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Bennett Clay – A Determined Adventurer

Some performers have a special talent, or a flair for promotion which sets them apart and makes their careers sparkle for a short or long time. Others are simply persistent workers in the field of magic; competent craftsmen who move from place to place with a stock entertainment, coping with the ups and downs of weather, audience indifference and newspaper commentary, making a living without making a splash.

Such a one was Bennett Clay. Charles Waller passes by him in a single paragraph, commenting that “it is possible that he was just an ordinary showman inspired to take up conjuring through the success of Jacobs and Anderson.”  He was, more or less, correct, but Bennett Clay was no fly-by-night magician. He learned his craft through hard slog as he travelled enormous distances throughout the East of Australia and to New Zealand. Over the course of some nine years, Clay seems never to have been daunted by the daily struggle for success. He was a chemist, storekeeper on the goldfields,  itinerant photographer, diorama exhibitor, magician and puppeteer.

 

Early Years in Britain and Australia

Through genealogical records (1), Bennett Clay’s origins have been traced.
He was born on March 2, 1827, in Grantham, Lincolnshire county in central England. His parents, both born 1801,were Thomas and Hannah and they worked as drapers. Bennett’s baptism took place at St. Wulfram’s in Grantham on the day of his birth, alongside an older brother, Thomas Renshaw Clay, who had been born on November 18, 1825.

By 1841, the census reported a large family – as well as sons Thomas and Bennett, younger family members were Jane (born 1829), Elizabeth (1831), Hannah (1835), Joseph (1837) and Sarah (1839). Another brother, Joseph Dalton Clay, had died as a child on January 28, 1833 when he was given, with the best of intentions, a cough remedy with Laudanum (opium) as its base; showing the tragic uncertainty of medical knowledge at the time.

Mr Thos. Clay died very suddenly on November 2, 1843. He had been in poor health recently, but had not seemed any worse than usual on the morning of his death. This left Mrs. Hannah Clay in charge of a large family and the drapery business, which became known as Mrs. Clay and Son.

During 1851, Clay was engaged in a wholesale and retail Chemist and Druggist business (2) at 137 King Street, Maidstone, Kent, close to Canterbury and Dover. His sister, Hannah, is recorded in the 1851 census living with her brother as a Housekeeper.

He supplied drugs and chemicals to shopkeepers and veterinary surgeons, including ‘Clay’s Alterative Condition Powders’ for the treatment of all sorts of ailments in cattle and horses.  As a sideline he also advertised ‘Clay’s Royal Belvoir Hunt Sauce’, acknowledged by connoisseurs to be the most economical and delicious sauce ever brought before the public.
By  November, however, the business was taken over by William Rogers, and Clay made preparations to journey to Australia and the gold fields.

There are contradictions in the claimed dates for Clay’s departure and time in Australia, which will be dealt with in the next section. An examination of the evidence, most particularly the shipping records located online (3), confirms that he left England from London on July 7, 1852, aboard the “Lady Eveline”, an 876-ton ship with a passenger list of 247 people. After a journey of 109 days, it arrived in Port Phillip (Melbourne) in late October, but was immediately quarantined on account of reported smallpox. Four people had died, but the only remaining person affected was apparently in convalescence, so a wait of six weeks must have been frustrating for all involved. Finally, on December 10, 1852,  the ship was released and Bennett Clay landed.

 

Mr. Clay and his Chymical Zalexipophogan Light – First Australian trip

There are two primary sources detailing some of Clay’s exploits on his arrival and, while they both appear to come from a document written by himself, the dates mentioned vary between sources.

Clay wrote a booklet, published in 1854, in which he described his activities in the colony, and his views on the gold rush and its participants.  For some reason, he either had his facts muddled, or consciously extended the duration of his stay in Australia, as the dates he mentions do not gel with shipping records or newspaper commentary, and neither does the ship on which he claimed to have sailed. The booklet states that he travelled for three years in the colony, but even going by his dates (Nov.1851-early 1854) he was barely in Australia for more than two years before returning to Britain. On the available evidence it is more likely he was here for about fifteen months before returning to Britain.

The second source for dates is the Stamford Mercury (S.M.) of May 12, 1854 which seems to paraphrase the same article but also appears to have been based on a direct interview with Clay, and this article provides different, and probably more accurate dates. 

He  had certainly hit the ground running and, as will be seen, travelled extensively in his first sojourn in the colony.

The following transcript is from his 1854 booklet,  pages 31-32, “Mr Bennett Clay’s New and Original Descriptive Scenery of the Gold Diggings of Australia, with Instructive Views on the Road and in the Bush by the aid of his newly invented Chymical Zalexipophogan Light.” (4)

 

“A three years Colonial tour with practical observations on the colony of Australia and a brief comparison between the countries of America and Australia as a field for emigration, by the author,
MR. BENNETT CLAY.

