of pictures of the Davenport brothers in its Alma Magic Collection: see, for example, this poster used to advertise the brothers’ dark seance in Melbourne. If you look very closely to the bottom lefthand side of the image, you can see a ‘spirit’ hand tickling the head of a bald man in the audience.


A Larrikin Bibliography

29 Jan

I’ve noticed that quite a lot of people have visited my earlier patchy posts on Australian larrikinism in the late 19thC, so there is obviously an interest in finding out more about the phenomenon. Here, then, is my working bibliography on Australian larrikinism, focusing on the period 1870 (the first year that ‘larrikin’ was used in the press) and the early 1900s.

The most useful accounts in my view are in bold. I am sure I will be adding to it from time to time, and would welcome any suggestions of other sources along the way, especially of relevant PhD theses… I will also include a bibliography of literary accounts of larrikinism in another post sometime soon.

Primary Sources

(This list only includes references to larrikins in published books. There are a huge number of references to larrikins in the daily or other regular newspapers from the period, which are far too plentiful to be listed here. Of these, the Bulletin‘s diatribe, entitled ‘The Larrikin Residuum’ is the one most often quoted in secondary works: Bulletin, 8 January 1881, 1. See also selected cartoons of larrikins from the Bulletin in Patricia Rolfe, The Journalistic Javelin: An Illustrated History of the Bulletin (Sydney 1979)).

Adams, Francis. The Australians: A Social Sketch (London: Fisher & Unwin, 1896).  

Ajax (pseud.), ‘Larrikinism’, Sydney Quarterly Magazine 1.2 (January 1884): 207-15.

Banks, Samuel Hawker, Vice and its Victims in Sydney. The Cause and its Cure (Sydney, 1873).

Clarke, Marcus. A Colonial City: High and Low Life. Selected Journalism of Marcus Clarke, ed. L. T. Hergenhan (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1972).  

Cornish, Henry. Under the Southern Cross (Madras: Higinbotham, 1880).

Denton, Sherman F. Incidents of a Collector’s Rambles in Australia, NZ, and New Guinea (Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1889) (An American traveller describing an altercation with larrikins at Clunes on the Victorian goldfields).

Freeman, John [pseud.]. Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life (London: Sampson Low, Martston, Searle, & Rivington, 1888).

Furniss, Harry. Australian Sketches Made on Tour (London: Ward, Lock & Co., n.d.) (includes some sketches of larrikinesses and a brief derogatory discussion of them; ditto of larrikins at Paddy’s Market).

Gould, Nat. Town and Bush: Stray Notes. (London: Routledge, 1896; reprinted in 1974 by Penguin).

Grey, Harry (‘The Moocher’). Scenes in Sydney by Day and Night: A Series of Social Sketches (Parramatta: His Crown Printing Works, n.d.)

James, John Stanley. The Vagabond Papers (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1969). (A reprint of a late 19thC compilation of James’ columns for the Argus, containing commentary on low-life Melbourne).

Inglish, James (‘Maori’). Our Australian Cousins (London: Macmillan, 1880).

McTavish, Sandy. Our Noble Selves: A Study in General Invective (Melbourne, n.d.) (I’ve included this book, written in the 1930s, in the primary sources because McTavish appears to be writing from personal recollection of late-nineteenth century larrikinism. As the title suggests, however, this is essentially a piece of humorous invective rather than a reliable account. McTavish’s chapter, ‘The Politics of the Push’, is basically a comic rant likening the larrikins of the late 19thc to the Australian Labor Party of the early 20thC).

Pratt, Ambrose. ‘”Push” Larrikinism in Australia’, Blackwood’s Magazine CLXX (1901): 27-40 (This is one of the most oft-quoted primary sources on larrikinism, but is by no means the most valuable – it concerns larrikinism after the turn of the 20thC in The Rocks, and is almost entirely bunkum so far as I am concerned. Pratt was a popular novelist: he also wrote a novel called King of the Rocks (1900), featuring a similarly apochryphal larrikin hero).

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain in Australia and NZ, ed. Michael Cannon, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 [first pub. 1897]

Twopeny, R. M.  Town Life in Australia (London: Stock, 1883).

