Joseph Gardiner - Magic and Morals

The life of any theatrical player in early Australia could be undeniably hard. Few have written in such a heartfelt manner as Joseph Gardiner, in his 1891 book, “25 Years on the Stage, or the Life of an Australian Actor / His Experiences and Vicissitudes.”

Gardiner (c.1824 – 1905), an actor, singer, and magician, toured through some of the most difficult terrain in the country from 1848 until the mid-1870s when, after a religious conversion, he became an advocate for the Temperance movement, left the stage, and became a vocal critic of the Theatre’s morality.

Since these pages are mostly concerned with performers of magic, and as Gardiner’s book is freely available to read and copy (1), no attempt has been made to chronicle every single appearance he made; the small venues and mGardiner book smallany towns in which he played would, in any case, make this impossible. His magic career is of most interest here.

A summary of Gardiner’s life comes from the Advertiser (South Australia) of October 17, 1905:-

“Mr. Joseph Gardiner, who died at the Destitute Asylum on Sunday, at the age of 81 years, was a man of parts, and could easily adapt himself to circumstances.  When in England he became a vocalist, and his singing brought him into prominence. Soon after his arrival in South Australia, early in 1848, he attracted the attention of Mr. George Coppin, who on one occasion asked Mr. Gardiner, "Do you act as well as sing?" The reply was, "No, I never acted a part in my life."  He was, however, induced by Mr. Coppin to appear at the Old Victoria Theatre, Light-square, for seven or eight weeks on account of a bespeak night from the Governor, Sir Henry Young.  The play was "Love Laughs at Locksmiths."

Subsequently Mr. Gardiner took the part of the old man in "The Statue, or Hercules, King of Clubs."  Two years later he went to Victoria and appeared at the old Queen's Theatre, owned by Mr. J. T. Smith, and played Brabantio in "Othello."  Actors were at a premium, owing to the discovery of gold, and with others of  the theatrical profession he turned his attention for a while to delving for gold, and subsequently he went overland to Sydney, and formed a Vaudeville Expedition Company, and after a period of success he started overland to Brisbane.  "But alas," he wrote afterwards, "I very soon found to my sorrow that to run four or five people, all fond of drink, was no sinecure.  There was plenty of money in the venture, but the drink and through it the disappointing of the public, ruined us."  He disbanded his company at Brisbane.

He next appeared with the "Wizard of the North," and returned to Melbourne overland, playing as he went as "Professor Gardiner, wizard of the antipodes, comedian and illusionist." The gold fever turned his attention to the Inglewood and Lachlan diggings, and after a while he became landlord of the Cricketers Hotel at Inglewood.  He returned to South Australia in 1870, and two years later went again to Victoria.  In his old age Mr. Gardiner referred to the stage as "The down grade," and wrote against it.  In 1875 he settled at Hindmarsh, where he was in business on the Port-road for some time.  He wrote a book on "Twenty-five years on the stage, or the life of an Australian actor, his experiences and vicissitudes."  A few years ago he was admitted to the Destitute Asylum, where he remained until his death.”


As an actor of varied skills, Gardiner may well have joined up with John Henry Anderson, the Wizard of the North, who toured Australia in 1858-59, though no evidence of this has been sighted. Gardiner claimed to have taken the role of “Dugald” in Anderson’s oft-performed play, “Rob Roy”. Certainly, he learned magic from somewhere and Anderson is as good a mentor as any.

Of interest is Gardiner’s commentary on the rough-and-ready state some of the theatres he had to play in. In writing of a Geelong venue, he says “I arrived there, as per engagement, and went straight from the boat to the theatre - that is, it had the name theatre painted on the front; otherwise the structure more resembled an auction mart or lumber repository. The inside was of the most primitive construction - pit unboarded, stakes driven into the earth, and rough slabs nailed on for seats. The tout ensemble of the whole concern was that of rough and unskilled workmanship. Such a place to be called a theatre was never more falsified by the name. How disappointed I felt after leaving such a cosy little theatre behind.”

