Professor Rea - Ventriloquism, Magic, Balloons and Scandal
Thomas “Professor” Rea was one of the earliest performers of magic in Australia. Though his primary talents were ventriloquism and puppetry, he was certainly a conjurer as well. On that basis we cover the events of his life ranging from his stage exhibitions, his main calling as a gunsmith, his aspirations as a pioneer hot-air balloonist, to a shocking scandal that tarnished his reputation in later life. [A warning to those mainly interested in magicians; there is not a great deal of conjuring in this tale.]
Origins and Personal Background
Most of the documented history of Thomas Rea deals with his aspirations to launch a manned hot-air balloon, though the duration of his interest in the subject has not been recognised.
An article by historical researcher, Alexander Romanov-Hughes, published on the website of the Port Phillip Pioneers Group (1) provides much useful genealogical information which this story will adopt as accurate:
“Thomas Rea was a native of Roxburghshire in Scotland. He is thought to have been baptised at Jedburgh, Roxburghshire on 26 June 1811, the son of John Rea and Isabella Armstrong who had been married at Kelso on 14 November 1806. Thomas was married on 7 October 1833 at St. George's Church of England, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England. His bride was Maria Little, daughter of William Little of Yorkshire. They had at least three sons - John, Thomas and Adam.
Thomas spent seven years as a journeyman learning his trade as a gun and pistol maker. White's 1840 Directory shows he had set himself up as a master tradesman at 10 Long Room Street, Scarborough, Yorkshire. However the 1841 census shows the family living in Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, though one of his sons, Adam Rea, is thought to have been born and died in 1842 in the Scarborough Registration District.”
In connection with his 1811 birthdate, a news article of 1873 (2) stated that Rea was “an old man, said to be fully 70 years of age, having children and grandchildren.” Accepting the likely birthdate of 1811, Rea would have been only 62 at the time of his trial.
The correct pronunciation of the name “Rea” seems to be “ray” rather than “ree”, as shown by occasional mis-spellings of his name in the press. To a magician, this is a minor disappointment, since otherwise he could have advertised himself with the euphonious title “Mr Ree”.
From his advertising it appears that Rea had made appearances as a magician and ventriloquist in Dublin and in England. Though he clearly arrived in Australia fully formed as a performer, an initial search of British newspapers does not reveal any sign of him under the name “Rea”, and no quote of the Dublin Evening Post matching that shown on Rea’s poster has been sighted. Whether any of his performances were ever ‘before Her Majesty the Queen’ is questionable, but remains to be confirmed.
Based on the above dates, Thomas Rea, along with his wife Maria and son John (born around 1835 in Birmingham) journeyed to Australia sometime after his son Adam’s death in 1842, settling initially in Launceston, in the north of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
The Launceston Examiner, and the Cornwall Chronicle of November 26, 1842, announced:
“Mr REA (from England), the celebrated Ventriloquist, Mimic, Performer of Mechanical Figures, Deceptions &c. &c., will perform at the Kangaroo Inn, (for the first time in this colony), on the evenings of Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Boxes 4s., Pit 2s. 6d. For particulars see hand-bills. November 26 ”
A few days later the Examiner reported that “Mr. Rea’s entertainment was well attended on Monday last. His figures were naturally performed and his ventriloquism highly applauded. The company left well pleased with the performance.”
By early 1843, however, Rea was occupied with setting up business as a gunsmith in York-street, Launceston, advertising his services, seeking an apprentice, and offering a testimonial to the quality of his work.
It was not until 1844 that “Professor” Rea stepped onto the public stage, but when he did so it was with a burst of advertising flair not seen before in the colonies. His advertisement in the Cornwall Chronicle of February 28, 1844, is likely the earliest illustrated advertisement in Australia for a magician or ventriloquist, and the extensive use of headline and fancy fonts , combined with descriptions of the performance to come, must have excited the attention of all those who were eagerly awaiting the festivities surrounding the Launceston Races in March.
“He intends displaying his powers as a Ventriloquist and Mimic, and to exhibit his Grand Mechanical Wax-work Figures, perform his various astonishing Feats, &c. Having performed before Her Majesty the Queen, and other members of the Royal Family, (by whom he was honoured with unbounded applause), and to numerous and fashionable audiences, with great success, for upwards of 100 successive nights, in the city of Dublin, he hopes to receive a share of public patronage and favour.”