‘X.O.’. ‘Australian Pushes’. Unpublished letter to the editor of the Bulletin (September 1901). Held in Hayes Collection, Fryer Library, University of Queensland. (Extracts from this letter appear in Connell and Irving’s Class Structure in Australian History, cited in full below).

See also assorted primary sources cited in Morris, below.

Published Secondary Sources

Allen, Judith. Sex and Secrets: Crimes Involving Australian Women Since 1880 (Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1990), chapter II (frighteningly vivid account of the Mt Rennie gang rape and other sex-crimes involving larrikin defendants in 1880s Sydney).

Anderson, Hugh. Larrikin Crook: The Rise and Fall of Squizzy Taylor (Milton: Jacaranda, 1971). (Evocative account of a particular larrikin crim and his milieu in early twentieth century Richmond, Melbourne. Good as a companion piece to McCalman, below).

Baker, Sidney J. ‘Larrikins’ and ‘The Larrikin’s Girl’, in his The Australian Language (Currawong Publishing: Sydney, 1965), pp. 119-25, 128-30.

Bellanta, Melissa. ‘The larrikins’ hop: larrikinism in late-colonial theatre’, Australasian Drama Studies, 52 (April 2008). Download this article from this page if you wish.

Clark, Manning. ‘Larrikins: the context’, in Clem Gordon, ed. The Larrikin Streak: Australian Writers Look at the Legend (Sydney: 1990).

Connell, R.W. and T.H. Irving, Class Structure in Australian History: Poverty and Progress, 2nd ed. (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1992).

Crotty, Martin. Making the Australian Male: Middle-Class Masculinity 1870-1920 (Melbourne: Melbourne UP, 2000). (Like White’s article below, Crotty briefly discusses middle-class accounts of larrikinism as the antithesis of upstanding Australian manliness around the turn of the century).

Davison, Graeme. ‘The city-bred child and urban reform in Melbourne, 1900-1940′, in Peter Williams (ed.), Social Process and the City (Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1983), 143-74.

               , The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne 2nd ed. (Melbourne: Melbourne UP, 2004), 70-4.

Evans, Raymond. ‘Night of broken glass: the anatomy of an anti-Chinese riot’, in his Fighting Words: Writing About Race (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1999), 79-94 (an earlier version of this article also appears in the Brisbane History Group’s Brisbane in 1888 and is summarised in Radical Brisbane).

Finch, Lynette. ‘On the streets: working-class youth culture in 19th-century Sydney’, in Rob White. ed. Australian Youth Subcultures: On the Margins and in the Mainstream (Hobart: Australian ACYS Publishing, 1999) 75-9. (Some of the primary research in this article is drawn from Finch’s longer work, The Classing Gaze).

Finnane, Mark. ‘Larrikins, delinquents and cops: Police and young people in Australian history’, in Rob White and Christine Alder, eds, Police and Young People in Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 7-26.

Fisher, Rod. ‘Old Frogs Hollow: den of iniquity, or devoid of interest?’, in Brisbane History Group, Brisbane in 1888 (Brisbane: Brisbane History Group, 1989): 17-46. (Immaculately researched account of larrikinism, prostitution and street crime in inner-urban Brisbane. Read as a companion piece to Raymond Evans’ account of the 1888 anti-Chinese Brisbane riot, in which larrikins were prominently involved).

Garton, Stephen. ‘Pursuing incorrigible rogues: patterns of policing in NSW 1870-1930’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society. 77.3 (1991): 16-29.

Gleeson, Kate. ‘White natives and gang rape at the time of centenary’ in Scott Poynting and George Morgan, eds. Outrageous! Moral Panics in Australia (Hobart: ACYS Publishing, 2007), 171-80.

Grabowsky, P. Sydney in Ferment: Crime, Dissent and Official Reaction, 1788-1973 (Canberra: ANU Press, 1977), 84-103.

Jaggs, Donella. Neglected and Criminal: Foundations of Child Welfare Legislation in Victoria (Melbourne 1986).

Jamison, Bryan. ‘Larrikin “Push”, 1902’, in Raymond Evans and Carole Ferrier, eds, Radical Brisbane (Melbourne: Vulgar Press, 2004), 123-32.

Johnston, W. Ross, The Long Blue Line: A History of the Queensland Police (Brisbane: Boolarong Publications, 1992).

