One cannot visit Sorrento, on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, without encountering the name ‘Coppin’ – and as one dabbles a little more into Australia’s theatrical and political history, the name recurs once again . . .

Some further investigation reveals that George Selth Coppin was a man of many talents.  A man whose jovial disposition and unrelenting enthusiasm built many a business and building in the south eastern reaches of Australia.  Often referred to as the ‘Father of the Australian stage’ as well as the ‘Father of Sorrento’, his story of poverty – fame – fortune repeated itself a number of times during his lifetime, but it would appear that when his world collapsed around him, he would get up, brush himself down, and rise again.

Actor, Entrepreneur, Politician . . .

” . . . Player and politician are two parts which have seldom been duplicated upon the stage of life, although the cynic might be tempted to remark that there is but little difference in the characters . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Leader (Melbourne, Vic) – Article ‘Representative Men – The Hon. George Selth Coppin’ – published 7th February 1903

An Overview of the Life & Challenges of the Hon. George Selth Coppin

8 Apr 1819 – George Coppin was born in Steyning, Sussex, England.  His father, though trained as a surgeon, turned to the theatre where George Coppin would spend his infancy and youth distributing pamphlets, sweeping floors, attending to the lighting and minor maintenance issues, as well as manage many of the affairs of the theatre:

” . . . In my father’s company I used to sweep out the theatre, trim lamps, deliver bills, lead the orchestra, and play small parts, until he gave up management . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – ‘The Chronicles of Early Melbourne – 1835 to 1851 – Vol I’ – by Garryowen – published 1888


14 Nov 1826 – George Coppin appeared on stage for the very first time playing the violin in a concert held at Peterborough:

” . . . He was then seven years old and used to be placed on a table to play the “cuckoo solo” between pieces . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Leader (Melbourne, Vic) – Article ‘Representative Men – The Hon. George Selth Coppin’ – published 7th February 1903

” . . . his gradual progress in the profession:—” The first printed record I have of my first appearance in public, is the bill of a concert given at Peterborough under the patronage of Viscount Milton, on the 14th of November, 1826, in which I am announced amongst the violin players. I was then seven years old, and used to be placed upon a table to play the ‘Cuckoo Solo’ between the pieces.  I remember having coppers and small pieces of silver thrown upon the stage to me, little thinking that I should live to see nuggets of gold wrapped in bank notes thrown upon the stage, as I have done at the old Queen’s Theatre in this colony, to the Chambers family.  I wonder how I should look now in petticoats upon a table playing the ‘Cuckoo Solo.’ . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – ‘The Chronicles of Early Melbourne – 1835 to 1851 – Vol I’ – by Garryowen – published 1888

9 Oct 1828 – George Coppin as Master at the Theatre Toyal, Scarborough:

” . . . My next bill is for the benefit of Mrs., Miss, and Master Coppin.  I was the Master at the Theatre Royal, Scarborough, on the 9th of October, 1828, under the patronage of Lord and Lady Pollington, in which the comic duet of ‘When a Little Farm We Keep,’ is announced by Master and Miss Coppin.  At that time I had a regular engagement as ‘ second fiddle’ in the orchestra, and child actor in the theatre.  The first part I can remember playing was a boy in ‘The Hunter of the Alps,’ when Mr. Charles Kean came down as a star.  I had to strut up to him and say, ‘Don’t be afraid, sir; I won’t hurt you.’  He patted me upon the head, gave me half-a-crown, and said that I should be a great comedian . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – ‘The Chronicles of Early Melbourne – 1835 to 1851 – Vol I’ – by Garryowen – published 1888

1826 to 1842 – Coppin’s acting, managerial and musical skills grew:

” . . . At nineteen I was engaged as ‘ second fiddle ‘ in the orchestra, and second low comedian at the Woolwich Theatre by Mr. Faucett, and before the season terminated I became his stage manager, and first low comedian at a salary of 21s. per week.  My next engagement was with Mr. Davenport (the model of Charles Dickens’s Vincent Crummies), at Richmond; salary, 25s. a yveek, upon condition that in addition to my playing in the orchestra, second low comedy upon the stage, dancing and singing between the pieces — I should also teach the infant phenomenon to sing and dance, which I did.  I was then engaged for London.  Subsequently took Mr. Compton’s situation in the York Circuit, at a salary of 30s. a week, when that celebrated comedian went to London.  I afterwards visited Belfast, Glasgow, and Dublin.  Starred it through Ireland and a portion of England, sailed from Liverpool in the ‘Templar’ on the 17th November, 1842, and arrived in Sydney on the 1oth March, 1843, only 113 days on the voyage, which was considered not so bad at that time. . . “

Source:  Excerpt – ‘The Chronicles of Early Melbourne – 1835 to 1851 – Vol I’ – by Garryowen – published 1888