Amongst the many attractions of Rea’s performance were the ‘Mechanical Wax-Work figures’. Some commentary on the topic of puppets and ‘automata’ has been made in the story of Powell Courtier in Melbourne and it is clear by Rea’s advertisement that “the joints of these figures are constructed similar to those of a human being” so these were articulated puppets, probably strung like a marionette or posed in lifelike attitudes, and not mechanised or clockwork devices. Rea would add to the experience by using his ventriloquial skills to add voices or animal sounds.
Professor Rea’s magic included some feats with cards, rope, coins and knives, probably the cups and balls using oranges, the Flying Coins, burned and restored glove, Sugar transformed to Coffee, Linking Rings, cooking a pudding in a hat, and the decapitation and restoration of a hen’s head. His ventriloquism, which was given most prominence, included the “distant voice” illusion in which he imitated “conversation with several persons in a variety of different voices , and speak from a distance of several hundreds of yards in the air.”
<<< Professor Rea’s 1844 advertising.
<<< Professor Rea’s 1844 advertising.
Not long after the Launceston Races, Rea travelled south to Hobart, opening at the Royal Victoria Theatre on April 1-3 and including in his repertoire the ‘wonderful Gun Trick’. This is likely to have been the trick of firing a broken watch from a gun, where it was later found fully restored.
It is here that Professor Rea first reveals what would become a lengthy obsession with aerial balloons, one which has only been selectively reported in other stories of his passion (3). In fact, his experiments with ballooning continued through until at least 1863. There were others experimenting with hot air balloons at the time, including methods of propelling and guiding them, (4) but a successful manned flight would prove elusive. The first successful Australian flight in a balloon was made by William Dean, in Melbourne on February 1, 1858 using an aerostat filled with coal gas.
Although the history of ballooning and parachuting is beyond the scope of this site’s interests, Rea’s passion for the developing science forms the most notable part of his story for several years. There had of course been successful balloon ascensions overseas as early as 1790, but there was high risk in the venture, and stories abounded, both overseas and in the colonies, of daring men who came to grief when balloons collapsed, fires ran out of control, and weather played havoc with the new devices.
Rea announced (The Courier, Hobart, March 19, 1844) that before his show, “An immense Balloon will ascend (if weather permits from the front of the theatre before 8. Performance to commence at a quarter past 8 precisely.”
While there was no implication that the balloon would be manned, it was nevertheless a dramatic novelty in the colonies, where no previous balloon flights had been undertaken.
During early April, Rea performed on the race course during the Hobart Races season, then at the large room Mr Williams the Pianoforte maker, where again “a large balloon will ascend on each evening.” Had these ascensions not taken place there would have been some commentary in the press, but no criticism is seen.
By April 8 Rea was advertising in the Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston) that he would return home from the ‘City’ on May 13, when he would again present his various astonishing dexterous feats at the Assembly Rooms, preceded by a Balloon ascension.
Then, on May 18 he announced a manned flight. “on Friday, 24th of May, Professor Rea will have the honor of ascending in his newly-invented Balloon, from the first Basin… a Balloon ascent having never before taken place in this colony, Professor Rea trusts that his friends will not be backward in patronizing him upon the day above mentioned.” Thus began a pattern of associating his proposed flights with a need to obtain sufficient money to justify his expense. The Chronicle seemed a little less optimistic, saying on May 22 that the ascent was to take place but “in which, however, we do not presume he will venture himself.”
The resulting debacle is revealed in the following week:
Launceston Examiner, May 25, 1844 -
“HOAX.- An advertisement having appeared that an ascent would be made in a balloon from the cataract basin on Friday, upwards of five hundred persons congregated there in anticipation of witnessing so novel a spectacle. The affair turned out to be a complete hoax, and the curiosity of the multitude was greatly disappointed when the aeronaut, instead of performing his promised feat, inflated a small paper balloon. The indignation of the multitude was with difficulty restrained, and strong hints having been thrown out that the perpetrator of the hoax was to be well ducked, he quietly made his escape. The misunderstanding is charged against the printer, who, it was alleged, not being able clearly to decipher the manuscript, published that the advertiser would have the honor of “ascending in”, instead of “a sending off” a balloon – a peculiar but not uncommon mode of expression.”