Kociumbas, Jan. Australian Childhood: A History (Sydney, 1997) 128-9, 142-3.

Lack, John. A History of Footscray (Melbourne: 1991). (On larrikinism in Footscray, Melbourne, during the 1920s).

                      . ‘Working class leisure’. Victorian Historical Journal 49.191 (Feb 1978): 49-65 (another discussion focused on Footscray, with brief references to larrikins).

Larson, Ann. Growing Up in Melbourne: Family Life in the Late 19thC (Canberra 1994) (brilliant work of historical demography, dealing with work, home and school life for Melbourne youth, including a discussion of larrikinism).

McCalman, Janet. Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond, 1900-1965 (Melbourne: Melbourne UP, 1998). (Includes stray references to larrikins in the working-class suburb of Richmond, Melbourne).

McConville, Chris, ‘From criminal class to underworld’, in Graeme Davison, David Dunstan and Chris McConville, eds, The Outcasts of Melbourne: Essays in Social History (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1985), 69-90.

Maynard, Margaret. Fashioned From Penury: Dress as Cultural Practice in Colonial Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994) (Includes a brief discussion of larrikin dress).

Moore, Bruce. Speaking Our Language: The Story of Australian English (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008). On the etymology of the word larrikin).

Morgan, George. ‘The Bulletin and the larrikin: moral panic in late 19th-century Sydney’, Media International Australia 85 (November 1997): 17-23. (Standard cultural studies piece on larrikinism and moral panic: see Kate Gleeson’s more recent chapter for another example).

Morris, E. Austral English: A Dictionary of Australasian Words, Phrases and Usages (London: Macmillan, 1898), 259-63 (Traces the emergence of the word ‘larrikin’, with suggestive quotes from primary sources).

Murray, James. Larrikins: 19th Century Outrage (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1973) (This popular history of larrikinism is obviously based on great research, but is annoyingly free of footnotes for those wanting to follow it up with their own).

Pawsey, Margaret. ‘Annie Wilkins: Life on the margins in 19thC Collingwood’. Victorian Historical Journal 66.1 (June 1995): 1-19 (close study of Collingwood sisters who were involved in the larrikin milieu).

Pearson, Geoffrey. Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears (London: Macmillan, 1983) (On English hooligans, but includes references to the fact that they were sometimes called larrikins in the late 1890s).

Petrow, Stefan. ‘Arabs, boys and larrikins: juvenile delinquents and their treatment in Hobart, 1860-1896’. Australian Journal of Legal History 2 (1996): 37-59.

Phillips, David. ‘Anatomy of a rape case 1888: sex, race, violence and criminal law in Victoria’, in David Phillips and Susan Davies, eds, A Nation of Rogues? Crime, Law and Punishment in Colonial Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press 1994). (This chapter only touches on larrikinism: it mentions the notorious gang rape of a 16 year old girl at Mt Rennie, near Woolloomooloo in Sydney, in 1886 – 4 of the reputed 20-plus larrikins involved were executed in January 1887).

Priestley, Susan. ‘Larrikins and the law, 1849-1874′, Victorian Historical Journal 74. 2 (2003).

Ramsland, John. Children of the Back Lanes: Destitute and Neglected Children in Colonial NSW (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1986).

                               . With Just But Relentless Discipline: A Social History of the Corrective Services in NSW (Kenthurst: Kangaroo Press, 1996), 53-67.

Rickard, John, ‘Lovable larrikins and awful ockers’, Journal of Australian Studies 56 (1998): 78-85. (A discussion of literary accounts of larrikinism, and how they have changed over time).

Schoff, Paul. ‘The hunting of the larrikin: law, larrikinism, and the flight of respectability in nineteenth-century South Australia’. Australian Journal of Legal History 1 (1995): 93-107.

Smith, Kylie. ‘Larrikins, labour and the law in Sydney from 1870-1900’, in Greg Patmore et al, eds, The Past is Before Us: Proceedings of the 9th National Labour History Conference (Sydney: Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 2005), 451058 (NB this is an unrefereed paper).

Stratton, Jon. The Young Ones: Working-Class Culture, Consumption and the Category of Youth (Perth: Black Swan Press, 1992). (This doesn’t introduce any new evidence of larrikinism – it relies entirely on John Murray’s Larrikinism, and is chiefly concerned with the bodgies and widgies of the mid-20thC as a latter-day version of larrikinism. However, it provides a good discussion of sociological/cultural studies perspectives on the topic).