I left the East India Docks, London, in the good ship (5)(Nimrod), September 6,  1851, and reached the land of my adoption (Australia) after a very pleasant voyage of three months and four days, landing upon the wharf in Melbourne, December 10th the same year, at that time provisions were very high the 4lb. loaf was charged at 2s 6d. and decent board and lodging could not be obtained under 3 10s. per week. On the morning after my arrival upon Melbourne wharf I commenced business in real good earnest, with the full determination of making use of what little ability I was possessed off by starting as an auctioneer and commission agent, selling passengers clothes, watches, boxes, Colt’s revolvers, &c. at enormous profits. I was stimulated and continued the business until the expiration of the month of February 1852 [probably 1853], a friend and old school companion of mine [probably Henry Hind from his home town] then introduced another money making scheme, viz. – trading in all kinds of provisions, stuff, and hardware goods and the almost sure chance of realising a good sum of money, induced me to enter into partnership with my friend and acquaintance, at the Mt. Alexander gold fields Forest Creek, as Druggists and general Storekeepers. During the months of March, April, and May, our success was truly astonishing for I should say more money was made in those three months by the Storekeepers in general on the Mt. Alexander Gold Fields, than in any other six months since the Gold was discovered. As regards my opinion upon the success of those who intend emigrating, it may not be uninteresting if I throw out a few hints, who are those likely to do well. Any young many in good health, and of industrious habits would in my opinion do far better by working at his trade (if he is a mechanic) than by the chances of success by Gold Digging (the following facts will show) one in two hundred at the Gold Fields get barely a living, about one in five hundred only do well and save 250 a year, and about one in ten thousand become rich in the space of three or four months. The storekeeper is general speaking the steady accumulator of wealth.

I have visited most of the Gold Fields in the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales including Ballarat, Mt. Alexander, Bendigo, Ovens, Mt. Moligul, McIvor, Ecunga [sic. – Echunga], Turon, Avoca, Pyrenees, Bathurst, Oplor, &c. and have found them more of less carried on in the same style throughout. I have travelled more than 1,500 miles up the interior of the country and across the Ovens district and Snowy Mountains, the scenery of this part of Australia is very beautiful and romantic. the land throughout the colony of Victoria is of a mineral nature and I believe richly embedded with mineral riches. So far as relates to agriculture the Adelaide country is the best, and there is a reasonable probability that when the thirst for Gold becomes satiated, hundreds will find it to their pecuniary advantage, to turn their attention to the tilling of the soil. The Australian Cattle are not inferior to our own, either in point of symmetry of quality, the horses are more hardy, and capbale [sic.] of standing greater fatigue than the English Horses, as a proof I have several times gone on a bay hack to Melbourne a distance of 84 miles in the space of twelve hours, over a rough and rugged country, the animal having only the pasturage to feed upon during half an hours “pull up” and I can assert there are many horses that never eat a bit of corn, their owners, in consequence of its being so very expensive, not caring to purchase it.”

 

So we see that Clay was a vigorous and enterprising young man in his mid-twenties, looking to make his way in the world. Quite what possessed him to travel across the world without a professional ambition is a mystery, as it seems he had no intention of becoming a gold prospector, but this sense of adventure matches his activities in the following years.

 

Clay book front cover
Clay book in SLNSW

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clay book title page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clay book contents1a

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometime in 1853, Clay married Emily Elizabeth Johns in Victoria. However, by September 20 of that year, he had cause to advertise, “I, Bennett Clay, chemist and storekeeper, of Adelaide Hill, Forest Creek, do hereby give notice that I will not be answerable for any debt or debts contracted by my wife, Emily Elizabeth, after this notice. Sept.4, 1853.” (6) There are later references to his wife again in unhappy domestic circumstances.

Forest Creek, now Castlemaine, Victoria but also known as Mt. Alexander, had struck gold in July 1851. Clearly Mr. Clay was in the middle of a very prosperous location as a storekeeper.

His booklet, ‘New and Original Descriptive Scenery of the Gold Diggings…’ was published in Australia, probably with a view to an extended lecture tour back home. A copy of this red covered 33-page booklet, published under the banner of the Victorian Parliament Legislative Assembly, is held in the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, bound amongst a number of other booklets. Principally it is a companion book of descriptions to go with the images he would project at lectures, showing views of many parts of the Gold fields of Australia. Also included are Clay’s observations on the economy of the colony, on the comparative honesty of the gold miners, and remarks designed to encourage young men to come to Australia and earn their living.

There are no illustrations in the booklet; Clay advises that the images to be shown in his lecture, via a magic lantern, were created by artists based on sketches he made during his travels. This is of note since, on his return to Australia he became a travelling photographer.

Having “made his pile”, Bennett Clay made a decision to return to his homeland, possibly with the aim of becoming a lecturer in Britain. Departing Melbourne in late January, aboard the  ‘Sovereign of the Seas’, he arrived home in Grantham in early May 1854 after a journey of just eighty days (7)  to give a glowing account of the colony and of the success of other Lincolnshire emigrants he had met there. The Stamford Mercury also noted, “Mr.  Clay, who left England about two years ago for the land of gold… has brought a large amount of gold with him.”

If, however, Clay thought he had a new career as a lecturer, he was to be sadly disappointed. In conjunction with his talk, Clay had engaged the Tyrolese Minstrels  to provide entertainment, and although some of his nights, starting around December 1854, were kindly reported (‘The terse and lucid explanations offered by this gentleman of each view as it appeared, made the entertainment subserve a valuable educational purpose’)  other papers were nothing short of vitriolic in their dismissal of his lecture.