The Launceston Advertiser (May 30) was more restrained, stating only that “The balloon (a fire one) went off, but of course Mr. Rae [sic.] did not ascend in it as many believed he would.”
Thomas Rea, of course, would not have advertised that using the words “a Balloon ascent having never before taken place in this colony…” if he had only ever intended to release a balloon of the same sort that had graced his performances for weeks prior. The people of Launceston were, no doubt, equally unimpressed, and until the end of 1844, Professor Rea kept his head well down, with no mention of him in the press until February 1845, when he performed at the Theatre Royal Olympic (Launceston) on February 3-5 and 12-13; his usual pre-show balloon launch, this balloon 19 feet high, was included. His show was just one week before Powell Courtier, Fire King and Necromancer, appeared at the same theatre on February 19.
Evidently Rea had been busy over the preceding months, for on February 22 he advertised in no uncertain terms, a “Grand Aerial Trip on the first fine day of the Launceston Races …. in an immense balloon, 60 feet in height and 129 feet in circumference … and will positively ascend with it, from some of the Gardens in town, or some other suitable place.” Once again he sought financial support from the public, by way of admission tickets to see the balloon inflated.
The original February date passed, and Rea advertised his “Leviathan Balloon” ascension for Friday March 7, when “Professor Rea will actually, in person, ascend in a Car suspended from the Balloon and will not leave it, unless he is obliged to descend in his PATENT PARACHUTE !!!!”
By report of the Launceston Examiner on March 12, upwards of a thousand people assembled in St. John-street in hopes of seeing the ascension. Only a hundred paid admission to see the inflation, the balloon being made of calico, ‘sized’ on the inside. Alas, after several hours, during which a group of unhelpful people insisted on putting in their oar, the inflation was abandoned, Rea claiming that one of the assistants holding the top of the balloon had permitted it to be torn by a shingle on the roof of the house where he was standing. In any case, said the Examiner, the material, construction, and texture of the machine “were not adapted to the means employed, and that rarification alone would never give sufficient powers of ascendency even to raise the balloon itself.”
Although Rea wished to make a further attempt, the weather on the following day was squally, and resulted in more tearing to the balloon. At the Launceston theatre, the Easter pantomime, featuring the Coppins, included comic scenes titled How to manufacture a balloon – “More Glue”, and How to inflate the aforesaid – “Bust its Boiler”.
In the aftermath of his thwarted attempts, the letter which Rea sent to the Cornwall Chronicle on March 22 was, by any standards, flying in the face of reason.
“There is another invention”, wrote Rea, “for which this balloon making an ascension will be of great importance to this colony and the world for years to come, that is, by guiding this balloon, in any direction, with as much certainty as a ship at sea; on this point there is not a shadow of a doubt, as any one of common capacity need only see the principle which is to guide it to confirm their belief in its certainty. When the new Launceston aerial machine is made [ it was proposed to be better varnished and with a stronger net], Professor Rea purposes taking a trip to and from the city of Hobart Town to Launceston, lowering the machine at Campbell Town to take the letter bag off a pole just by way of showing England what us Vandiemonians can do. Professor Rea also will take a trip across to Port Phillip and back on the same day, which can easily be done, as this machine can go almost direct against the wind, as will amply be demonstrated by Professor Rea taking a semi-circle round Launceston. P.S. We understand Monday will be the day that P.R. will ascend, when a subscription after ascension will be made for a new machine of superior quality.”
One might be inclined to advise the Professor to first get his bird off the ground.
The attempt on Monday, March 24, was at Church Square, but once again failed, the unsatisfactory calico developing several more tears just as the balloon appeared to be inflating and trying to rise.
The Examiner, beginning to weary of the scheme, declared, “A few persons … have volunteered to supervise the arrangements . If Mr. Rea cannot go up in the balloon, the balloon will go up without him; and if this resolution cannot be carried out, by consent of all parties the machine is to be burned on the spot.”