Van Krieken, Robert. Children and the State: Social Control and the Formation of Australian Child Welfare (Nth Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992).

Walker, David, ‘Youth on trial: the Mt Rennie case’, Labour History 50 (May 1986): 28-41.

White, Cameron, ‘Promenading and picknicking: the performance of middle-class masculinity in 19th-century Sydney’, Journal of Australian Studies 89 (2006): 27-40. (This article is chiefly concerned with middle-class men on Sydney’s foreshores, but White also talks about larrikins as the antithesis of upstanding manliness and includes excellent references to their rowdy harbourside antics).

Williamson, Noelene. ‘”Hymns, songs and blackguard verses’: life in the Industrial and Reformatory School for Girls in NSW, Part 1, 1867 to 1887′. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 67.4 (1982): 375-87.

                                  . ‘Laundry maids or ladies? Life in the Industrial and Reformatory School for Girls in NSW, Part II, 1887 to 1910’. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 68.4  (1983): 312-24 (both these articles give glimpses into the lives of girls sent to reformatories, some for hanging out with male larrikins).

Unpublished Secondary Sources

Jamison, Bryan. ‘A Great Social Force Making For Order and Morality”: An Analysis of Institutions for Rational Recreation in Late Victorian and Edwardian Brisbane’, PhD Thesis, University of Queensland, 2002. (This thesis looks at moralistic attempts to reform larrikins and other working-class Brisbaneites. Jamison drew on his research for this thesis to write the chapter on Brisbane larrikins in Radical Brisbane, above).

Johnson, Murray. ‘Leaning Against the Lamp-Post: A History of Larrikinism in Queensland’, BA Hons Thesis, History Department, University of Queensland, 1998.

McConville, Chris. ‘Outcast Melbourne: Social Deviance in the City, 1880-1914′. MA Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1974.

McLachlan, N. D. ‘Larrikinism: An Interpretation’. MA Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1950.

Smith, Kylie. ‘The Larrikin Subject: Hegemony and Subjectivity in Late Nineteenth-Century Sydney’, PhD Thesis, University of Wollongong, 2008.

Sleight, Simon. ‘The Territories of Youth: Young People and Public Space in Melbourne, c. 1870-1901′. PhD Thesis, Monash University, 2008.

Waters, Edgar. ‘Some Aspects of the Popular Arts in Australia, 1880-1915′ (PhD Thesis, Australian National University, Canberra, 1962) 189-237. (This thesis includes a chapter on larrikins in literature and popular theatre around the turn of the century).

On sentimental cowboys

28 Jan


Last post I wrote about Lance Skuthorpe (1870-1958), proprietor and presenter of an Australian rough-riding show called Skuthorpe’s Wild Australia in the early 1900s. What fascinates me after reading more about him is his combination of sentimentality with a tough masculinity.

According to Lem Partridge, one of Skuthorpe’s long-term riders and managers, ‘Skuey’ was incurably reckless with his cash. Just as soon as he raked in good returns from a show, he had spent them and was broke again. Life was ‘full of laughter and heart-break’ with Skuthorpe, Partridge said. And what went along with this boom-and-bust way of living was a simultaneous hardness and tenderness of character.

Skuthorpe was in many ways as hard as nails. What else would one expect from a rough-rider whose trademark style in the saddle was a nonchalent immoveability, acting as if the frenzied buckjumper beneath him was nothing at all? He was also notoriously tough with his fists, going deaf in mature age from too many blows to the head during fights as a younger man. But at the same time, he was drawn to the sappiest ballads and poems. So far as his biographer Jack Pollard was concerned, Skuthorpe’s favourite song was the super-saccharine ‘I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight, Mother’, closely followed by ‘The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy’ (the lyrics for which are below) and ‘The Dewy Downs of Yarra’. ‘Lance’s repertoire of bush ballads and folk songs was remarkable’, Pollard continues, ‘…and he hoarded them with a sentimentality common in such a hard Australian bushman’.