Prior to adding magic to his repertoire, Joseph appears to have been in some trouble with the law, along with his wife. On April 23, 1855, he advertised a performance in the Hobarton Mercury (Tasmania), for a benefit night at the Retreat Hotel  “previous to their departure for Sydney.” It seems reasonable to assume that these were the same Mr and Mrs Gardiner reported to be in trouble in Hobart a few weeks later (2) – “A soi-disant Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are committed for trial on a charge, the female of stealing, and the male prisoner of receiving, a gold ring, the property of Mrs. Cooley, “Horse and Jockey”, New Town, at whose house a concert was got up to enable the parties to leave the colony. Their career, it seems, has been for some time of a disreputable nature. The female prisoner, whose real name is Mary Ann Legge, has been cohabiting a long while with Gardiner, aGardiner 1862nd they have both frequently passed under assumed names.”

By December 1862, when Gardiner was around 38 years old, he advertised (3) in Toowoomba, Queensland, with the first indication of magic in his show.  A “Musical Burlesque and Magical Entertainment ... Joe Gardiner’s Temple of Fun, and Budget of Magic &c. &c.” was one third of his show, which also included comic duets,  ballads and funny dialogues. The magic first-part was said to consist of Flying cards and shillings, illustrations of the exclusion of atmospheric air, Clairvoyance, Talking Penny (by which any young lady may know her fortune, if she will only confess she is in love). Also ‘ladies and gentlemen’s article found in every conceivable and inconceivable place.’

In October 1863, at Mr. Cooper’s Amateur Theatre in Armidale (NSW), the Gardiners worked in conjunction with George Melville, himself an actor; but on this occasion Melville was highlighted as the magician, while the Gardiners contributed songs and dramatic characters.

July 15, 1864, saw the Gardiners at the Harp Inn, Queanbeyan, appearing hard on the heels of Professor Bushell, the  ‘electro-biologist’ whose act was essentially a stage hypnosis routine.

By September 1865, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had settled into what would remain their stock entertainment, a three-part performance of Magic, Songs, Ballads, Burlesques and Farces, with an interval of ten minutes between each part.  On September 2, they were in Bega, and intended heading from there to Panbula, Eden and Bombala. Joseph had adopted the title “The Wizard of the Antipodes”.

1866 saw the duo in the area of Beechworth, Victoria during March. They seem to have been constantly on the move, and by the end of 1867 were back up at Armidale in northern New South Wales. The Maitland Mercury of September 19 had been unkind to Joseph – “A magical performance took place here during the week by a ‘gem’ styling himself the Wizard of the Antipodes. The flourishing cognomen is not inaptly assumed, for his exhibition is the reverse of what it should be…”

In March 1870 the Gardiners were at Walgett NSW with “a gentleman who did nigger business tolerably well.” Nothing in the general structure of the show seems to have changed, for early February 1873 saw the pair in the Hamilton district of Victoria, still advertising “Funny dialogue, duets and sentimental ballades, farces, laughable illusions &c.”

Gardiner 1873Although Gardiner’s book is titled “25 Years an Actor”, this must have been merely a conveniently rounded number, if his career began in 1848.  On May 22, 1875 the Gardiners were at Bacchus Marsh Mechanics’ Institute, still with the same programme. However, after this date, advertising fades away, and it is likely that Joseph had his encounter with the Temperance movement, and a resulting religious conversion. As a travelling salesman he became known for selling “Gardiner’s  Furniture Polish”.

His book, published in 1891, is of great historical interest for its depiction of life, not only in the theatre of early Australia, but on the Goldfields and in the burgeoning city of Melbourne. His perils included drought and flood, drunken performers, cheating managers, fraud and robbery on the goldfields and the early townships, and a confrontation with the bushranger Captain Moonlight.