Disheartened, but not beaten, Thomas Rea began to advertise with requests for public subscriptions of up to one hundred pounds, to assist meeting the cost of a ‘new and splendid balloon of superior quality.’ Another attempt, on Tuesday April 1, failed for the same reasons of weakness in the cloth. Rea pressed determinedly on, and appears to have succeeded in raising the funds for a new balloon, in which he proposed another ascension attempt on the Queen’s Birthday around May 18, 1845. Almost predictably, disaster struck.
[Launceston Examiner, May 21] “Mr. Rea had completed his new balloon, and all was ready for being put in operation on the Queen’s birth-day, when an accident occurred which he little anticipated. The balloon, which contained about eight hundred yards of calico, was oiled with common black oil, and folded up in a moistened stage. During the night the heat generated was such that a great part of the machine was reduced to tinder, and it is doubtful whether it can be repaired. Mr. Rea had taken great pains in constructing the balloon, and appearances were more in favour of the proposed ascent, than those presented upon the former attempt.”
The wind was taken out of Mr. Rea’s sails, for no more is heard from him during the remainder of 1845, except some brief announcements that his Gunsmith business had removed to a shop in Charles-street opposite Mr. Wells’ Sportsman’s Hall. Then, on December 11, 1845, Thomas, his wife Maria, and son John, departed Launceston on the brig ‘Swan’ headed for Port Phillip (Melbourne). He took with him a [new?] Nassau Balloon, still of calico, in which he intended to make an ascension during the Christmas holidays. In a less than supportive comment, the Examiner said “some people are hoping that a prosperous gale may blow Mr. Rea and his balloon back to Launceston, his sudden disappearance having been rather unexpected.” The Cornwall Chronicle (December 13) was even less happy – “A BOLTER – It seems that Professor Rea, well known to the public as a would-be aeronaut, has absconded from the place much to the discomfiture of a number of tradesmen upon whose credulity he has long been in the habit of subsisting.”
The Middle Years
A feature of Professor Rea’s life was that his performances as a ventriloquist, puppeteer and magician were infrequent, and isolated to those districts in which he lived. Though he had an extensive repertoire upon which to draw, Rea seems to have used his shows as a means of introducing himself to a new town, and then settling in as a “patent gunsmith”. He did not make widespread tours, there were vast gaps between his performances, and the overall span of his appearances ranges only from Hobart in the south, north to Launceston and Melbourne, and up as far as Echuca on the Victoria/New South Wales border; a straight-line distance of only 950km. Financial necessity also seems to have been a catalyst for his performances; and so Rea cannot be placed in the same category of other early performers who seemed to have a passion for entertaining, nor what could be termed a “career” as a performer.
When Thomas Rea and his family moved across the waters from Launceston to Port Phillip, he immediately arranged to perform, firstly at the Long Room of the Royal Hotel, then to Brighton, and next at the Mechanics’ Institute and the Queen’s Theatre Royal, all by January 14, 1846 before taking a ‘farewell benefit’ night on January 23. The Melbourne Herald reported that Rea had received a license from the Colonial Secretary to hold exhibitions of ventriloquism, legerdemain &c. in the hall of the Mechanics’ Institution during the ensuing twelve months, but little use seems to have been made of the authorisation, except that he was noted with a single performance at the Queen’s Theatre around February 12.
In mid-February Rea applied to the magistrates and received initial approval for another attempted balloon ascension, in the area of Raleigh’s Wharf; but there is no sign that such an attempt was made, and the Tasmanian press issued a thinly-veiled warning to the people of Melbourne not to let Rea “humbug” them as he had the people of Launceston.
Melbourne was only a staging-point for Thomas Rea, and in late March he established his business in the township of Corio just south-west of Melbourne, close to Geelong. The gunsmith business, which Rea promoted for its durability and quality, also included engraving, instrument repair and toolmaking, razor setting, and general repairs to parasols, walking-sticks and fishing rods.
From this time, Thomas Rea’s public profile declines sharply; his performances become few and far between, and his interest in ballooning, although unabated, is less ambitious than in 1845. We can only assume that he remained at his work as a gunsmith and general metal-worker. Another side line which developed in 1848 leads to a growing suspicion that Mr. Rea was bordering on the outright eccentric.