Nottinghamshire Guardian – January 25, 1855 ‘The audience appeared to be well entertained, but we were sorry to see so small an attendance…’

Stamford Mercury – January 26 – ‘The Tyrolese Minstrels performed at the Corn-exchange on Monday night last, for the first time, to a miserably small audience. Only three persons appeared in the costume of the Tyrol, and not four, as the public would naturally infer would be the case from four being pictorially depicted on the bills. The violin music and singing were creditable, and perhaps sufficiently illustrative of the Tyrolese mode of entertainment. The minstrels, however, have committed a great blunder in connecting themselves with the inflated and self-exalted personage calling himself Mr. Bennett Clay, who professes to illustrate Australia. Any tyro in the use of the brush could produce scenes equal to the miserable magic lanthorn [sic.] pictures exhibited, and the lecture was so cold, dry, and intellectually poverty stricken, that any school-boy of ten years who had read any of the works published with respect to Australia and could not surpass the lecture, ought to be whipped for a dunce. Directly Mr.Clay commenced, the audience moved off, tittering as they went.’

Quoted by the Stamford Mercury, February 2, from the Leicester Journal – ‘Sham Entertainments – Of this class of schemes for “raising the wind” a notable example was afforded on Wednesday evening at the Temperance-hall. It was announced that a Mr. Bennett Clay, M.P.S (whatever those initials may be intended to signify) would deliver a lecture on the Australian gold-field, illustrated by a series of views, illuminated by the Zalexipophogan light, another term as unintelligible and probably as unmeaning as M.P.S.  This was to be accompanied by a concert given by the Tyrolese Minstrels. The musical part of the proceedings consisted of some just tolerable German songs and duets, executed by parties in Tyrolese costume but resembling the veritable Tyrolese Minstrels in no other respect whatever. If the music was tolerable, the views were intolerable, just such as would be produced by about the cheapest magic lantern that could be produced, illuminated (?) by a halfpenny tallow candle. As soon as these made their appearance, the principal part of the company rose and left the hall.’
[On January 30, Clay had deferred to necessity, and engaged Mr. Macmillan, a clever ventriloquist, to substitute his performance for the lecture, but he did so with some harsh words for the Leicester Journal].

Stung, no doubt, by the heartless reception of his lecture, Mr. Clay made an about-face and boarded the ship “White Star” straight back to Australia!

 

Dioramas, Photography and Magic

The ship, a brand new Clipper, arrived at Melbourne on July 17, 1855, after a good trip of only eight-six days.  Bennett Clay was in company with several others from Grantham, and all had made the voyage in good health.

Within days of his arrival, he was advertising a forthcoming “optical panorama, entitled The City of the Sultan, or the Red, White, and Blue.” His commencement at the Criterion Hall on August 9 did not fare well, the Argus reporting a very meagre attendance and problems with the projecting apparatus. By August 21 the night at Collingwood was more polished, now promoted as an Optical Panorama featuring The Siege of Sebastopol, by which name he would tour widely.

This phrase “meagre audiences” in a hundred variations, would almost become the catch-phrase of Bennett Clay’s performances in years to come. His perseverance was quite remarkable.

On the home front, Clay was once again in dispute with his wife, Emily, and in a telling commentary on the domestic laws of the day, he advertised in September (8) that he would not be answerable for any debts contracted by his wife, “she having a second time left her home without any just cause”, and moreover threatening to prosecute any party harbouring the said Emily Clay.

Clay was at least a quick learner and, perhaps recognising that he was seriously lacking as a lecturer, now decided to add magical entertainment to his arsenal, and launched into advertising of ‘scientific and fashionable LEGERDEMAIN as performed on two occasions before her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness Prince Albert, at Balmoral Castle, Scotland’.  One might believe that the royals spent their entire lives viewing conjuring performances, judging by the number of magicians who claimed to have been granted a royal audience. Clay 1855 Nov 30

So Clay’s first documented show of his magical career began on November 30, 1855 with performances at Port Albert and Tarraville, Victoria, drawing ‘large and respectable audiences’.  The extensive list of locations he visited in the following decade will be detailed in an appendix to this story.

His first review (9) was remarkably good, crediting him with surprising dexterity and skill which excited rapt attention and undisguised astonishment, diversified by the exhibition of a series of views of the present war and storming of Sebastopol. The report, ironically, declared that he was “no tyro in his art”, when in fact Clay was exactly that. Later reports would suggest that he was still learning showmanship, and that while his tricks were baffling, his presentation was flat.

Not content with his magic, Clay took on the guise of an itinerant photographer. From February 1856 , still in the Gippsland region of Victoria, he began advertising his services as a portrait photographer, using the “new Collodion process”, said to be a significant improvement over the original  ‘Daguerreotype’ process in which a silver-plated copper plate was exposed to light and chemicals in a light-proof box.

The Collodion process was invented around 1851 and involved creating a negative images on a glass (sometimes tin) plate wet with silver nitrate solution. It required a portable darkroom and a short timeframe from coating the glass to developing the image. Though a ‘dry’ process would eventually evolve, Clay would have had to use a wagon as a portable darkroom. He not only offered a portrait service, he sold stereoscopes and images, and offered lessons in the art of photography.

Meantime, Mrs. Clay was again adversely reported in the newspapers. It appears that she had gone from Melbourne to taken on an engagement (employment) with a J.S.Imberg in Launceston Tasmania, but in February had left his residence without permission. Mr Clay was advised in advertisements to defray the costs advanced by Imberg, or have his wife’s possessions sold.

