Joseph Masters - Fantoccini and Legerdemain

Fantoccini: A puppet show using puppets operated by strings or mechanical devices.

This story of magic in Australia is so slight in detail as to consist merely of the mention of legerdemain performances. Still, the early date of the events give it some importance and interest.

On September 10, 1839, the Colonial Times (Hobart, Tasmania) mentioned one Joseph Masters as a new applicant for a licence to conduct an eating establishment, the Derwent Chop House in Elizabeth Street, next to the General Post Office. This area serviced local residents and travellers on the road northward; by the 1850s there were eighteen public houses on Elizabeth Street.

The press noted that Joseph Masters was a newcomer to the inn-keeping business, but predicted success.  Masters, besides providing drinks, meals and accommodation to his clients, was also keen to boost community spirit in a colony where, as the Colonial Times expressed it, “envy is so prevalent, and ill-will too abundant”.  In association with Mr J. Hefford of the Waterman’s Arms, and Mr. Lovick of the Angel Inn, a joint gathering on the weekend after Christmas 1839 was organised, featuring games and other entertainments of the kind featured in fairs of England, and notably an exhibition of “Fantoccini” or puppets.

Following this, Mr. Masters continued to exhibit his puppets, presumably at the Derwent Chop House, though this is not stated in advertisements until a later date. The appearance is that Mr. Masters was also the performer.

Chop House 1840 Jul 3

Colonial Times Hobart Dec 31, 1839 - Fantoccini-

We have paid a visit to Mr. Masters' puppet exhibition, and, really, we were very much delighted. Our young friends will see , in miniature, some very clever tight rope dancing/the comic antics of a humorous clown, some nimble and surprising sleight-of hand, with a variety of other  entertainments, particularly applicable to the Christmas holidays. We can safely recommend a visit ; and, we may observe, that Mr. Masters will exhibit to select parties, on any evening that may be appointed.

The very brief mention of “sleight of hand” is supplemented a few months later, when the Hobart Town Courier (March 13, 1840) announced:

Mr. Masters’ Fantoccini

Will re-open on Saturday evening next, with the addition of a PANORAMA and LEGERDEMAIN, and will be continued every evening during the Race week. Commencing at 7 o’clock.

Though not continuous in performance, Masters held seasons of entertainments at the Chop House; from September 2 his “Evening Amusements” ran on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, consisting of “Fantoccini and a variety of other entertainments.” In early October to early November, the billing included Fantoccini, Legerdemain, Optical Illusions and ‘Ombres Chineos’ or hand shadows. Aside from a letter (October 13) to the Colonial Times in which the writer requested that Masters change his performance times “so as not to come into contact with the interests of the Theatre”, the puppets and amusements seem to have been popular and should have attracted extra clientele to Masters’ establishment.

Mr. Masters exhibited again following the Regatta week, and on November 26, 1840, announced, via the Launceston Advertiser, his intention of  visiting Launceston in the north of Tasmania for a month, exhibiting during the Launceston Regatta and agricultural shows. This he did, with success, returning to Hobart around January 1841 after thanking the people of Launceston for their liberal hospitality.

Almost immediately, it seems, disaster struck Mr. Masters’ main business, the Derwent Chop House. Whether Masters had taken his eye off the main game in pursuit of his theatrical interests is not clear, but The Courier of March 12, 1841 announced that the business had gone into insolvency, and William Mortyn was appointed as provisional assignee of the estate and effects of Joseph Masters. A creditors meeting was held on April 10 under the new assignee, Andrew Crombie.  In the following year (1), the Derwent’s  licence to retail wines and spirits was transferred formally to a George Madden.

Mr. Masters, his fantoccini, shadows, optical illusions and legerdemain are not heard from again, and we are left with no more than a tantalising snippet of early Australian history.

masters 1840 Sep 6 advert


(1) Colonial Times, Hobart, February 15, 1842 page 4.