The more I read of late-Victorian and early-twentieth century English-speaking culture, the more it seems to me that the flash cove who mixed toughness with sentimentality was a recognisable type – be he an Austalian bush/showman or larrikin, poor Irish-American fan of minstrelsy, or Cockney vaudeville enthusiast. Minstrelsy and vaudeville both mixed ultra-weepy songs about dead mothers with a riotously anti-authoritarian comic shtick, just as bushranger melodramas portrayed iron outlaws with hearts o’gold. Like the bush ballads hoarded by Skuthorpe, these theatrical forms appealed to rough blokes (among others) who were said to cry and roar along to the action depending on the emotional mood. This mix of hard and soft, for want of less overtly gendered metaphors, points to how limited our imagination of masculinity and femininity can be. If even someone like Skuthorpe was given to the expression of tenderness, why do we so often persist in seeing sentimentality as feminine, as something alien to masculine sensibilities?

PS: here are the lyrics to “The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy”:

The snow is fast a-falling,
And the wind on loudly roars,
When a poor little child, quite frozen,
Came up to the rich lady”s door.
He spied her from the window so high,
Which filled his heart with joy:
“For mercy sake, some pity on me take;
I”m a soldier’s poor little boy.

“My mother died when I was young,
My father went to the war;
And many a battle so brave he has fought,
Always covered with wounds and scars.
Many a mile on his knapsack
He carried me with joy.
But now I’m left quite parentless-
I”m a soldier’s poor little boy.

“The snow is fast a-falling,
The night is coming on,
And if you don’t protect me
I shall perish before the morn.”
She rose up from the window so high
And opened the door to him:

“Come in, you young unfortunate child;
Thou shalt never wander again.
My only son in the war was slain,
My pride, my all, my joy;
And as long as I live, some shelter will I give
To a soldier’s poor little boy.”


The above image is from Nelson Boren Art, a site full of similar schmaltzy offerings.

Jenny Hicks, Australian Cowboys: Roughriders and Rodeos (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 2000), 36-7

Veronica Kelly, ‘Melodrama, an Australian pantomime, and theatrical constructions of Australian history’. Journal of Australian Studies (1993) 38: 51-61.

Jack Pollard, The Roughrider: The Story of Lance Skuthorpe (Lansdowne: Melbourne, 1962), 94.

S. J. Routh, ‘Skuthorp (Skuthorpe), Lancelot Albert (1870 – 1958 )‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.11 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988), 627-628.

Australian Wild West Shows

22 Jan


Wild West Shows, roughriding and buckjumping contests enjoyed a great upsurge of popularity in Australia around the turn of the twentieth century. There were travelling outfits offering spectacles of steely riders and bucking horseflesh in the city and bush alike – Skuthorpe’s Wild Australia and Edward Irham (‘Bohemian’) Cole’s flashy company perhaps the most well-known examples.

Born in 1870, Lance Skuthorpe (originally ‘Skuthorp’) first made his name as a stunt rider in 1896, and  acquired his own show in the early 1900s. In 1900, he organised a fundraiser for a local Catholic priest in Melbourne, in which Ned Kelly’s cousins, the Lloyd brothers, also starred. It was so successful that he set up Skuthorpe’s Wild Australia with his brother Dick (orignally Cyril). In 1906, he made a sensation riding a notorious horse known as Bobs in a Sydney show at Rawson Place. E. I. Cole also played Sydney and Melbourne: he leased a venue in Melbourne’s Bourke Street for a time, and otherwise had vast tents in which he set up in parks like the one next to Sydney’s Central Station for weeks on end. Apparently you could hear the shouting and gunfire all the way to Circular Quay in some of his Sydney performances.

Both Cole and Skuthorpe combined a passion for Australian bush lore with a gaudy showman’s persona. Cole was originally an American, and styled himself very deliberately as a combination of Australianness and Americanness for his shows. He was known as the  ‘Australian Barnum’, wearing the six-gallon hat and the flowing locks of American Wild Westers (see the National Library Australia website here for a portrait). He was also an afficionado of Australian bushranging history, hoarding Kelly memorabilia and writing gazillions of plays about the deeds of bush outlaws. Lance Skuthorpe was bred in the Australian bush, and worked as a stockman before his move into showbiz. In the ring, however, he wore sapphires studding his shirt and specialised in his own Barnum-like shtick. Both Skuthorpe and Cole performed with the famous ‘Dr Carver’ during the 1890s in Australia, a period in which Carver was on tour from America with his own Wild West Show.