Geelong Advertiser and Squatter’s Advocate, May 14 1847 – Rea advertised, for the proposed date of May 17, “the Ascension of a number of small Balloons, and three from 15 to 30 feet high by 45 to 90 feet in circumference; one or more of these will carry a living animal [at ‘Little Scotland’]” … and, “the Artist will, if liberally encouraged, give another entertainment unparalleled, by ascending himself, &c. &c.” There is nothing to indicate that this presentation took place.
Geelong Advertiser, August 10, 1848 – “PERPETUAL MOTION. – Mr Rea a gunsmith of this town, and who is besides a most ingenious mechanist, has (so he states) after ten years indefatigable and unceasing perseverance, invented a piece of mechanism, which works, without any adventitious aid from other motive powers, with perpetual motion. Mr Rea describes his invention as intrinsically simple in its principles and operation, and easily to be made subservient to every purpose the steam-engine is now applied to. The contrivor says “that he only awaits an opportunity to get his invention patented before he makes it known to the world.”
Geelong Advertiser, December 23, 1848 – “PERPETUAL MOTION. – We noticed, a few weeks ago, that Mr Rea, the gunsmith, had invented a piece of mechanism said to be capable of perpetual motion. He has since informed us that his plan is nearly matured and completed, on a large scale. The power will be sufficient to turn two small grindstones and one circular saw. The whole concern can be carried under a man’s arm, and the lever power increased to any amount. He is confident of success. We shall see.”
Geelong Advertiser, December 23, 1848 – “Caution to the Public. Professor Rea respectfully informs the Public that he has nothing directly or indirectly to do with the Balloon ascent advertised in the Corio Chronicle, and placarded in the town of Geelong as Professor Ray’s Monster Balloon Ascent, at the rear of the Royal Victoria Theatre on Tuesday Evening next.
On December 18 of 1849, Rea advertised yet another attempt in his immense balloon, 74 feet high by 136 feet in circumference, in which he would take an aerial trip on Boxing Day, weather permitting. “A subscription of £25 is all that Mr Rea demands from the public previous to ascending….” The Geelong Advertiser, having been permitted to inspect the balloon, noted that it was made of stout oiled calico (Rea apparently sticking firmly to his guns) and made supportive comments about the expense which Mr. Rea had incurred in his preparations. However, the Melbourne Daily News was less kind, implying that if Mr Rea insisted on waiting until he could ascend in a balloon of his own construction, he was at no risk of ever breaking his neck.
The Advertiser of December 29, mentioning that the balloon was to rise from Geelong’s Market Square, noted that Rea had not been supported by the public as might have been expected; and, true to his history, the grand day arrived, only to find that the ascension had been cancelled “in consequence of the illiberality of the public who had not subscribed sufficient money to pay his expenses.” Callously, the newspaper suggested that Rea would soon realise what everybody else knew … “the balloon won’t fly.
Early in January 1850 somebody maliciously ran a knife into Rea’s balloon, damaging it in thirty places; but by January 14 the Advertiser carried another announcement saying that the “Geelong Aereal Machine” would be tested for its capabilities on Thursday 17, out of Little Scotland. Only two people paid for admission, and poor weather prevented the ascension. Still another proposed balloon flight was advertised for March 4, 1850; but there was none. Months later, on November 27, Rea wrote to the Geelong Advertiser with another proposal for a slightly smaller balloon, again promising to ascend with himself and the largest sized goat that could be procured in Geelong. His usual pre-requisite subscription was mentioned, and in reference to his large balloon, Rea wrote that there had been 100 holes maliciously cut in it, and having received only sixteen shillings in advance, “by this balloon I lost £100 besides an enormous amount of insult.”
A Missing Decade, and Return to Performing
Thomas Rea effectively goes missing during the entire time from 1851 to 1860.
Though Rea had been regularly advertising his Patent Gun Shop in Market Square, Geelong, through the Geelong Advertiser, these advertisements suddenly reduced in size, and Mr. Rea simply mentions “every description of work is taken in, from a Steel Spider drawing an ivory carriage, to an Aerial machine.” After April 1849 his advertising stops altogether.
