Powell Courtier in Melbourne, 1846 - 1849
On July 18, 1846, shipping records for the ship 'William' list John Powell Courtier and his wife, Sarah Courtier, departing from Launceston, Tasmania, bound for Port Phillip (Melbourne). Additional confirmation that our magician was, in fact, the ex-convict, comes from the headings "Ship To colony" as Southworth, and "Status" as Free by Servitude. Courtier had married Sarah Wilson, aged 33, on April 7, 1845 in Launceston.
Melbourne was hardly a thriving metropolis in 1846. It had only been founded by white men in 1835, speculative settlers from Tasmania in search of better pastoral land. The Australasian newspaper (Melbourne, Victoria) looked back upon the state of the theatre in Victoria, with a lengthy article entitled “Old Melbourne”, published in the not-so-distant year 1878 (July 6). These excerpts give some insight into the shaky and immature state of the city of Melbourne, and of the arts, in the mid-1840s.
“The present is the ten thousandth issue of The Argus [Melbourne newspaper], which has now reached something more than the average term of existence of a human generation. The date of its birth was Tuesday, the 2nd of June, 1846, when the settlement was only eleven … The population of the province was 38,331 or about the same as that of Collingwood and Fitzroy, and Melbourne was a straggling town, loosely articulated, and by no means distinguished for its liveliness. People had a good deal of leisure for scandal and small talk, local events were few and unexciting, communication with the old world was slow and irregular, Sydney was distant nearly a week, there was little in the way of public amusements to beguile the tedium of the long winter evenings, the streets were unpaved and badly lighted, and the only season of real animation was when the annual clip of wool came down from the country…. in The Argus of July the 7th, 1846, we find it recorded that “it is the intention of Mr [George] Coppin to erect a theatre upon that piece of ground in the rear of Elizabeth-street which is now occupied by Mr. Armistead, the builder …. The only rival entertainment to that provided by the theatre … was the performance of “the celebrated fire-king and necromancer,” Mr. Powell Courtier, who informed the public that his feats had occasioned ‘the greatest wonder and excitement in Hobart Town.’ “
Courtier wasted no time in applying to the New South Wales Colonial Secretary for permission to perform in Melbourne (as Port Phillip was, at that time, part of the Colony of New South Wales), at the Old Theatre, otherwise known as the "Pavillion", in Bourke Street. "In my Exhibitions when fire is used", wrote Courtier, "the utmost precaution is taken against accident, and I can therefore give the assurance exacted by the Bench most satisfactorily, as my performances at V.D. Land have testified."
On July 30, 1846 he again wrote,
"Argus" (Melbourne) August 7, 1846 -
'Necromancy - Mr. Powell Courtier, the famous Fire King and Necromancer, has obtained the permission of the authorities to open for a short time in the old Theatre, Bourke Street - and an advertisement in our today's impression gives promise of the wonders with which he proposes to feast the audience. Judging from the reports of those who have witnessed Mr Courtier's exhibitions on the Van Diemen's Land stage, we should be inclined to think he has "no rival near the throne" among the professors of the art of legerdemain who have hitherto visited Port Phillip, and certainly if he does but half what he says, his audience will have no reason to complain of not receiving value for money'.
[Same issue] - lengthy advertisement announces Courtier at the Theatre Of Arts, known as the Old Theatre, Great Bourke-street, from Monday August 10, 1846. This appearance is stated to be "for a few nights prior to his departure for Sydney". The remainder of the advertisement sets out the Fire King's proposed feats, including The Enchanted Pyramid, Burned and Restored Cards, and Pancakes Fried In A Hat, as well as various "fireproof man" effects, and the exhibition of a series of “automaton” figures.
Allied Arts - Salamandering and Fantoccini or Automata
A brief commentary on some of the talents demonstrated by Courtier, and many early performers:- Prior to 1850 it was common for performers to present a variety of skills including magic, ventriloquism, optical and mechanical novelties and illusions, fire eating and fire resistance, puppetry, magic lanterns and, occasionally, mesmerism (hypnosis). Some of these talents, and the adoption of the title “Wizard” or “Professor” blurred the distinction between entertainment and scientific or pseudo-medical abilities; the performer was generally open to giving his audiences whatever new or novel attraction which might help fill his purse, look good on his handbills, and lengthen his show.