Debate still rages in horsy circles today about the ‘Australianness’ of Australia’s roughriding-show history. Some trash it as an American importation; others insist on its credentials as an authentic national tradition. I came across a discussion on something called the Eques Forum, which summed up this debate. In it, a true believer defended Lance Skuthorpe as an ‘Aussie through and through’ in spite of the fact that he wore American clothes in his shows. Sure, Skuthorpe might have gone in for ‘American razzamatazz’, but underneath it he was a bushman, possessed of nothing less than ‘the heart of the Australian idiom and character’ .

Really, it is false to set up a dichotomy between the Australian bush tradition and American razzamatazz. The roughriding show was always an intriguing combination of cultural factors in Australia – a hybrid which drew on local practices, bushranger lore, the traditions of British fairgrounds, circuses, and American Wild West Shows. A combined love of scruffy raffishness and slick flashiness was also entrenched as a recognisable form of rough masculinity in late nineteenth-century Australia. It was embodied by larrikins, for a start, as also by Ned Kelly, and before that, English highwaymen like Dick Turpin. So the whole idea that the roughriding tradition has to be either American or Australian, that cultural traditions have to be nationally pure like that, is simply an historical misnomer.


The above image is from 8 seconds, an Australian rodeo site.

Edward Irham Cole Papers. Mitchell Library, ML PXD 735.

Jack Pollard, The Roughrider: The Story of Lance Skuthorpe (Lansdowne: Melbourne, 1962).

Billy Moloney, Memoirs of an Abominable Showman (Adelaide: Rigby, 1968), p. 15 on E. I. Cole (how good is the title of this memoir?!)

S. J. Routh, ‘Skuthorp (Skuthorpe), Lancelot Albert (1870 – 1958 )‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.11 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988), 627-628.

See info. on the Lloyd brothers and their participation in buckjumping shows in this entry on Maggie Kelly on Ned Kelly’s World.

The War of the Roses, Pt I: A Review

15 Jan

The War of the Roses, directed by Benedict Anderson for the Sydney Theatre Company

For the entire first act of the Sydney Theatre Company’s The War of the Roses, Pt 1, a condensed version of Shakespeare’s plays on that subject, gold rains thick on the stage. It is just little rectangles of tinsel, but so much of it that the actors become wreathed in goldenness, stuck to their hair, shoulders, sometimes to their eyes and mouths, and to their hands and wrists like gloves.


Photo: Steven Siewert, Sydney Morning Herald

Cate Blanchett, seated at the front of the stage all in cream, a crown on her pale hair, her luminous face through this golden downpour, is a mesmerising King Richard II. The first act (all-but-two hours of it) is devoted almost entirely to her King’s soliloquising. It is all about Richard’s conviction of the divine right of his kingship, the fact that his whole being is saturated in his kingship, and what happens within when this is taken from him. Blanchett makes every moment of that riveting: now laughing, now crying and despairing, now defiantly mocking Bolingbroke as he takes her Richard’s crown. Sometimes the falling gold created optical illusions: at moments it seemed Blanchett’s Richard was moving upwards, the whole stage borne towards the ceiling by the force of his self-reckoning. Extraordinary.

After Richard II’s death and the second act is bereft of Blanchett, however, I can’t say I felt the same way about the rest of the production. Based largely on Henry IV and V, this act charts the descent into the horror of bloody and still bloodier war. While Richard II’s murder was represented bloodlessly, Hotspur and his father and the other sundry victims are slick with the stuff when they die. Gone is the shimmering deluge of gold: the stage is bare of everything here except a muso playing guitar and the various liquids – blood, spit, cum, honey, pitch, and Falstaff’s vile sherry – which are sprayed or poured or smeared or spilt over the course of proceedings.

I am of two minds about the pared-back contemporary dress and grunge chords which accompanied this act. Certainly, it means one thinks about these plays and their bleak violence in new ways. I can hardly even imagine it in period costume now, with a fat merry Falstaff instead of the seamy Aussie wino compellingly played by John Gaden.