Much of the book is given over to chapters of moral tracts about Temperance, and to railing against the morality of the theatre, Gardiner criticising the scanty apparel worn by actresses and those who posed in ‘artistic’ stances; the vulgarity and double-entendre used by actors he considered a grave assault on the morals, and the theatre was largely blamed for being a gathering-place where otherwise moral men would meet up with corrupting influences.  Many years previously, in 1848, Gardiner had been caught up in a legal fight involving charges of libel, when the theatrical entrepreneur and actor John Lazar (1801 – 1879) was severely criticised in the press for being vulgar and offensive on the stage where Joseph Gardiner was an actor in the play “Billy Taylor”. The suggestive use of a carrot was but one vulgarity mentioned from that play, in a paragraph (4) referring to “A Licentious Stage”, and this low grade of comedy seems to have rankled in Gardiner’s mind over the years.Licentious

Much of what he writes is of a standard lay preacher’s morality, and certainly his criticisms of the theatre had become less valid as the years progressed, and theatres became more formally established. However, Joseph Gardiner and his wife had paid their dues as travelling performers in the colony, and “25 Years on the Stage” is an important document of the period.









Two Chapters from “25 Years on the Stage” – Gardiner the Magician

Two of the eighteen chapters (pages 48-52)  in Gardiner’s book concern magic, and they are reproduced here in full. Gardiner’s tale of Professor Anderson should be taken with a very large grain of salt; if Anderson had falsely pretended that his daughter had been set on fire during a performance, such a story would have been big news the following day; and it was not.



I saw by posters at the theatre that the " Wizard of the North," Mr. Anderson, was going to make an appearance as a dramatic actor in " Rob Roy." I was engaged as Dugald. I remained through the engagement, and had many opportunities of picking up some of his tricks. The wizard and great necromancer, Jacobs, arrived, by some unfortunate mismanagement on the part of his agent, just as Anderson had commenced his necromantic display. This clash caused great excitement one against the other, the town was being billed with all sorts of assertions of what could, would, and should be done by each of them. Mr. Anderson went so far as to state on a six-foot poster that he would do, act, and perform anything the audience might request of him. That evening his little daughter Julia, who did the clairvoyant business, had just completed her task -for really it was only a lesson learnt during the day which made her proficient to answer all her father's questions correctly at night. For example, the child being blindfolded and placed in a chair, with her back to the people, was asked what the articles were which her father had collected from the audience. He put the accent upon one particular word, which enabled her to say what the article in question was. For example, if he received a penknife, he would say, "Now, what have I received from this person?" That accent on the now was her cue. " A penknife, Pa," " Well, what has this gentleman given me ?" Well meant a watch, and so on, He was a man of infinite resources, and he knew that something almost unprecedented in the annals of legerdemain would be required of him following such an advertisement.

He had all kinds of dummies and one or two highly-finished automatic figures - one, the counterpart of his child, very lifelike, which he had prepared for any anticipated emergency, extremity, conflagration, or plausible accident. On that occasion fire did the business, so when the child was courtseying to the audience to go off, a gentleman in the stage box got up and said, " Mr. Anderson, you have announced in your programme that you will do, act, and perform anything at all which any person in the audience might require of you. I am going to put your powers as wizard to the test. This watch I desire you to place upon the reading-desk  of the church, a few paces from this building. I hold the key of the church, and request that I might find it there within the space of fifteen minutes."   " Pass the watch please. - Thank you." To Julia who had just made her exit, he called : "Come back here a moment, I have a pleasant surprise for you," (addressing the audience) "which this gentleman's demand has caused me to omit."

