The search for Australia's first recorded conjuring performance:
Who was the first recorded performer of theatrical magic in Australia? This is a question to which the answer may never be definitively found. We have a number of tantalising clues, some performers whose art may only qualify as being on the fringes of magic, and the likely reality that many unnamed performers existed but will never be documented. This document is a work in progress, started in 1997 and most recently updated in April 2009. Thanks to new internet tools, making newspaper content searchable online, additional information has been located which places Monsieur Du Pree, The Wizard Of The South (1) as the earliest documented magician to perform in Australia, in 1836. He was followed by Powell Courtier.
Du Pree's career also appears to have lasted longer than that of Powell Courtier and, if his 1837 advertisement is to be believed, there may be an earlier history of performance in Britain.
Aside from the early references to William Fraser as a conjurer before his deportation to Australia, there are some brief references to the magic arts, which may eventually bear some fruit from further research. It is quite astonishing, though, that magicians and related performers should spring up as early as a mere thirty years into the history of a new British colony, founded originally for the purpose of ridding Britain of troublesome criminals.
It is important to consider the state of Australian Theatre in 1837. Quite apart from frivolous entertainments such as conjuring, even drama was a suspect activity in the early life of the colony (barely fifty years old since British settlement in 1788). The establishment of dedicated theatres was a gradual and painful process, regularly forbidden and hindered by successive Governors of the colony; it was not until 1832 that Barnett Levey was granted a formal theatre licence, and October 1833 when Sydney's "Theatre Royal" opened. Performances at taverns and in back rooms of hotels were still the order of the day.
Robert Jordan's insightful and detailed book, "The Convict Theatres Of Early Australia 1788-1840" (2) gives us clues to several earlier performances of (depending on your attitude) magic or the allied arts. On June 10, 1804, the Sydney Gazette announced the arrival of a "galanty" (magic lantern or puppet show) for children, probably brought out by a convict on the ship Coromandel.
Of most interest, and deserving of further investigation, is the report (3) of a criminal prosecution on September 14, 1816. An innkeeper was charged with the use of a back room for "an Entertainment there of Slight of Hand upon Cards", at an entrance fee of one shilling per person. Unfortunately, only the publican was charged and the entertainer’s name is not mentioned. This is certainly the earliest known direct reference to the performance of magic; however unless the name of the back-room artist can be located, all we can conclude is that informal magic performances were taking place in venues which would never be recorded by the newspapers of the time.
It should probably be noted that the likely cause of prosecution was that the innkeeper did not have permission to present a theatrical performance for money, rather than because there was any association of "slight of hand" to gambling or criminal activity.
A third reference mentioned by Jordan comes from the Monitor of August 25, 1826. As part of a number of amateur concerts arranged in that year, possibly in support of Barnett Levey's public and pushy efforts to establish a licensed theatre, an entertainment in the style of the English fairgrounds was set up:-
A desire to entertain and to dispel the dull monotony that fills with ennui the minds of the good Sydney folks ... an humble individual, but of great name, even Sydney Smith, announced, in due form, by printed circulars, his intention of entertaining his friends, 'by particular desire,' with a display of his 'extraordinary abilities.'[including a recitation titled "The Wonders of the World", imitations of London performers and comic songs] ... And last, though not least in this extraordinary catalogue of wonders, salamander-like properties of this actor of-all-work, were exhibited, passing a red hot iron over his tongue, with divers resistencies of fire, &c.
In a neat set speech, the salamander then thanked his auditors for their patronage, promised better sport next time - all of which candour and good-humour, was answered by a liberal donation of dollars, rupees and dumps. Mr. Kelly, of Pitt-street, accommodated the assemblage with the use of a capacious building, recently erected, which, for the sort of thing, was very passably fitted-up.
The "Salamander" act, showing the performer to be impervious to heat and flame, can be neatly associated with the magic arts since it used a number of secret techniques. It seems reasonable to regard Sydney Smith’s performance of Salamandering as a performance of magic, however, that must be left to individuals to decide for themselves.
Jordan documents a touring performer, Thomas Arnott who, in the latter part of the 1830s, 'was touring to townships as far apart as Kiama and Port Macquarie and as small as Freeman's Reach. At one stage his entertainment consisted of 'Illusions, dancing, Singing, Recitations on logic - Imitations of the Principal Actors in England, Ventriloquism[,] balancing with various feats of Salamandering termed Fantoccini." Whether 'illusions' means conjuring is not known. The reference to “recitations on logic” echoes a similar phrase used by Monsieur Du Pree in 1837.These performances may well be later than those of Monsieur Du Pree, but we cannot say with certainty that Arnott was not touring well before 1836. At present I cannot locate documentation of this performer. (But see also Mons. Aymotte)
Finally, both Robert Jordan and Richard Waterhouse (4) in "From Minstrel Show To Vaudeville" mention Toby (J.T.) Ryan's "Reminiscences of Early Australia", Sydney 1894, in which he refers to amusements at the Regentville and Killarney races (near Penrith), which included skittles, Punch and Judy shows, a big black American conjurer and also Black Simon playing the tambourine (probably a blackface/minstrel act). Ryan's recollections are regarded as unreliable, since he was writing some fifty years after the events, and he lists dates for horse-races which did not occur.
So, with the ongoing challenge of locating further details of these early performers, we must look to the story of Monsieur DuPree to find the first unquestioned documentation of a performance by a conjurer in Australia.
(1) Initial mention of Monsieur Du Pree came from "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
[Figures in parentheses are page numbers]
DuPree, M. Magician - 2-6-48 (2); The Wizard of the South 21-7-48 (2), 25-7-48 (2), 1-8-48 (2&3), 1-9-48 (2); at Seymour 4-6-50 (2).
Note:-the State Library Victoria microfilm of the Argus does not include the edition of 21-7-48.
(2) See pages 180-1, "The Convict Theatres Of Early Australia 1788-1840" by Robert Jordan, pub. Currency House 2002. ISBN 0 9581213 0 3. www.currency.com.au
(3) Referenced by Jordan as SRNSW (State Records New South Wales) 7/2691, p.104. The record has been sighted by Janette Pelosi, Acting Senior Archivist at State Records NSW.
(4) Richard Waterhouse, "From Minstrel Show To Vaudeville", pub. New South Wales University Press 1990. ISBN 0 86840 100 5. See page 27.