But really, the seediness of the thing went too far. Dressed in his drab blue shirt and black jeans, Robert Menzies, who played Henry IV (what is it with these Australian actors with the names of Prime Ministers?) was not a compelling king. Unlike Blanchett, he acted all in one tortured register, and overdid it at that, which palled after another two hours. And for God’s sake, his Henry wears a McDonald’s bag cut with eyeholes at one juncture, stumbling about to a backing of grimed-up guitar, in a moment not only ugly but silly.

The stripped-back quality of this act would have worked if it gave a sense of concentrating its human intensity, as it did in Blanchett’s portrayal of Richard II. But in the end, it seemed to amplify its self-consciousness – to put it bluntly, to try too hard.

The War of the Roses, Parts I and II play at the Wharf Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney, 5 Jan – 14 Feb 2009 

History Carnival 72: On the New Year & other Old Deals

3 Jan

Welcome, friends, to the 72nd edition of History Carnival. In the following, I sum up blog-entries on historical matters posted in December 2008.

I must apologise first for the fact that this Carnival is late. It was, of course, supposed to be posted on New Year’s Day. I had the best of intentions – really I did. But the torpor of a summer’s morning in this coastal town where I’m staying a few hours north of Sydney got in the way. So did the lack of an internet connection. I write now in a stuffy internet café, the sun glinting savagely off broken beer bottles in the street outside (leftovers of New Year’s Eve’s hectic revelry). Perhaps you will forgive me if I thus keep this shortish, even if none too sweet.


So this is the Deal

Most of the columnists in the Sydney papers felt it their duty to cheer the passing of 2008. Out with the Old, in with the New – that sort of thing. If there’s anything that history tells us, however, it’s that the Old doesn’t give way all that easily. On the contrary: you feel the crunch or gash of it underfoot every step you take. Ralph Brauer’s excellent series of posts at Progressive Historians reminds us this is the case. In Did Racism Help the Mortgage Crisis?, he shows that America’s market for sub-prime mortgages came largely from coloured citizens refused housing loans by the Federal Housing Administration. This FHA was established as part of America’s New Deal, he tells us. Nonetheless, it re-hashed an old American story, discriminating on the basis of race with its loans. According to Brauer, this history helps explain why the sub-prime crisis now bears especially heavily on black Americans. (Here are instalments II, III and IV to Brauer’s initial post).

With all the talk currently afoot of the soon-to-be Obama government’s new New Deal, it’s not surprising that a reconsideration of the old New Deal was on the agenda at other blogs this month. Unlike Ralph Brauer, Eric talks up the old New Deal in his post on The Edge of the American West. He argues the public works programs begun in the 1930s produced crucial infrastructure still used in America today. So out with the bad conservative rap they’ve received in the past, ok? 


March on Washington, 1963

American race relations were the subject of other posts beside Brauer’s this December. Check out DC Traveler for a review of an exhibition of civil rights-movement photography at the the Smithsonian International Gallery. Also a harrowing post on Executed Today. It tells us about 13 black soldiers secretly hanged by a military tribunal in 1917 for their part in a Houston race riot.

As we all know, military tribunals are not renowned for their justice and transparency (another old-new story). At Quaker Pagan Reflections, one can read a review of a book on American Quakers’ ‘war tax resistance’. The book reviewed here contains records of conscientious objectors who refused to fund military tribunals (or indeed anything military), and who registered their protest through the non-payment of tax.

Hard Times

After hearing about conscientious Quakers in America, Providentia tells us of an equally conscientious fella from colonial Australia. Thomas Berkeley was a missionary who returned to London from Australia in 1836 as sole inheritor of his sister Theresa Berkeley’s considerable estate. When he got there, a nasty surprise was waiting for him. Learning the secret of how his domineering sister made her pile led Thomas to renounce his inheritance. Read about why if you will.

While still on the topic of early-nineteenth century London, I must make mention of Judith Weingarten’s blog, Zenobia: Empress of the East. She tells us about the South African Khoikoi woman, Saartjie Baartman, who was exhibited in a London freak show as ‘the Hottentot Venus’ in 1810. For months, Baartman’s huge buttocks and prominent vulva were shouted over and prodded at by half of London. Her rotundity and exaggerated genitalia was taken as proof of her primitiveness and savagery – to be civilised, it seems, was to possess a more elegant physique. This retelling of her story forms the second part of a two-part post on Venus figures going as far back as the last Ice Age (see Uppity Venus I for the first instalment). And it also reads as a complement to Sarah Zielinski’s post on Ota Benga, one of several pygmies from the Congo taken to America for exhibition at the beginning of the brave new twentieth century.