Now instead of bringing the living Julia back he substituted her "automaton," [and and] making believe outside that the child was adverse to returning, said : " Come now, Miss, no nonsense ! " and after what appeared to be a struggle between parent and child, he entered with the figure in his arms, forced it into the chair and proceeded to blindfold it ; then. while turning to the audience as if about to explain to them the thing she was about to do, through a hole in the stage a light was passed (it could not be seen by the people because the backs of all his chairs used in his performance were solid, reaching to the floor) the flimsy gauze which was saturated with spirits, immediately enveloped the figure - which of course the audience thought was his daughter - in one volume of flame, Screams arose from amongst the women in front. Then they cried : " Anderson ! Anderson I look at your child ! " Some rushed from the wings with all kinds of cloaks and things to throw upon the blazing mass, himself appearing ready to faint with distress and horror ; the thing is borne off, the father tottering after it wringing his hands, In a few minutes he returns, pale and agitated, and returning the watch to the gentleman, hopes he will excuse him the task allotted to him to perform that evening, as  through that unfortunate accident he will not be able to get through anything but ordinary business, and hardly that.



After making myself proficient enough we determined to start on the homeward track to Melbourne with just one musician as an accompanist. For my wife I was independent, as I always attended upon her songs with the concert flute. But he turned out to be a very decent fellow ; he drank, but never incapacitated himself for business. The following was our programme :-





as the




Will be introduced the Magic Boxes-Cards-Metamorphosed Pound Notes-Ladies' Rings-Gentlemen's Watches -The Egyptian Juggling Trick ; or where do the Eggs come from ?-Flying Shillings-together with a most novel and amusing Finale.


Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner will appear in their celebrated Comic Duets and Funny Dialogues " The Drunken Husband's return "-" Matrimonial Squabbles "-" Conjugal Felicity " expounded in the persons of  “Mr. and Mrs. Clark,”  “Mr. and Mrs. Toddles," &c.-" The Tear Fell Gently," and (comic) "Passage-door Courtship." by Mrs. Gardiner-" The Wife's Mangle," and " The Laughing Man" (comic) Mr. Gardiner.


" My poor Brother's Letter " in which Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner will introduce their original Swiss Songs, with Finale Duet, "We Hope We've Pleased You Well."

AT …………..  ON …………………………………………..

TICKETS AT ……………. ADMISSION………………………….

Commence at 7.30 Agent............................


What that trip did for us will be relate] as the incidents occur. It was, suffice it to say, a series of successes and failures right through. At Warwick I had to sell one horse and the waggon, and get a covered spring-cart for the other. I can look back now and see there was a power at work above mine that was shortening my tether.  By the time we reached Melbourne we were in a most dilapidated condition ; what with crossing rivers, boggy roads, and want of feed for the horse, it was indeed an amalgamation of sufferings. And now I shudder to think of the hairbreadth escapes, that by a merciful Providence we were preserved through ; and yet there are thousands to-day who will declare that a theatrical life is a most luxurious one, and that the theatre itself is a great benefit to the community - that it has done more to moralize mankind than the pulpit. To that assertion may be replied, it is not so much the duty of the pulpit to moralize mankind as to teach God's doctrine of salvation and Christianisation. Let a man once become thoroughly converted and there will not be much doubt of his morality. The theatre doubtless is a benefit to one part of the community, but to that part only who cater for it and live by it, and even that is a debateable question. The more I look into the theatre and its surroundings convinces me that it is a superfluous structure altogether, and that those men and women who "strut their hour upon the stage " would be better off, if they employed their lives in trade and commerce, both for the present life and that which is to come. It is only those who hold the "leads” in the  theatre who are benefitted at the expense of the poor hard worked actor, who, in my experience, I have hardly ever known able to achieve a competence for his old days.

