POWELL COURTIER - Necromancer and Fire King
Thanks to new internet tools, making newspaper content searchable online, Powell Courtier is presently the second-earliest magician yet documented as having performed in Australia, preceded by Mons. Du Pree around 1837.
Information received through correspondence with a family history researcher revealed that Powell Courtier appeared to be John Powell Courtier of Launceston, Tasmania. Recent correspondence from another researcher, Mr. Brian Dunt (Victoria), has now made a near-certain connection to the convict history of one John Powell.
Examination of convict records for the period 1840-45 reveals some fourteen "John Powells" arriving in Tasmania (then Van Diemen's Land) as convicts. This makes the search for a specific Powell not only time-consuming but messy and uncertain, as the numerous candidates lead the researcher down many fruitless paths. In the case of Powell we start with a single clue to the correct person, and careful comparison of dates and places leads us to conclude that the correct thread has been followed.
Convict history of John Powell
On January 14, 1834, the ship 'Southworth' arrived in Van Diemen's Land, carrying a contingent of 188 convicts. The register of convicts lists one John Powell, age 22, a single man with the ability to read or write. His trade is listed in the ship arrivals log as "comedian", though his record of conduct puts him as “Schoolmaster”. He had been sentenced at Salop Wenlock Quarter Sessions on March 13, 1833, for the crime of stealing a waistcoat (and a prior acquittal on a Housebreaking charge). On March 29, 1833 he was received on board the prison hulk ‘Cumberland’, moored at Chatham, and departed Sheerness for transportation to Australia on September 25, 1833. The “Southworth” arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, on January 14, 1834 (2)
In the years that followed, the woes of John Powell are chronicled in a "Record of Conduct", a book listing offences committed by convicts while in Australia, and the punishments meted out.(3) The hand-written entries under Powell's name start with an offence which places him in an unpleasant light:-
Further offences were numerous, but these mostly related to insolence, disobedience or possession of prohibited items such as a knife or "some tin plates ... supposed for the purpose of gambling". For these he suffered punishments ranging from solitary confinement to hard labour and, on two occasions, 25 lashes. Most of these punishments were endured at the harsh Port Arthur convict settlement. As late as 1839 he was sentenced to solitary confinement for misconduct.
However, at the bottom of the entries is written "Free Certificate No.238 / 1840", and by Government Notice No.49 on February 25, 1840, John Powell was finally "free by servitude." Van Diemen’s Land (which would become Tasmania in 1856) was still primarily a convict settlement and transportation would not end there until 1853, so to have a convict emerge into the community and take up a relatively respectable occupation would have been completely unremarkable.
Powell Courtier On The Stage
Although it is not yet known where the name "Courtier" originated, nor where he learned his performing skills, John Powell made his first documented appearance, as “Powell Courtier” at Launceston, Tasmania on Monday, May 24, 1841.
The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston, Tas.) Saturday May 22, 1841
At the PLOUGH INN, Launceston, on Monday Evening next, Mr. Powell Courtier, the celebrated Fire King and Necromancer.
Mr. Powell will perform with cards, eggs, birds, watches, glasses, and a variety of other apparatuses to tedious to insert.
Amongst other feats he will eat a bushel of shavings, and in its stead will draw from his mouth a pole of 10 feet in length.
Mr. Powell will eat phosphorus, drink aquafortis, and likewise eat a quantity of real fire, without the least deception.
Mr. Elimore will sing a variety of comic songs.
Admission to the front seats 4s., back seats 2s.
The Plough Inn still exists in Launceston as a hotel and entertainment venue, retaining parts of the original building erected in 1831.
In the ensuing weeks, Powell Courtier presented his entertainment all around the local region: Mr Brown’s Inn (Perth, Tasmania), Mr Johnson’s Queen’s Arms Inn (Longford), Mr. Thompson’s “The Traveller’s Rest” (Muddy Plains), and the Britannia Tavern.
Finally he departed around July 6, following a number of Benefit concerts at which was performed the play of “Children in the Wood, the whole of the characters are sustained by figures, every figure will perform the part as natural as life.”
He then moved to the South, appearing August 30, 1841 at the Royal Victoria Theatre in Hobart. This theatre, now Australia's oldest continuing theatre, was only opened in 1837, barely three years into the history of Hobart's established theatre scene.
Courier, Hobart Tasmania. Friday August 27, 1841
The London Eating House, 1843-1846
Courtier is mentioned intermittently in the press around Hobart, in December 1841 at the Regatta, and in April 1842 entertaining at the Hobart Town Races. It might be inferred that he was not touring or performing regularly. This is unsurprising since, in the very first Tasmanian census taken in 1842, the total population of the island was just 57,420. Hobart-Town became a city in 1842.
The reference to “ill treatment” can only be guessed at. A month earlier, the Black Swan brewery had been announced available To Let for the remainder of a three-year lease. The supposition is that Courtier may have been involved in some negotiations for this lease, which fell through, leaving him out of pocket. Whatever the reason, little is heard of Courtier until December 1843 when it becomes apparent that he had commenced operation of the “London Eating and Boarding House” in Wellington Street. (“Ham and Beef always on hand. Hot joints from 1 to 3. Pork Pies always ready. Leg of Beef and Pea Soup to be had in any quantity throughout the day...”