Courtier’s role as a “Salamander” or “Fire King” was a continuation of the fairground displays of Europe and England as far back as the early 1700s, of which some prominent performers were (7) Robert Powell, Monsieur Chabert, and Eugene Rivalli. Feats commonly presented included the eating of poisonous or corrosive substances, resisting the touch of flames or red-hot metals, and placing molten metals in the hand or mouth. Chabert’s most famous feat was that of entering a blazing oven holding a joint of meat, and remaining in the furnace until the meat was well cooked; from Powell Courtier’s advertisement of October 1, 1846, he seems to have emulated this feat to some degree - “in the Centre of a body of fire ... the flames curling around his body in the furnace; from thence he will crawl gradually out, and prove himself to be a human being, and not the Salamander in reality...” Quite where one discovered such secrets and learned these skills is something of mystery in a country far away from possible mentors. Suffice to say that there was a cross-over between the scientific principles involved, and the deceptive wiles of the magician.
The question of “Automaton Figures” in Courtier’s performances is an uncertain matter. The modern concept of an “automaton” is that of a complex mechanical figure which could independently perform a series of motions, and certainly such wonders existed in Courtier’s time. However, it is clear that his figures were not mechanised; they were puppets of some type.
The Port Phillip Herald (Melbourne), August 8, 1846 -
Novel Attractions - A few days ago a Mr. Courteur (sic), lately arrived from Van Diemen's Land, applied through his legal adviser, Mr. John Stephen, to his Worship the Mayor, for permission to exhibit "divers and sundry" legerdemain tricks at the old Theatre. The reply of the Bench was, its unwillingness to offer any obstacle, provided a guarantee was given that no accident from fire should result. A further application to his Honor the Superintendent was recommended, and his Honor's reply expresses a reluctance to interfere in any manner with the discretion of the Bench of Magistrates. It is therefore to be expected that the applicant will in a few days display some of his marvellous "feats of art," which have been highly spoken of in the sister colony.
Objections to Courtier's performance
Courtier did not make the advertised appearance on August 10th, however, for it is reported:-
"Argus" (Melbourne) August 11, 1846 -
'The Old Theatre - We observe by an advertisement in another column, that owing to some obstacles thrown in the way by the proprietor of the Queen's Theatre, the projected entertainments by Mr. Powell Courtier, the Fire-king and Necromancer, are postponed, until the license of the Colonial Secretary is received. There is a want of policy in this proceeding on the part of Mr. Smith, which we certainly should not have expected at his hands, for as Mr. Courtier had already obtained the recommendation of the magistrates, the Colonial Secretary's issue of the license, on application, is certain, the only object attained, therefore, is delay; and delay obtained at the price of turning public attention to the effect of monopoly is in our opinion, very dearly bought.'
In the same issue, and on August 14 and 18, an advertisement states:-
The objections to Courtier's performing licence had been raised by Mr John Thomas Smith, proprietor of the Queen's Theatre, which might imply an attempt by Smith to thwart a rival performer. However, Smith wrote (5) on August 10, 1846:-
In support of this opinion, Smith referred to an enclosed statement by one Charles E. Johnson:-
The Port Phillip Herald (Melbourne), August 28, 1846 -
The Fire King - Mr. Powell Courteur's (sic) application to the Colonial Secretary for permission to exhibit some of his conjuring feats at the old theatre, has been duly answered by a further reference to his Honor the Superintendent, upon whose report the whole matter depends. We have every reason to believe that his Honor will make no report in the matter, as upon the occasion of a previous application to him, he stated in the most positive terms that no reference to him was at all necessary, the only requisite being the sanction of the Melbourne magistracy. This recommendation has, as far as we can learn, been obtained but as his Honor is now absent in Sydney a communication has been transmitted to him; and in the event of his having left the metropolis previous to its receipt, it must retrace its steps to Melbourne, and then, with another letter to the Colonial Secretary, a month or six weeks will yet elapse before the man of fiery wonders can make his debut to a Melbourne public. In the interim Mr. Jamieson is hard at work in fitting up the old theatre, and giving it quite a new profile.
Finally, Courtier's licence was approved on September 9 and conveyed to the performer.
"Argus" (Melbourne), September 29, 1846 -
The Fire King - By the overland mail of Friday, Mr. Powell Courtier, the Fire King and Necromancer, received the Colonial Secretary's license for a series of performances in the arts of necromancy and legerdemain, at the old Theatre, in Bourke street. Mr. Courtier opened his campaign last night with a full house, his [performances] equalling the astounding promise of his preliminary announcement.'
In the same issue, Courtier advertised:-
"The Port Phillip Gazette" [Melbourne Herald], October 1, 1846, page 3 -
'Mr. Powell Courteur [sic] - We regret it is not in our power to bestow upon this "professor" the praises so lavishly heaped upon him by two of our contemporaries. On the contrary, having now witnessed his performances, we can decidedly assert them to be of the commonest order, executed in anything but a clever style, and that too with a vulgarity and mannerism which might be expected from a "bog-trotter" from "our own dear isle". In a word, we pronounce Mr. Courteur's performance a failure.