I have already said the money I made after leaving the diggings to enter upon theatrical life again never seemed to accomplish any good ; no matter what venture I put it to it never returned me any benefit. I had sleeping shares in Inglewood and Lachlan Diggings, ran the Cricketers' Hotel on Inglewood, experimented on many things that seemed to pay other people, but failed with me. That company which I formed was nothing but a piece of 'vaulting ambition which o'erleapt itself.'  Yes that company was the beginning of the end ; I saw and knew at the time when I left the right way of life to enter upon the wrong again, that I was rebelling against the Spirit of God, and in doing so, truly experienced that “the way of transgressors is hard," because I was sinning against the light of my early instructions. When I think of the many narrow escapes while crossing rivers, being lost in the bush, upsets, narrow escapes from bush fires, lost horses, breakdowns, every one of which calamities began to make such serious impressions upon me that over and over again I vowed a vow to God that I would throw it all up could I only be released from my difficulties, and so He did release me by mercifully sparing my life, but bringing me down to poverty and humiliating me before those who saw me leave them in self-confident pride. And the more I go over my experience of the theatre, the more am I convinced that the days of the Siddons, Elen Faucit, Kemble, Macready, Charles Kean and other notables of the old school are over, whose lives of morality were unquestionable, and also for the legitimate plays and comedies of our best dramatists which they presented to the public.

I see more plainly than ever that the theatre of to-day is no benefit to the general community, but rather a curse, and this I dare assert beyond the power of the most plausible contradiction. That the theatre is a hot-bed which engenders four distinct vices, licentiousness, gambling, drunkeness [sic] and assignations. This is not to be wondered at when the theatre provides these very vices by its evil surroundings of drinking bars, vile saloons, and questionable characters. And how many thousands of our youth have been led away by one or all of these vices, incurred more or less by attending the theatre, on to the downward grade, to become depraved, ruined and lost, besides being responsible for the shortening of the lives of scores and hundreds of young creatures who are exposed in the scantiest of habiliments at the coldest and bleakest time of the year at home ; namely, in the Christmas pantomimes, as has already been remarked. Then again, the theatre is the very best school or institution presided over by His Satanic Majesty for the education of our youth in all kinds of vices, excesses, immorality and depravity, and yet they say the days are past when the theatre was corrupt. "My dear sir," a gentleman was saying in a railway carriage, the other day to another, " education is having a most beneficial effect to elevate and refine the stage." Well, whatever education might do in that direction it is not made manifest in practice, judging by the almost lewd diagrams exhibited of the opera bouffe representatives. A refined stage does not pay. Any manager extant to-day who will speak the honest truth can tell you so.

The pieces to draw best are those which are the nearest to the vicious and lewd, and the thinner the veil which covers its obscenity the more it is approved of. "Oh !" they exclaim, " is not that too utterly utter, you know." And yet they continue to go and see it again and again ; and I have ever observed from the time in May, 1848, that Mr. Stevens wrote a leading article upon "A Licentious Stage" here in Adelaide, and for which the management took proceedings against him for libel and obtained one farthing damages, that the broadest farces and pieces which admitted the most double entendre to be worked in met with the greatest support, and the managers who protested against it amongst the actors were the most guilty when they played themselves.

I remember many years ago the London Press agitating for a thoroughly legitimate theatre to be kept intact for the representation of nothing but the beauties of Shakspeare [sic] and the pure literature of the greatest dramatists. Mr. Charles Kean took the matter up some time before he came to Australia. He had the little Princess Theatre in Oxford Street newly upholstered behind and before the curtain, and sent satin bills and embossed cards announcing that the representations would be of the most select type. Visitors to the theatre would be admitted by ticket only, and all the demi-monde and questionable characters of both sexes would be excluded. What was the consequence? After every effort had been tried, with great loss of money, in less than four months the theatre was closed for want of patronage, which shows plainly enough that the real patrons of the theatre go there not to gain intellectual culture or refined deportment, but to gratify a sensual and depraved appetite.



  1. “Twenty-five years on the stage, or the life of an Australian actor, his experiences and vicissitudes”, 1891 by J.Gardiner (168 pages), is available to download in PDF form at
  2. Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston TAS) reporting on ‘Hobart Town’, May 16, 1855 page 3
  3. The Toowoomba Chronicle and Queensland Advertiser, December 4, 1862 and later.
  4. “A Licentious Stage” – a long article concerning the court case can be found in the Adelaide Observer, March 9, 1850, p.1. The original article (reproduced here) is from the Geelong Advertiser, April 22, 1848 page 2.