His new career appears to have become the mainstay of Courtier’s income, and later he would open another “London Eating House” in Melbourne. but in the next few years it would also cause him to come up against numerous licensing and police issues. On occasion he ran into direct conflict with the law through his own impetuous behaviour, whilst at other times he appears to have been caught up in problems arising simply because the boarding houses were a thoroughfare for the lower members of society. As will be seen, the boarding house was not a high-class establishment and Courtier was not always an upstanding citizen. Nor was the theatre in Launceston regarded as a suitable place of entertainment, in most cases, for respectable families, owing to the drunken and ribald behaviour of its audiences.
In May Courtier suffered an assault at the hands of a lodger, one William Pepler while attempting to defend Pepler’s female companion from being attacked. In November that same year he was brought before the courts on a charge of harbouring Charles Drybole, an absconded offender. All parties involved agreed that Courtier had made no attempt to hide the offender’s presence in what was, after all, a public eating house, but the law referred to harbouring someone “knowingly or unknowingly”. Ultimately the District Constable withdrew the complaint and the Magistrate observed that the Act required amendment.
A brief flurry between magicians arose on August 3, 1844, when Monsieur Du Pree, the Wizard of the South (signing himself as T. Du Pree of Campbell Town, just south of Launceston), placed an advertisement in the Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston):- “Having seen an advertisement some time past, in one of the Van Diemen’s Land Journals, challenging any person to surpass Mr. Powell Courtier, as a Necromancer, in that deceptive art, for One Hundred Guineas, I respectfully answer the same, by either challenging himself, or any other PARTY in the colony, for fifty pounds, and the same to be decided by umpires, or a public audience, the amount to be placed in the bank, or any other place of responsibility.”
Courtier was sufficiently respectable to advertise, in late December 1844, that “the celebrated Necromancer and Prince of Pyrotecnic Performers, respectfully informs the ladies and gentlemen of Launceston and its vicinity, that he will be happy to attend private families to exhibit his surprising feats, including his astonishing automaton figures, a moderate charges during the Christmas Holidays”
Though correspondence (5) to the Colonial Secretary indicates that Courtier performed, or had use of the theatre in Launceston from March to May 1845, no advertising to this effect can be located, with the exception of an interesting juxtaposition of advertisements in the Cornwall Chronicle of February 12, 1845. Courtier announced a performance at the (3) Theatre Royal Olympic on February 15, while above this text, Professor Thomas Rea announced two performances at the same theatre on February 12 and 13. Professor Rea, a sometime magician, but more generally known as a ventriloquist and aspirational balloon pioneer, proposed to launch “An immense balloon, 19 feet high, with a large figure, will ascend if (weather permit) at half past 7-o’clock precisely; the curtain to rise at 8 o’clock. Having announced, a year previously that that on Friday, May 24, 1844 he would “positively ascend” in his newly invented Balloon, (something not previously seen in the colony). Ultimately the attempt failed, as did Rea’s later efforts (1848- 1850) and the story is told elsewhere in these history pages.
Powell Courtier continued his year by being charge two pounds and costs for “furiously driving” or racing his horse-gig against another man within the boundary of the town.
On Friday, July 5, Courtier suffered a:-
On Friday night, about twelve o’clock, just as the family of Mr. Powel (sic.) Courtier, residing in Welling-street, were about retiring to rest, a knock came to the door, and in answer to the question – who is there? a voice answered – “Never mind, it’s only two men in want of something to eat.” Mr. Courtier replied – that he could not accommodate any one at that unseasonable hour, and had scarcely pronounced the words when one panel of the door was driven in by means of a kick. Immediately afterwards the door with all its fastenings shared the same fate, when four men simultaneously rushed in, and commend an attack upon three of Mr. Courtier’s lodgers, who alarmed by the noise had just risen to ascertain the cause. Glass bottles and other missiles were hurled at their heads and they were in other respects severely handled. The villains crying out that it was Mr Courtier they wanted, - the latter rushed into his bed room more alarmed for the safety of his wife than anxious on his own account. After vainly endeavouring to burst open the door, and hearing the cries of murder proceeding from all parts of the house, the villains thought proper to decamp, having previously committed damage to the amount of above five pounds. Mr. Courtier’s servants slept in an out building, and were prevented from rendering the necessary assistance by the intervention of a bolted door. Three of the parties were recognised by Mr. Courtier, and will we hope be shortly in custody. [Cornwall Chronicle July 5, 1845]
Early in November 1845, Courtier made a formal application to licence his boarding house, in support of which it was remarked that such a service was needed in that neighbourhood, and was particularly adapted for the poorer class of mechanics and labourers, who could be provided with their meals at a very low cost. The application, however, was strongly opposed by the panel of magistrates, including Captain Gardiner who complained that the applicant had approached him recently, in an intoxicated state, asking for his vote on the licence. Every magistrate present rejected the application with strong and unflattering remarks.
Eventually, John Powell Courtier took a Benefit night at the theatre on Jun 27 and made plans to depart for the mainland of Australia.