"Argus" (Melbourne), October 2, 1846, page 3 -
To the Editor of the Melbourne Argus.
(The Argus editorialised its support, saying “our opinion is, that Mr. Courtier’s performances immeasurably excel any thing of the kind ever witnessed in Melbourne, not even excepting those which have been extolled as something superlative in the columns of the very journal which conveys this sweeping censure. Between opinions thus ‘wide as the poles asunder,’ the public must judge, and we will venture a wager that bumper audiences will give judgment in our favour.’ )
"Argus" (Melbourne), October 13, 1846 -
'The Fire King - Mr. Powell Courtier, the Fire King, and Necromancer, has obtained permission to astonish the natives at Geelong, for a couple of nights, with his wondrous feats in the way of legerdemain and necromancy. Mr. C. leaves town for Corio this morning and will return to Melbourne in time to perform on Monday evening.'
Courier, Hobart Tas. 14 October 1846 -
We have Melbourne papers to the 29th of September ... Mr. Powell Courtier, from Van Diemen's Land, calling himself the " Fire King" and "Australian Wizard of the North," and who is pronounced by the Patriot " unparalleled as an adept in the necromantic art," has obtained a license for the Old Theatre. In the long list of his performances, he announces "a necromantic feat which created the greatest wonder and excitement in Hobart Town," the " migratory card," having, on one occasion, been conveyed from the Argyle Rooms to the top of St. David's Church. To show his perfect victory over poisonous substances, he undertakes to eat as much phosphorus as would kill 200 men ; and to devour a bushel of shavings, and, in their stead, to draw from his mouth a barber's pole, 12 feet in length!
The “Old Theatre”, or “The Pavilion” mentioned, was a rickety and leaky place which had fallen into considerable disrepute due to the rowdy behaviour of its audiences (6), and came close to being closed down.
Courier, Hobart Tasmania. November 18, 1846
Mr. Powell Courtier, eating-house keeper at Melbourne, and formerly practiser in the art of legerdemain in this town, is going to contest one of the Melbourne Wards for the Councillorship.
A dispute arose in the Annual Licensing Sesson of April 20, 1847, when Mr Courtier and Mr Hayes both applied for the license to operate the same premises. It appears that Courtier was nearing the end of his current lease and would, in any case, have to leave the site. While the Justices rejected Courtier’s new license, he continued to operate from the Little Bourke Street location opposite the Star Inn, but in the role of a “Registry Office”, effectively an employment agency.
"Argus" (Melbourne), May 4, 1847 -
Advertisement - Registry Office - The Undersigned begs leave to acquaint his friends, and the public, that he has obtained the assistance of a gentleman to conduct the registry office, with a view of affording increased facilities, alike to the employer and employed. Families in Town or country requiring the services of individuals in any capacity will have their objects furthered by communicating to the undersigned, while those out of employment may rely upon his utmost endeavour to obtain them. No applicants need apply at the office, unless their characters will bear the strictest investigation. Office hours, from 10 till 4 o'clock.
"Argus" (Melbourne), August 8, 1848 -
Advertisement for "London Eating and Boarding Establishment" seemingly in a new location, opposite the Shepherd's Arms in Swanston Street, fitted up with "Steam Apparatus on an entirely new scientific principle, introducing into these Colonies a system of cooking whereby the various viands are prepared in a manner now adopted in the first-rate Hotels and Club Houses in London". These advertisements appear on a regular basis from August through December 1848.
Courtier and W.C. Wainwright
January 1849 brought a return to the stage for Courtier. The Argus announced on January 16 that “Messrs. Wainwright and Courtier, both of whom are well known to the Colonial public as celebrated necromancers, have received license to perform in the Mechanics’ Hall for nine nights. Mr Wainwright has lately arrived from Sydney, where he performed to overflowing houses.”
