Melbourne’s first “respectable” theatre

Early theatrical performances in Melbourne usually took place in temporary or makeshift venues and were often of a rowdy and disorderly nature. 

John Thomas Smith was a publican, councillor and several times Lord Mayor of Melbourne, and wanted to raise the tone of the theatre in Melbourne.

In May 1843 he applied to the magistrates for a licence to build and operate a theatre on land that he owned on the south-west corner of Queen and Little Bourke streets. In June he was granted the licence, on condition that he entered into “recognizances to furnish the six special constables required to keep order”.

Smith also obtained a licence to build and run a tavern on the corner of his block. While construction of the theatre proceeded slowly, Smith concentrated on finishing the pub. St John’s Tavern opened in 1844 and with the resulting income Smith was able to complete the theatre by March 1845.

Described as a “plain, substantial, brick, shingle-roofed building, with no attempt at exterior ornamental ornamentation”, the 900-seat theatre opened on April 21, 1845 with a benefit performance for John Davies, a newspaper writer and amateur actor.

The show began with a “drama of intense interest” entitled “The Bear Hunters, or the Fatal Ravine”. Patrons were assured that the entertainments were of a “chaste and moral nature”. Also, “regulations for the good management of the theatre have been established, and six special constables will be in attendance to enforce the same”.

Later in the year, the famous actor and impresario Mr George Coppin and his company arrived in Melbourne. Promising “the greatest combination of talent ever witnessed in any of the colonies”, on June 21, 1845 Coppin and his actors performed The Lady of Lyons. Other successful plays followed and eventually Smith leased the Queen’s Theatre to Coppin.

Smith had hoped to attract a “better class” of patron to his theatre but he still had to cope with diggers in from the goldfields for a good time. The writer William Kelly describes an audience for a performance of Hamlet thus:

“The dress circle was crammed beyond sitting posture with florid-looking women in too low satin dresses … Their lords-in-waiting were habited either in tartan jumpers or red worsted shirts, smoking short pipes and indulging in indelicate attentions.”

The third act of the play was enlivened by “a most amusing colloquy between the Danish grave-digger and the gold-diggers from Eagle Hawk, made up of mutual enquires about the depth of the sinking ... which so tickled Hamlet that he gave up the soliloquy and joined in the joking.” At the end of the play the players were showered with gold nuggets –“a substitute for bouquets”.

In August 1846 Coppin and his company moved to Adelaide. Attendances at the Queen’s Theatre dropped but Smith kept going by engaging a range of visiting companies.

His business wasn’t helped by the actions of some Melburnians who objected to Smith opening on Saturday nights, as this “... leads to the desecration of the Sabbath, and induces many of the lower orders to absent themselves from their homes ...” As a result of this objection, Smith’s new licence, granted in May 1847, permitted performances only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

In 1856 Coppin returned to the Queen’s Theatre, which by then had been renovated, with a new frontage added. However, the centre of Melbourne’s theatrical world gradually moved towards the eastern end of the city and by the 1880s the Queen’s Theatre had closed. The building was used by a succession of coach builders and then by a company that manufactured billiard tables. It was demolished in 1922. Thus passed the last trace of Mebourne’s first permanent theatre.

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