Perhaps it was this problem that resulted in Clay’s next stop being Launceston, in the north of Tasmania. Here he demonstrated his magic and announced his “City of the Sultan” exhibition. The room, said the Hobart Courier (10), was filled with a somewhat heterogeneous and noisy assemblage. Here we find that most of his magic was of a sleight-of-hand or small apparatus style, including the production of a bird, feathers and flowers from a small hat, transposition of playing cards and coins, the famous  Gun Trick and the very well-known Inexhaustible Bottle. (Another trick noted in later times was the “Sand Trick” in which Clay was able to reach into a bucket of water and remove a handful of dry sand, while audience members came out with only wet sand.)
Unfortunately his gas supply ran out before he could move on to the Diorama views, for which problem the reporter was very forgiving.

Having made the journey across the water to Tasmania, Bennett Clay made the most of it, and journeyed around the north of the country with his magic and photography, following Mersey River towns of Deloraine, Westbury, Carrick, Chudleigh and Tarleton.(11) He was still there in May 1856, having now adopted the first of several by-lines; he was now the Renowned Australian Wizard, surely a more original title than the hackneyed “Wizard of the North” used by so many.Clay 1856 Feb 1 Photography

The papers were rather unimpressed when he succeeded in getting approval from the local magistrates to license the Olympic Theatre in Launceston, when a Mr.Watson, ‘whose character is beyond reproach’ was refused a license for his legitimate drama.

Clay headed south to Hobart visiting townships along the way. Always fresh in his advertising, the show was now titled “Seances Fantastique and the Grand Optical Panorama”. From September 1 he was at Mr. Elliston’s New Assembly rooms in Macquarie Street under the patronage of the Governor of Tasmania, Sir Henry Fox Young. 1856 was significant for the island, receiving self-government and being renamed from “Van Diemen’s Land” to Tasmania.

The Governor and his wife attended a performance, but the press reported (12) in an honest fashion, “Mr. Clay is an admirable conjuror, but a poor performer. His tricks are excellent, but his manner while executing them was awkward and constrained. So far as manipulation is concerned there is little to be desired; but we wish for his own sake that he were more au fait in style. As an Irish friend of ours observed – ‘a little blarney, and he would be stunning.’ Many of his tricks were totally inexplicable. How he managed that inexhaustible bottle of his, which after disgorging all kinds of spirits, was broken and disclosed a live pigeon – how he did the gun trick, without making Mr. D’Embden, who had the temerit to fire, commit manslaughter, we don’t know…”  The gas for the Diorama had again failed, and the audience were offered tickets for another night.

With a few more performances in the region, and the adoption of the new title “The Renowned Australian Wizard of Wizards and popular Modern Magician”, Mr. Clay returned to Victoria, possibly in December, and headed to Portland for the race season in February 1857. He was not long there, before returning to Launceston with his photographic van, which he set up on grounds opposite the Post Office in George Street and remained through to the end of April. With winter starting to set in, he skipped back across the water, this time to Adelaide, South Australia.

His first set of performances in Adelaide on June 8 and 9 were reviewed by the South Australian Register (13), “Mr. Bennett Clay made his first appearance last evening at White’s Rooms, before a respectable though not very numerous audience. The first part of the entertainment consisted of a great variety of tricks in legerdemain, and of still more extraordinary deceptions by which the audience were almost left to doubt the evidence of their senses. Cards, rings, watches, gold and silver coins, handkerchiefs, and other articles were made to appear or disappear at the will of the presiding necromancer.

Some of the tricks are not new to the public of Adelaide, and in one or two instances the performer failed in effecting what he had promised. The evening’s entertainment was concluded with an exhibition of a series of optical views projected on an illuminated disc, and which included some beautiful specimens of the chromatrope.” [a magic lantern slide with moving discs, forming a moving pattern when projected].

The Adelaide Times took a far more favourable view of the opening night, (14) reporting a numerous audience, and hearty and spontaneous applause from the audience … “His success was complete.

The following evening, the attendance was not ‘so numerous as might have been reasonably expected considering the variety and excellence of the ample bill of particulars. … the colouring [of the slides] in some instances was superb, striking the eye of the beholder with intense effect, and leaving in the recollection distinctive marks of truth and excellence.”

A few days later, Clay’s performances in Port Adelaide were to another meagre audience, this time owing to the muddy state of the streets.

It is interesting to note that in the same area was a Mr. Jackson, Professor of Phrenology, Electro-Biology and a Galvanist. The odd fashion of the times was to demonstrate the power of electricity using a galvanic battery with which the audience were permitted to give themselves a shock! A few years later, in New Zealand, Clay advertised the sale of two electro-magnets; and it might be speculated that he had considered going into the Galvanic business himself.

The South Australian tour continued with a lengthy season of one and two night stands in the townships close to Adelaide, then to Gawler by August 10 and numerous other towns.