In September 1849 he had advertised the sale of a neat four-roomed stone cottage in ‘Little Scotland’ adjoining Mr. McKern’s residence. Whether this was his home is unclear.
Some scanty references in the press indicate that he moved slightly south of Geelong, to Duneed [now Mt. Duneed]. In 1854 he was appointed deputy registrar for the district of Mount Moriac. In 1855 he is noted as the Postmaster at Duneed.
The inference drawn is that Rea’s business as a gunsmith had gradually declined or failed. The wide variety of services he offered would support the idea that gun making alone was not bringing him a viable income.
According to the research of Alexander Romanov-Hughes (1), “ On 16 August 1853 Thomas's brother, Adam Rea, arrived at Melbourne per "Falcon" from Liverpool, England with his family and a third brother, John Rea. Adam had married Christina Stewart on 9 December 1849 at Ancrum, Roxburghshire, Scotland. Soon after arriving in Victoria Adam commenced in business at Colac as a general merchant and remained there for about 25 years. During this time he was instrumental in stocking the lake there with fish. He also owned a store at Mortlake and later at Echuca. About 1877 he moved to Sandhurst [Bendigo] where he died on 7 September 1881.”
By the time we hear of Thomas Rea again, it is 1860 and both Thomas and his son, John, both operating as storekeepers in Duneed, are placed into insolvency on October 11. A meeting of creditors was held on February 1, 1861.
Clearly, Thomas Rea was in financial trouble, and this need for money is most likely the catalyst for his return to performing. Aside from a mention that “Professor Rea” had performed at the Mechanics’ Institute, Geelong, around July 12, 1861, and Kenilworth on July 15 & 16, he is next seen from February 27, 1862 when he reappeared, in Melbourne at the hall next to Nunn’s hotel in Bourke Street, featuring his Marionette Circus, ventriloquism and magic. He must have been making some success of the venture, as his advertising in Melbourne continued until May 1862.
Around December 27, Madame Sohier’s Waxworks began advertising “Where? What? THE AUTOMATA?” without naming Rea in particular.
1863 saw Rea performing almost continuously:
February 5, 7 and 9 at the Union Hall, Bendigo.
March 14 at the Earl of Zetland Hotel, Ballarat, ‘eliciting … strong expressions of approbation.’
March 22 until May [24?] at Kytes Exhibition Room, Bourke Street. He would later claim a run of 130 successive nights at his ‘Automaton Exhibition Rooms, Bourke Street’, and a performance before His Excellency the Governor and Lady Barkly at Toorak.
May 25 until June 7 in Melbourne at Sohier’s Waxworks, Bourke Street, then June 11 at Mechanics’ Institute in nearby Geelong, together with a Madame Ghio (a bearded lady), her bearded son ‘Young Esau’, and a Swiss Warbler. Rea was billed as The unrivalled Ventriloquist and Ambidextrous Prestidigitateur, with his Theatre of Arts and Automata Figures.
June 25 until July 4 at Mechanics’ Institute, Ballarat with the same troupe, soon disbanded, since Signor Ghio successfully sued Rea in the court for nine pounds wages.
July 25 and possibly prior, until August 3 - Main Road near Bakery Hill, Ballarat.
September 8-12, Temperance Hall, Bendigo, including the usual pre-show balloon launch on September 11; “the balloon rose to a good height and sailed gracefully away towards the Whipstick.”
The Bendigo Advertiser, September 9, 1863, commented - “The astonishing feats of the miniature Blondin on the tight rope called forth great applause. The little juggler tossing the golden balls about excited wonderment, and the dancing figures were capital. In the terrific battle between the boa-constrictor and the lion, the roarings of the king of beasts as the snake crushes him in its folds, were true to nature. Several scenes from the tragedy of Macbeth were given, of which the witches' incantation roused the cauldron, and the battle between Macbeth and Macduff were worth seeing. The entertainment was diversified with feats of legerdemain and an exhibition of ventriloquism.”
September 15, Camp Hotel, Eaglehawk.
September 21, Epsom Shamrock Hotel, Bendigo
September 22, Golden Square, Sandhurst
September 24-26, Mechanics’ Institute, Mount Alexander region [Castlemaine?]; balloon launch included.