17 Nov 1842 – George Coppin embarked on the ship ‘Templar’ and headed to Sydney, Australia

10 Mar 1843 – George Coppin arrived in Australia and so began his Australian career . . .

” . . . .Shortly after arrival he arranged to appear at the Victoria Theatre, upon a share of the profits, and frequently received upwards of £50 a night.  He made a little fortune by acting — lost it in [publichouse] business through inexperience, left Sydney in debt. . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Tasmanian (Launceston, Tas) – Article ‘Mr George Coppin’ – published 3rd December 1881

5 Jan 1845 – George Coppin appeared for the first time on the Tasmanian stage, in ‘Hobart Town’ as Hobart was known back then:

” . . . After playing a very successful star, engagement he commenced management in Launceston, on the 3rd of March, 1845.  Encouraged by a prosperous season, he engaged his company to visit Australia Felix, and made, his first appearance as manager and actor, in Melbourne . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Tasmanian (Launceston, Tas) – Article ‘Mr George Coppin’ – published 3rd December 1881

21 Jun 1845 – Melbourne was barely a decade old when George Coppin first graced the stage at the Queen’s Theatre, in the “Lady of Lyons”.

” . . . and in 1845 he [Coppin] left Sydney in debt, and made his appearance in January of that year at Hobart.  From thence he went on to Launceston, and being successful in both places be took a company to Melbourne, and made his first appearance in the dual capacity of actor and manager at the Queen’s . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – The South Australian Advertiser – “Mr George S Coppin’ – published 5th November 1883

30 Mar 1845 – In taking his company to Melbourne, he formed the following agreement with the members of his company prior to departure (noting that V.D.L. is short for Van Diemens Land – the former name of Tasmania):

” . . . “Copy of Agreement, Theatre, Launceston, V.D.L.    March 30th, 1845.
” We , the undersigned, hereby agree to proceed to Melbourne per ship ‘Swan’ under the management of Mr. Coppin, to perform at the theatre for a season, and to return to Launceston if required, and bind ourselves under a penalty of £25 to be paid to the said George Coppin, that we will not perform at the theatre or any other place of amusement, unless it is under the management of Mr. Coppin, by his free will and consent.

ALFRED HOWSON,* JOHN WILKS , BEN RAE.     Witness : WILLIAM BELL, Captain of ‘Swan.’ “

* The names asterisked constituted the orchestra . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – ‘The Chronicles of Early Melbourne – 1835 to 1851 – Vol I’ – by Garryowen – published 1888

1846 to 1850 – Another successful season saw Coppin venture to the South Australian Stage.  By the 2nd November of 1846, Coppin had relocated to Adelaide, built a theatre in just 5 weeks, and commenced his next season on the stage.  During this time he also built a theatre in Port Adelaide, but once again, he lost a large fortune by investing poorly – this time in copper mining – and was declared insolvent . . .

1851 – George Coppin returned to Melbourne where the Gold Rush era had begun.  He traipsed up to the Gold Diggings with empty pockets and returned again, within a fortnight, without a penny to his name . . .

1852 – saw George Coppin bring theatre to Geelong, where he managed to accumulate yet another small fortune

Jan 1854 – prior to departing for England, Coppin returned to Adelaide where he arranged a dinner with his creditors, convincing the to agree to 20s in every £1 he owed

26 Jun 1854 – London, England:

” . . . Appeared at the the Royal Haymarket Theatre, London, on – 26th June, 1854, as M. Putzi and Crack.  The London press unanimous in praise.  Arranged star engagements at the Theatres Royal, Birminham, Manchester, Edingburgh, Dublin etc.  Engaged Mr G. V. Brooke and other artists to visit the colonies . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Tasmanian (Launceston, Tas) – Article ‘Mr George Coppin’ – published 3rd December 1881

During this time Coppin also managed to organise for a pre-fabricated iron theatre to be constructed in Manchester, England for transport back to Melbourne – this unique theatre would become affectionately known as the “Iron Pot

18 Dec 1854 – Upon Coppin’s return to Melbourne, he commenced playing a round of characters at the Queen’s Theatre, Melbourne

26 Feb 1855 – Mr GV Brooke first appeared at the ‘Queen’s Theatre’, Melbourne

18 Apr 1855 – the foundation stone of the Olympic Theatre i.e. the “Iron Pot” was laid by Mr GV Brooke.  The completed theatre would be opened in the June of 1855 by the Wizard Jacobs, who had been engaged by Coppin whilst he was in England

30 Jul 1855 – Coppin commenced Melbourne’s 1855 season of drama with the “Lady of Lyons” & “To Oblige Benson”.  During the following year Coppin entered into a partnership with Brooke in which time they purchased the lease of the Theatre Royal, as well as the freehold of the Cremorne Gardens – an investment of some £100,000 plus – an enormous sum in those days . . .