On August 14, the S.A.Register reported that around August 12 at Gawler Hills there had been a fire, and Professor Clay’s equipment had been entirely destroyed. The Register rather selfishly went on to say that the evening had been rescued by another gentleman who arrived and filled in the evening with another presentation; Clay’s Panorama equipment barely rating more than the comment “some disappointment was caused by this”. Clay 1857 Jul 31

If Mr. Clay was set back by this disaster, he did not stop. For August 28 he was mentioned (14) performing magic to a numerous party at the Shamrock and Thistle Inn, Clare, 140km north of Adelaide, and he was seen again in November and December around Adelaide and Wellington. It may safely be assumed he made other appearances in between these dates.

 

Middle Years -  1858 to 1859

Northern Tasmania must have been good to Professor Clay, as he returned again to Launceston in February 1858, promoting his Collodion Portraits, magic, and a new Panorama display, this time of the war in India. His “grand fashionable Levee” in his new “Temple of Mystery” was supported by Mr. Sharp’s Quadrille Band.

Almost on top of his season, Monsieur Philippe De Barr appeared at the same Cornwall Assembly Rooms, only a fortnight after Clay had finished. Since De Barr had a vastly more spectacular show, it is probably as well that Clay managed to get in first.

It was still not a good season for Clay, though. The Courier (16) remarked that Launceston had been having an unusual surge of amusement, and that the races and cricket match, and Mr. Poole’s new theatre company and a circus had all combined to reduce Mr. Clay’s audiences.

Although Clay is not mentioned by name, it is reasonable to assume that the Photographic Portrait Van, with Voigtlander lenses, cases, ‘chymicals’, etc which were advertised for sale in early March, were those of the Wizard. Whether Clay needed to raise funds, or was simply tired of the photographic business is not known; but almost immediately a Henry Frith advertised that he was opening a new photographic studio in the town, and presumably this was the same equipment.

Clay headed south in May, via Oatlands and New Norfolk, now advertising a new addition to his show – “Mysterious Performances of Stars and Meteors and Scientific Illusions”; we are left to guess that this was some extension of his projection apparatus. Also listed in the advertisements were his supposed Travelling Agent with the unusual name of Septimus Brains, and assistant “Goblin Sprightly”, Mr. George Cox, who appears to have been the actual Agent.Clay 1859 Nov 16

Arriving in Hobart once more, he opened a Temple of Enchantment at the Royal Albert Theatre, Liverpool Street, on June 14 for three nights. Notable was the addition of Goblin Sprightly operating a “Euterpeon”, a mechanised device which played multiple orchestral instruments at the same time. In case of disruption, Mr. Clay had “appointed officers to enforce Etiquette and decorum to all present.”

In a very rapid (for the times) trip, Clay now journeyed all the way up to Sydney, New South Wales where, for June 30 and July 1 he announced his show at the Williams Assembly Room in Parramatta.

Barely drawing breath he continued north to Newcastle and on to Maitland on July 12. The Portland Guardian reported that “the ease and rapidity with which the professor performs the most wonderful feats of natural magic puzzle and amuse the audience considerably … the entertainment is calculated to please even the most fastidious.”

Relatively little of Clay is seen in the following months, though he continued to move northwards via Tamworth in October, and Armidale in late November through to December 10. Never satisfied with his existing repertoire, Clay was now advertising “Wizard Clay and his performing Pigeons” for a series of short stops in towns as far north as Tenterfield. We will resist the temptation to make the obvious “clay pigeon” joke ….

 

Finally in late January 1859 Mr. Clay reached his apparent goal, Queensland, where he performed at Drayton but found that “Somehow wizards do not ‘take’ so well as formerly …  with but indifferent support, the room being only half filled, and finding no inducement to remain, he proceeded on the following morning to Toowoomba, where we wish him the success he merits.” (17)

In February at Dalby, April in Brisbane and Ipswich Clay reintroduced optical views of the War in the Crimea, including the Battle of Alma and Inkermann. Ever inventive, the season was titled “A Night in Wonder-World; or Magic, Mirth and Mystery.”  While Brisbane was successful, at the Ipswich Theatre, he was very indifferently patronised. Said the  North Australian Advertiser, “the performances are very clever, and most of them of an entirely different nature from those of other performers of the science of magic.

April 16 was announced as the Farewell Entertainment for Professor Bennett Clay, Necromancer and Wizard, at the Commercial Hotel, South Brisbane.  Whether this implied that he was thinking of retirement or some other scheme is not known, but by the end of April and again in May, Mr. Clay purchased blocks of land at Enoggera near Brisbane, some twenty acres costing him just over three pounds per acre.

In a peculiar anomaly, Professor Bennett Clay was announced (18) to give two entertainments in the town of Wollongong, on May 5 and 6.  Such a long trip, to mid-way down the coast of New South Wales, sounds impracticable for such a short season. There is little sign of Clay until June 29, when Clay was mentioned giving an entertainment in Gayndah, QLD; so his Wollongong appearance remains a mystery. His name is seen less frequently in the next few months, but it has to be noted that in September, Clay arrived back in Sydney aboard the “Fenella” and gave performances at  Parramatta and Windsor during October. Such a capacity for travel is astonishing, but it seems to fit the character of Bennett Clay. He moved across to the area of Bathurst in central New South Wales (“Professor Anderson, the Wizard of the North, Out Rivalled’) only to meet with his nemesis, “the audience … not so numerous as the superior character of the entertainment ought to have ensured”, this time due to the intense heat known as a “Brickfielder”.