December 19 and 21, Theatre Royal Castlemaine, mentioned as a return visit.
Suddenly, in 1864, Thomas Rea seems to have abandoned performing again. He performed on January 26, 27 at Trevena’s Hotel, Avoca, but then nothing is advertised, and around November, Madame Sohier’s Waxworks advertised for Rea to contact them.
It is known, from casual references in the Bendigo [Sandhurst] press that Rea had relocated to Bendigo by March 1865 where he is sometimes mentioned as a gunsmith working at Messrs Holmes, Ironmongers in McCrae Street, and he was still there as late as 1870.
Clearly, Thomas was a man of relentlessly inventive imagination. In July 1866 he was granted a patent for an invention of “improvements in the construction of roller skates” (6) In November, 1868, the Bendigo Advertiser commented, “Mr Thos Rea, gunmaker …. has just completed a splendid single gun, entirely of his own manufacture. The barrel is made on a new principle, and the gun has been proved, and shoots remarkably well. The barrel is made of alternate layers of steel and iron wire, is very strong, and the twist is displayed beautifully. The stock is made of colonial blackwood. The gun throughout, is of very superior workmanship, and reflects great credit on the maker.”
Rea stuck to his gunmaking business, together with his son, John, and grandson (name unknown). By 1872 he was advertising constantly in the Bendigo press, and had established his business at Howard Place ‘near Mr. Garsed’s’.
The following year his life would unravel completely as he and his family became enmeshed in a dreadful and tragic scandal.
The Final Chapters – Shame and Scandal
If we adopt the research of Alexander Romanov-Hughes (1) that Thomas Rea was born in June 1811, by 1873 he was 62 years old; approaching old age by the standards of the day. The Argus (2), however, reported his age as “an old man, said to be fully 70 years of age, having children and grandchildren.”
(For extensive reporting of the court cases which were to follow, see Reference Note (7) . A summary of events follows here:-)
July 5 1873 - the papers were alive with the news of a shocking case which seems to have originated around late June.
Thomas Rea was charged with having ‘criminally assaulted’ [almost certainly a sexual assault is implied] two girls of under twelve years of age, named Elizabeth and Margaret Spencer, the daughters of Mr. Richard Spencer, a butcher at View Point in central Bendigo. The two families were said to both reside at Black Creek and had been on familiar terms with each other for a considerable time. While the girls were visiting Rea’s house, and in the absence of his wife, Rea is alleged to have “tampered with the girls … the details of the case were of a very disgusting character.”
Richard Spencer confronted Rea, who admitted the offence but tried to mitigate its severity. Spencer, to spare Rea’s wife and family the ordeal of a trial, said he would not place the offence in the hands of the police, if Rea left the neighbourhood; but Rea refused to do this, and he was arrested, Margaret Spencer being the principal victim, and a second case was adjourned to the following week. The prisoner was remanded to gaol.
Only days later, an already horrible case became far worse. On July 3, George Spencer, 22-year-old brother of the two young sisters, was found hanged. A quiet, reserved youth, he had been in low spirits for some days. Already melancholy from the stress of the recent assaults, it was reported that he was further upset because Thomas Rea’s son, John, had come to the Spencer home on June 28, and made threats to Mrs. Spencer, telling her that if her husband Richard prosecuted Thomas Rea he (John) would blow Richard Spencer’s brains out. In an acute reaction to hearing this news, George Spencer took his own life; and the jury returned a verdict that George had suicided while temporarily insane, caused ‘by the recent deep affliction of his family.’
John Rea was brought before the Sandhurst Police Court and pleaded guilty to the charge of threatening Richard Spencer, though he claimed to have been “in an agony of mind owing to the calamity which had overtaken his father.” John was remanded in custody a number of times, partly due to the fact that the case against Thomas Rea was still in progress, and upon his further remand on July 14, he exclaimed, “You have tied the hands of my poor old father, and now you want to tie mine. My poor old crippled mother is at home with my wife, within a week of her confinement.” (8)
The prosecution case on behalf of Elizabeth Spencer had proceeded with a straightforward narration by the girl on the circumstances leading up to the assault, but on coming to the most important details she burst into tears, and the case broke down as, after three quarters of an hour, she could not be persuaded to answer further questions. On this matter (‘capital assault’) the prisoner was said to have been discharged, but remained in custody since the charge relating to the other daughter was pending.