A new-wave impression of the Venus Hottentot: Lyle Aston Harris & Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

Beauty, and other Immoral Virtues

Londoners’ cruel fascination with the Hottentot Venus brings me now to a fascinating post on George Bernard Shaw’s views of cinema. This post appears at The Bioscope, my favourite blog-discovery this month. Amongst other things, Shaw claimed that cinema would teach its patrons the ‘immoral virtues’ of ‘elegance, grace, [and] beauty… which are so much more important than the moral ones’. His celebration of elegant form was very much part of the eugenic idealism in the air in early twentieth-century Western society.

Eugenic idealism was also in the air breathed by the Mitford sisters, the subject of a long and gushing post by Elizabeth Kerri Mahan on Scandalous Women. Mahan tells us all about these aristocratic friends of Hitler (well, some of the Mitford sisters were his friends, at least). They were ‘marvellous’ women, she tells us, ‘who continue to fascinate the public even today’. Check out her post if you like reading about Nazi admirers described in unctuous prose.

Sticking to the same era, travel to Respectful Insolence for Orac’s post on Nazi science, much of which of course was informed by eugenic ideas and involved experimentation on racial others in an even more invasive way than the treatment received by Saartjie Baartman. Orac addresses the challenging question: was there anything about scientific research under the Nazi regime that could be classified as good science?

Deck the Halls

Given that Christmas was a rather hard-to-miss event this December, it is only fitting that a number of blog-offerings riffed on a Yuletide theme. At the Virtual Dime Museum, one can read about the Brooklyn Christmas Tree Society begun in the 1890s by Lena Sittig, early feminist and inventor of women’s bicycling trousers-skirts. At Edwardian Promenade, Queen Victoria’s Christmases on the Isle of Wight are recounted in characteristically evocative prose. At The History Bluff, one finds a frivolous list of the Top 10 Christmas Moments of the 18th Century. And at LUPEC Boston, catch an Elizabethan recipe for Ancient Wassail Bowl, described by one historical cookbook writer as ‘notable for its exceeding mildness’.

Back to Dickensian London now for a dollop of synchronicity. I took away Oliver Twist to read this Christmas break, never actually having read the thing. Ever since, I have been wincing as I sup on sugary things, thinking of the scarcity which Oliver and all those real-life orphans endured. What should I now read now but Kristin Tetens’ post at Victorian Peeper, called ‘The Workhouse Diet: A New ‘Twist’? Tetens suggests that workhouse inmates in nineteenth-century England might not have been as spectacularly underfed as the old Twist after all. They weren’t given festive meals, certainly, but something more than the gruel and raw onion which forms Oliver’s fictive fare.

A Passing Miscellany

By way of wrapping up, I offer you now a few miscellaneous entries. At A History Buff’s Blog, you are invited to participate in a nifty visual history trivia quiz. At History Undressed, Eliza Knight entreats us: ‘tell me, what does Robin Hood mean to you?’ before providing a few thoughts of her own. Larry Ferlazzo offers a collection of resources about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with those intending to teach on the topic in mind. At the very appropriately-named blog, Old is the New New, Rob McDougall tells us about the scientific dispute which once surrounded the question: are whales fish? And at Three Hundred Words, Christopher Yurkanin gives us a speculative piece about the night before the first immigrants landed on Ellis Island.

Fittingly, that night was New Year’s Eve 1891, a fact which perhaps struck the real immigrants forcibly, as they prepared to embark on new lives in the New World. But did they really think that one might cast aside everything that came before and begin as if for the first time? Or did they avoid that old newspaper-columnist’s fiction, aware that nothing is ever as quite as New as it seems?


Once again, I just want to thank Sharon Howard for the all the behind-the-scenes work she puts into the History Carnival, making nominations of posts and appointing future hosts. If you want to nominate your own post or somebody else’s for inclusion in future carnivals, visit the History Carnival site for more information. And thanks to the rest of you who also took part!