The Bathurst Free Press made an interesting comment that Professor Anderson’s modus operandi had sometimes been easily detected, but that Clay safely defied detection, and gave high recommendation to his performances: - “we may add that the charm of his illusions [are the] result of talent and genuine sleight of hand, assisted by an accurate knowledge of chemical effects, and rendered still more gratifying by an absence of unnecessary pretension, and by the effect naturally produced by a graceful and gentlemanly address.”  Probably, after the pretentious bombast of Professor Anderson, Clay’s more quiet style was a relief; but it also shows that he had, over the four years of his magical career, developed into a very professional entertainer.

Clay was still travelling in the central NSW region up to the end of 1859 and into April next with performances in Orange on Boxing Day and the week following.

 

Final Years in Australia, 1860 - 1862

As Bennett Clay entered mid-1860, a sight change came over his entertainments. No longer the combined Optical Panorama exhibitor and Conjuror, he was now solely “Professor Bennett Clay, the eminent Mysteriachist”. His performing also seems to have slowed, though he may have done some other shows that have not yet been identified. His overall repertoire remained the same, and commentary for this period is mostly confined to listing the dates of his appearances, in the Appendix.

He bought more land in Enoggera, another 17 acres, in 1861, and may well have been occupied tending this.

Alas, a single report in February 1861 (19) tells us that a show in Hamilton, Victoria, was advertised “in long flaming parti-coloured handbills for two nights only; his audience, we understand, consisted the first night of some 15, the second of Nil.”  Undaunted, he moved on to other townships in the region. At Port Arlington, not through any fault of Clay’s, several farmers got into a brawl following his show, smashing windows and lamps after they were ejected from McKenzie’s Hotel.

A more dignified performance was on April 9 at Government House, Toorak, for the members of the Victoria Legislative Assembly and His Excellency Sir Henry Barkly.Clay 1862 Oct 3

Overall, though, it seems that Clay was performing less and having more trouble selling seats, despite the praise his performances received. He introduced a new segment to the show, a performance of Marionettes, but little seemed to be helping. At Gundaroo (19) it was remarked, “the people of these parts have no taste for sleight of hand tricks, judging by the meagre attendance on each occasion.” At Queanbeyan one performance was cancelled through poor attendance, though another was to a full house.

Finally, in November 1862, Professor Clay decided to look to what he hoped would be greener pastures. He left Australia for good, and shipped to New Zealand.

 

New Zealand, 1862 - 1865

Historian of New Zealand magic, Bernard Reid,  while documenting Clay’s time in New Zealand, speculates on what was Clay’s very first action upon his arrival in Auckland (via the “Lord Ashley”), sometime close to November 27. He advertised for auction (21), two chestnut geldings, a wagonette, and a set of double harness, having apparently imported them from Australia.  Two days later he advertised the sale of two “Electro Magnetic Machines”; he was still trying to sell these at Nelson on February 7, 1863.  Whether he had discovered that the wagon would be of no assistance to him in touring New Zealand is not known, but on January 22, 1863, at Wellington he again advertised the cheap sale of “a set of silver plated double Buggy Harness (nearly new).” The possibility is that Clay had arrived very short of cash and was forced to sell his goods to fund any further touring.

Clay opened with performances in Auckland and nearby areas from December 6, returning to the Brunswick Hall on December 22-26 with his “Magic Portfolio and the Troupe of Lilliputian Marionettes”, then setting off on tour aboard the “Kauri” for Napier. Mrs. Clay is also mentioned on the passenger list. At Nelson he received a brief notice that ‘his audience … was both numerous and respectable. His tricks of legerdemain were very clever, and the drawing of his Marionette figures gave great satisfaction.”(22)

A break in any newspaper notices occurs until mid-April 1863, when Clay was noted as having returned from Wanganui to Wellington, where he was praised as ‘exceedingly clever … displays a neatness and dexterity apparently miraculous in some of his tricks.’ Such occasional praise was set to nought by the very blunt comment (23) in the Daily Southern Cross that “Clay, who is probably the least promising rival possessed by the Wizard of the North, has met in Wellington and the surrounding districts with something worse than indifferent success, and is about taking his departure from amongst us with no very high opinion of our capacities for appreciating clever and legitimate entertainments.”

Clearly, Clay’s roll of the dice was not paying off; but he pressed onward as shown in the Appendix below, and moved to Lyttelton and Christchurch (both with ‘well filled houses’), and Dunedin in May, where he was ‘beginning to attract better audiences.’ but then a few days later, ‘He has hardly been so successful as we expected, considering his merits … at least has the consolation that what he has done … has been despite the unusual attractions held out for a visit to the Princess’s Theatre.”

In August at Waikouaiti, north of Dunedin, he was both well attended and welcomed by the press, who expressed a view that more artistes should visit their town and enjoy good support.

The press tended to flip-flop between praise and dismissiveness for Mr. Clay. The Southland Times of August 25 (Invercargill) said that “the first part was very fatiguing, consisting chiefly of legerdemain tricks, with which one has been familiar for years” while admitting that there was “an immensely crowded house, which was as noisy as it was numerous.”

But around August 28, 1863, Professor Bennett Clay appears to have given up the struggle at Invercargill. There is no further newspaper advertising, and only a diligent search resulted in further information on his whereabouts.