W. C. Wainwright is another of those elusive characters whose name appears but infrequently in the press, probably because he performed in hotels or small halls rather than venues which might be advertised as “theatres”. He was at the Northumberland Hotel, West Maitland (NSW) on June 20, 1846, and his advertising states him to be “late of the Theatre Royal, Liverpool”. Following this he is only heard of as having performed at Geelong, but disappears from view until 1849 but, as stated above, he had apparently come from Sydney following a successful round of performances, judging by this commentary:
Bell's Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, January 20, 1849 -
The joint performances by Wainwright and Courtier appear to have been quite a success, drawing a rare commentary from The Argus:-
[Friday, January 19, 1849] The large room of the Mechanics Hall was attended by a rather numerous concourse of persons on Wednesday evening anxious to witness the performance of the celebrated necromancer from Sydney, Mr Wainwright, who was assisted by Mr. Courtier. The feats were performed with a degree of professional skill which would have done credit to the far-famed Signor Blitz, or the more celebrated Wizard of the North. Mr. W. is the possessor of a splendid voice, and treated the audience to several comic songs. Mr. Courtier was happy in his execution of the illusions with card, and his appearance as an Indian highly amused the company.
As can be seen by the accompanying advertisement, the duo presented a wide range of magic and mindreading with cards, coins, guns, thread and balls, including a curious trick, “Skin Illusions” in which ‘lead, coral beads, diamonds &c., are passed though the skin.’
The performances ran until January 30. Happy with the result, Courtier applied (5) for a license to hold public entertainments at the Melbourne Race Course during the racing carnival in March, and engaged Mr Quin, the Australian tight rope dancer, Mr. Hughes the Slack rope walker, and Mr Gagge, a Posture Maker, to accompany his own feats of magic at the booth grandly named the “Theatre of Arts”. On May 3, Mr. Quin crossed on a tightrope between both banks of the Yarra River at Queen’s Wharf. Commented the “Gazette”, ‘It is a wonder that Mr Quin should adopt such an unusual mode of crossing the river, when he could go across in the boat for twopence.’
Departure to the United States
The family history of Courtier becomes rather less clear when his wife and children are taken into account. There are records to indicate that John Powell had applied to marry an Ann Greer (or Green) in January 1844, prior to his marriage to Sarah Wilson on April 7, 1845. A female child born to Sarah died on February 11, 1846. Further records from St.James' church in Melbourne show the birth of two more children, Sarah Susannah (1847) and Richard John Courtier (1848). Records for the St.Mary's church in Geelong also records a son born to a John and Sarah Courtier in 1848 at Barrabool, Victoria, but on present evidence these appear to be unrelated.
On June 23, 1849 (4), Mr and Mrs Courtier left Melbourne for San Francisco on the ship 'William Watson.' Only one child was registered with them but it may be assumed that the other child was too young to require registration. In the space of fifteen years, the convict had risen from the depths to become both a performer and a person of integrity in early Australian society. His future lay in the United States. (See chapter following)
The initial mention of Powell Courtier's name was found in "Index to the [Melbourne] Argus 1846-1854", Library Council of Victoria 1976; indexed under 'Theatre'. Held in the Dixson Library, State Library of N.S.W
(1) www.familysearch.org search on John Powell Courtier
(2) Online search of Archives Office of Tasmania (convict records) http://portal.archives.tas.gov.au
(3) Image 160, Online Archives Office of Tasmania. Thanks also to private researcher, Mr B. Dunt
(3) The Olympic Theatre was effectively a room built for performances, attached to the London Tavern on the corner of St John and Cameron Streets, opening in November 1842 and active until the mid-1850s. Its competition in the town was the Royal Victoria Theatre, likewise a large hall connected to a hotel in Cameron Street; advertising since early 1840, it was in 1845 that true theatre started coming to Launceston, in the form of George Coppin and his theatrical company. Even for Coppin, these were early days. Apparently the term “Royal” indicated only that the theatre was licensed.
(4) Shipping records, "Argus" newspaper, Melbourne Australia.
(5) State Records NSW: Colonial Secretary; NRS 905, Main series of letters received, 1846 Letter No. 46/5984 [4/2743, including Letter Nos.46/5983 and 46/6431] and State Records NSW: Colonial Secretary; NRS 905, Main series of letters received, 1849 Letter No. 49/2491 [4/2874]. Quoted with permission, and with grateful thanks to Janette Pelosi of State Records NSW.
(6) For a full description of the low character of the theatre, see “Chronicles of Early Melbourne 1835-1852, Edmund Finn
(7) A thorough treatment of early Incombustibles is given in “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women”, by Ricky Jay, 1987 Guild Publishing London. Harry Houdini’s work “Miracle Mongers and Their Methods” also discusses fire-eaters, though the secrets disclosed are not recommended for use.
(8) - ‘Belly Speakers’, Machines and Dummies: Puppetry in the Australian Colonies, 1830s - 1850s; a paper by Nicole Anae, Australasian Drama Studies 2007.
- See also the useful British site, “The world Through Wooden Eyes” http://www.theworldthroughwoodeneyes.co.uk/prints.html