By July 23, Thomas Rea was found guilty on a second count of ‘assaulting with intent’ the younger sister. Rea was sentenced to two years imprisonment on the charge of having attempted to assault Margaret Spencer, and twenty months for indecently assaulting Elizabeth Spencer. His imprisonment was at Pentridge Gaol.
The Melbourne Argus hit out against the duration of these sentences, pointing to several recent cases, such as a six-year hard labour sentence for a man who had stolen a blanket, and eight years given to another who stole four pounds from an empty office. Thomas Rea, the paper pointed out, was sentenced to half this time, “in idleness, unless he choose to work”, for a crime that “has ruined the poor little ones, wrecked a family, and sent a fine young man into eternity.” “Is not such a criminal”, asked the Argus, “a more grievous offender?”
In the case of John Rea and his threats against George Spencer, the trail fades out around late July 1873. By August there is no mention of John being sentenced or released. However, John Rea continued to advertise his gunsmith business throughout, and into 1874; it is likely he was not sentenced.
A most peculiar court case arose in February 1874 when John Robshaw, a warder at Pentridge prison, was charged with obtaining money from John Rea under false pretences. Robshaw had written to John Rea in the name of Thomas Rea, asking him to advance money on a promise of being released. After sending several sums of money, with no release of his father, John Rea went to Melbourne and discovered the deception.
It is notable that for this offence, John Robshaw was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment with hard labour.
Eventually, released from prison, Thomas Rea made his re-entry to society and, contrary to the expectations of today’s society, he returned to his previous home, Bendigo. His son John was in the gun business with his uncle, Adam Rea. On December 25, 1875, Thomas’ wife Maria died. He would re-marry in 1880, (1) to Annie Maria Donahoo McBride, and had a further son named Thomas on January 10, 1883.
Whatever his age, reputation, or infirmity, Thomas Rea was not to be kept down. On December 26, 1881 , and again in early January 1882 Professor Rea made another appearance, at the Echuca Temperance Hall, featuring his ‘wonderful Marionettes, feats of dexterity and surprising talent as a Ventriloquist.’ It might be assumed that, folllowing his usual practice, Thomas Rea was introducing himself to the neighbours; by the time of his new son’s birth in 1883, Thomas was reported to be living in Hare-street, Echuca.
A tent-show by Professor Rea was featured in Bendigo during the April Easter holidays of 1884, and further Marionette performances at Echuca in July. In 1885 Rea paid for some verse to be printed in the newspapers on a number of occasions, indicating that he had become a follower of the spiritual philosophy of Emmanuel Swedenborg.
Thomas’ newspaper advertising had resumed in 1883, but in March 1886 he announced that he was retiring, and moving back to Bendigo, where he joined his son John’s business in McCrae Street.
In ill-health for some time, Thomas “Professor” Rea died on January 10, 1889 and was buried at Sandhurst Cemetery the following day.
We are left, not overlooking the shame of his later years, with the impression of a man of eccentric whims, undoubted mechanical ability, and sound performing skills. Although he did not achieve his dream of ascending in a hot-air balloon, he unquestionably spent many years successfully demonstrating the principle of flight with smaller balloons and was therefore a pioneer of ballooning in Australia.
1 - http://www.portphillippioneersgroup.org.au/pppg5cj.htm - Article by Alexander Romanov-Hughes, who has written extensively about the early history of Port Phillip (Melbourne).
2 - The Argus (Melbourne Victoria) July 5, 1873 page 5
3 - See, for instance, “Only in Tasmania” by Sandra Huett, Striped Wolf Publishing 2012, which references Rea’s balloon attempts in 1845 only.
5 - The Star, Ballarat, March 16, 1863
6 - The Argus, Melbourne, July 7, 1866 p.5
7 - For full details of the court cases and inquiries:
8 - John Rea had married Miss Annie Findlay, of Sandhurst, on March 14, 1871. Ref Bendigo Advertiser March 27.