It seems that prior to 1864, Clay had moved to the tiny township of Riverton, on the far southern tip of New Zealand; very nearly the most southerly point of the country. He appears on the Electoral Rolls for 1865-66 at Riverton with a leasehold on Section 16 block 1.

It was noted in September 1864 (24) that Professor Clay had given an entertainment at Riverton in aid of the Building Fund of the Oddfellow’s Hall (‘There was a capital attendance, and everything passed off most successfully.’)

Clay was an officer of the Shamrock, Rose and Thistle Lodge of the Oddfellows, using the appendix “N.G.” after his name, which is understood to mean “Noble Grand (Presiding Officer)”.

He re-surfaced briefly in Queenstown with a Christmas entertainment at Brown’s Commercial Hall for three nights, which on December 26 and December 28 was well attended and well reviewed (“we would single out for prominence the Sand trick, and producing a pigeon out of a glass bottle”). However the performance of December 27 was for some reason unable to proceed when the owner of the hall claimed some other use of his room; and despite a court case, Clay was eventually forced on January 3 1865 to abandon his claim for compensation, as he had apparently made “certain arrangements” with Mr. Brown which rendered his claim void.

That was the final season of Professor Bennett Clay, Australian Wizard of Wizards and Mysteriachist.
Just weeks after his last show, it was left to the British press (25) of his home town in Grantham, to announce that Clay had died on January 22 in Riverton, in his 39th year. The cause is not mentioned.

To die at such a young age seems a terribly sad ending; but Bennett Clay had spent some fourteen years of his life determinedly following a passion for travel, adventure and magic. He could have stayed at home, safely sticking to a career as a chemist, but he chose instead to chase a dream – and for that his name should be singled out for praise in the annals of Australian magic.

 

Appendix – Known Performances of Mr. Bennett Clay, 1855-1865

1855

November c.28 – benefit given by Clay in Portland; no magic mentioned

November 30 – Dec 1 Iron Store, Port Albert and Burn’s Royal Hotel Tarraville, Victoria

December 24  - Woolpack Inn, Sale for five nights. Said to be heading to Flooding Creek

1856

January 11 – Iron Store, Port Albert, ball and entertainment

February – Gippsland region photography

March 19-20 – Cornwall Assembly Rooms, Launceston

May 26 for five nights – Olympic Theatre, Launceston

July 14-15 – Mrs. Morrison’s Store, Evandale

to Early August – George Town

Mid-August – at Campbell Town

September 1-5 – Mr. Elliston’s New Assembly Rooms, Hobart Town

September 19-20 – Mr. Iles’ Large Room, Sorrell

September 29 – Campbell’s Assembly Rooms, Bathurst Street Hobarton

1857

February – Mr. Cameron’s Store, Gawler Street Portland during the Race season

April – announced for Dolphin Inn, Launceston, April 6,8, 11.

June 8-9 – White’s Assembly Room, Adelaide, South Australia

June 11 and 13 – Port Adelaide Theatre

June 17 – East Torrens Institute, Kensington

[Dates advertised in Adelaide Observer]:

June 19-20 – Nairne

June 22-23 – Mount Barker

June 25 – Macclesfield

June 29-30 – Strathalbyn

July 3-4 – Wellington

July 6-7 – Port Elliot

July 10-11 – Yankalilla

July 13-14 – Willunga

July 17 – Noarlunga and possibly Reynella

July 20-21 – Morphett Vale

August 1 and 3 – Port Adelaide Theatre

August 10,13, 15 – St. George’s Schoolroom, Gawler

Announced departure from Gawler on August 17, en route for Auburn, Glare, Watervale, Burra Burra, Kapunda, Tanunda and Angaston. These were probably affected by the fire at Gawler Hills.

August 28-29 – Shamrock and Thistle Inn, Clare

November 30 – Queen’s Head Assembly Room, North Adelaide

December 19 – “Denford’s, ”Wellington  en route to Guichen Bay

1858

February 22-24 – Cornwall Assembly Rooms, Launceston

April and May – advertised dates:

Oatlands – April 29-30

May 1 - Green Ponds

May 3-4 – Bothwell

May 6-7 - Hamilton

May 11-12 – New Norfolk

May 20 – Richmond

June 14 for three nights – Royal Albert Theatre, Hobart

June 30 – July 1 – Williams’ Assembly Room, Parramatta NSW

[July ??] – reportedly in Newcastle for several nights

July 12 – Queen’s Theatre, Maitland

July 20-21 – School of Arts, West Maitland

October [?] - Tamworth

November 26  and c.December 3 – New England Hotel, Armidale

December 10 – Benefit night at Monahan’s Assembly Room, Armidale

December Advertised dates:

December 13 – Falconer

December 13 – Beardy Plains

December 17-18 – Glen Innes

December 20 – Dundee

December 27-29 - Tenterfield

1859

January 23 – Bull’s Head, Drayton

January 24 - Toowoomba

February 7-8 – Dalby, Myall Creek

March c.14 – Moreton Bay region

April 4-5 – School of Arts, North Brisbane

April 7-9 – Music Hall, Ipswich

April 12 – Commercial Hotel, South Brisbane

April 16 – ‘Farewell Entertainment’ at Mr. Souter’s Large Room, Commercial Hotel

May 5-6 – advertised for Wollongong, NSW

June c.29 – Gayndah Queensland

September 29 – Arrived in Sydney on the ‘Fenella’

October 27 – Red Cow Inn Assembly Room, Parramatta NSW

October 20-22 – Fitzroy Hotel Assembly Rooms, Windsor NSW

November 16 -19 – Club House Hotel, Bathurst

Press mentions intended visits to O’Connell Plains and Pepper’s Creek, then to Peel and Sofala.

