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The Freak Show

We believe that the future tone of the drama among us depends very much upon the events of the next two or three months, and that if we do not support better than we have done hitherto, those ladies and gentlemen who are offering us a commodity well worth our money, we shall soon have to stay away from the theatres altogether, or go there with the risk of having our tastes and morals undermined. … It is better for the public to have a prima donna among them than a semi-nude gymnast or a Chinese giant or an American Dwarf.

Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Chronicle, November 1870

The discovery of gold in New South Wales and Victoria in 1851 created rampant rates of population growth and transformed Sydney and Melbourne from colonial outposts to major capitals in the space of a decade. With people came commercial opportunities, and entertainers of all descriptions were among those who arrived in Australia seeking to profit by ventures other than prospecting.

During a period of 30 years, Melbourne accommodated the construction of seven large theatres, concentrated in the areas around the east end of Bourke Street, and Sydney experienced a similar boom. Local impresarios such as George Selth Coppin engaged famous names in drama, opera, pantomime, circus and music hall, and Australian cities and goldfields towns were added to the itineraries of touring international acts and artistes, including some whose performances were considered detrimental to the cultivation of taste and decency. Many of these performers availed themselves of the services of photographic studios, posing for carte de visite portraits that served as souvenirs and as instruments in the making of renown and notoriety.