December c.17 – three nights at Court House, Carcoar

December 26 and five nights following – Mr Phillips’ Large Room, Orange

1860

April  c.112-12 - Court House, Paterson NSW

April 13-14 - Dungog

April 16 - Brookfield

April 18-19 - Clarence Town

April 23-24 - School of Arts, Stroud

April 27-28 - Raymond Terrace

May 17 – Morpeth Hotel, Morpeth

June 8-9 – School of Arts, Balmain Sydney

June 11 – Royal Oak Assembly Room, Paddington

June 12 – White Conduit House, Rushcutter’s Bay

June 14 – Phile’s Assembly Room, St. Leonards

June 16, 18, 20 – Victoria Theatre (Pitt Street) Sydney

June 23 and 25 – Temperance Hall, Pitt Street Sydney

July ? – Picton

July 23 – School of Arts, Goulburn (rained out), deferred to July 30-31

1861

February c.30 – Hamilton, Victoria.

March – Geelong, Drysdale, Queenscliff

March 12 –  McKenzies’s Hotel, Port Arlington

April 3-4 – Mechanics’ Institute, Prahran

April 9 – Government House, Toorak, for the Legislative Assembly

April 16-18 – Hinchcliffe’s Royal Hotel, Kyneton

April 18 – Hargreave’s Royal Oak (Kyneton?)

April 19 – Mechanics’ Institute (Kyneton?)

August  12 – Mechanics’ Institute, Ballarat

August 23 – Royal Oak, Windsor

September c.5 – Commercial Hotel (Ballarat?)

1862

March c.15 – Traveller’s Home, Gundaroo

March 22 and 24 – Oddfellows Hall, Queanbeyan

April 28-30 – Mechanics’ Hall Goulburn

October 6-7 – Queen’s Hotel Assembly Rooms, Wollongong

November 8-10 – Olympic Theatre, West Maitland

November c27 – Arrived in Auckland, New Zealand

December 1-6 – Brunswick Hall, Auckland. Noted as proceeding to:

December 8-9 -  Onehunga

December 11 and 13 – Otahuhu

December 15-16 – Papakura

December 22-26 – Brunswick Hall, Auckland

1863

January 12-14 – Council Chamber, Napier

January 21 and 24 Odd Fellows’ Hall, Wellington. Noted as proceeding to The Hutt Mechanics Institute for January 26

February 3 and 5 – Odd Fellows’ Hall, Nelson

February 7 – Literary Institute, Richmond

March ?? – Wanganui

April 17 – Odd Fellows’ Hall, Wellington

May 2 and 4 – Town Hall, Lyttelton

May 6-8 – Town Hall, Christchurch

May 21-29 – Masonic Hall, Dunedin

August c.1 - Waikouaiti

August c.24-28 – Murdoch’s Concert Hall, Tay Street Invercargill

1864

September 22 – Riverton

December c.26-29 – Brown’s Commerical Hall Queenstown, Dec.27 cancelled.

 

 

REFERENCES:

  1. Genealogical records including birth, family, marriage, and death via findmypast.com.au
  2. South Eastern Gazette, Kent, England – advertising during 1851, and 1851 census records
  3. Victoria Inward Passengers Lists 1839-1923. Bennett Clay, listed with birth date 1827.
  4. State Library of NSW – Mitchell Library call reference DSM/042/P89. “Mr Bennett Clay’s New and Original Descriptive Scenery of the Gold Diggings of Australia, with Instructive Views on the Road and in the Bush by the aid of his newly invented Chymical Zalexipophogan Light.”
  5. The dates, as published by Clay, do not fit shipping records, neither can a ship “Nimrod” be located sailing this route. A “Nimroud” whaling ship existed but does not fit the dates. It is believed that Clay published the wrong dates in error.
  6. The Argus Melbourne, September  20 1853, page 8.
  7. Stamford  Mercury, Friday May 5, 1854.
  8. The Argus, September 19 1855, page 7
  9. Gippsland Guardian, December 7 1855.
  10. Hobart Courier, March 22 1856 page 2, quoting the Examiner
  11. Cornwall Chronicle, May 31 1856 page 7
  12. Tasmanian Daily News, September 2  1856 p.2
  13. South Australian Register, June 9, 1857
  14. Adelaide Times, June 10, 1857 p.2
  15. South Australian Register, September 2, 1857
  16. Hobart Courier, March 1, 1858
  17. Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser, Toowoomba, January 27, 1859
  18. Sydney Morning Herald, May 3, 1859 p.1
  19. Hamilton Spectator and Grange District Advertiser (Sth Melbourne) February 2, 1861
  20. The Gold Age (Queanbeyan) March 22, 1862
  21. New Zealander, November 27, 1862
  22. Nelson Examiner, February 4, 1863.
  23. Daily Southern Cross, May 4, 1863
  24. Southland Times, September 22, 1864
  25. Grantham Journal April 15, 1865

 

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