9 Jun 1856 – George Coppin commenced management at the ‘Theatre Royal’ with the comedy “She Stoops to Conquer”.  His partner, GV Brooke, first appeared at the ‘Theatre Royal’ on the 2nd of July 1856 during the seasons of “The Serious Family” and to “Oblige Benson”

25 Aug 1856 – GV Brooke starred as Mathew Elmore in “Love’s Sacrifice”

3 Nov 1856 – ‘Cremorne Gardens‘ were opened by the partnership, and building commenced on the ‘Pantheon Theatre’

1858 – George Coppin was elected to the Legislative Council for the South-Western Province of Victoria, an office which he held for 5 years

26 Feb 1859 – the partnership between Coppin and Brooke endured serious losses and was hence dissolved

15 Sep 1862 – Coppin went on to build the ‘Haymarket Theatre’ which opened on this day, however, he was unable to recover the losses he had incurred and was left penniless.  Once again he summoned his creditors for dinner and they accepted 20s for every £1 he owed . . .

9 Jul 1864 – George Coppin headed for California where he toured with Mr & Mrs Kean & Co.

18 Jan 1866 – George Coppin returned to Melbourne

27 Jan 1866 – Coppin appeared at the ‘Haymarket Theatre’ and continued in various roles building up a comfortable sum of money again

” . . . Appeared at the Haymarket on the 27th January, 1866, in a round of his popular characters, including for the first time, ” Milky White” and ” Coppin in California.” . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – ‘The Chronicles of Early Melbourne – 1835 to 1851 – Vol I’ – by Garryowen – published 1888

Dec 1869 – George Coppin enjoyed a successful season in Melbourne:

” . . . Mr. Coppin has met with the most unqualified success here in the introduction of Mr. Heller, who some short time since made himself such a very general favourite with the Sydney public.  He blends his music and somatic conjuring in the most attractive manner, and the hall fills well every night.  This week the speaking bust has been the principal illusion.  I hear he will shortly revisit your city for another season there . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Evening News (Sydney, NSW) – Article ‘Victoria – [from our Special Correspondent.] – Melbourne, December 31st’ – published 4th January 1870

19 Mar 1872 – the uninsured ‘Theatre Royal’ was consumed by fire – another devastating blow to Coppin’s finances:

” . . . He bought his partners out, and, after twelve months sole proprietorship, suffered the loss of having the old playhouse destroyed by fire on 19th March, 1872, there being not a penny of insurance on the property.  “The Theatre Royal Proprietary Association” was then formed . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Leader (Melbourne, Vic) – ‘Representative Men – The Hon. George Selth Coppin’ – published 1st February 1903

1874 – George Coppin entered the Legislative Assembly as an independent representing East Melbourne – a position he held until 1889

Jul 1874 – James Cassius Williamson & his wife perform ‘Struck Oil’ – a production that would prove to be ‘true to its name’ so to speak, and, it was to George Coppin that they headed upon their arrival in Australia:

” . . . It was a most casual going — this trip to Australia.  They [James Cassius Williamson & his wife Miss Maggie Moore] travelled out in the same boat with Harry Rickards, who was afterwards, after much travail, to also achieve Australian prominence.  The young American comedian and his wife brought no company and no flaring posters with them, as Rickards did.  They brought themselves and their talent, and locked away in a box a new play — that quaint old Dutch comedy which, was to make them famous in two hemispheres, “Struck Oil.”  The name itself was an omen : and they regarded it as such.  Thus, without prospects — merely with the play with the mascotte name— they landed in Melbourne, and went to see the Napoleon of the Australian theatre — George Coppin.  A couple of years before, the old Theatre Royal had met the fate which seems reserved for all Melbourne theatres, and had been burned to the ground.  From its ashes sprang the magnificent, roomy, mammoth-staged theatre which, improved and altered, is the Royal of to-day.  Coppin, Harwood, Stewart and Co. were running it in July 1874, when the two young Americans arrived.  The firm was on the look-out for talent, and George Coppin was keen to recognise it.

To the Williamsons it seemed inadvisable at such an early stage in their new careers to take any risks, and they urged Coppin to put them and their play on salary.  But Coppin, too, eschewed risks, and would agree to nothing but the share system, where, if the venture were a failure, part of the loss would be borne by the newcomers.  It was said at the time that the salary asked and refused was £30 a week.  This was vehemently denied, and it was probably considerably more than that.  Anyway, on the 1st of August 1874, Mr. J. C. Williamson and Miss Maggie Moore opened at the Theatre Royal to a crowded house with “Struck Oil.”  They were an instantaneous success, and there was no sorrier man in Australia, than George Coppin when he found that he might have had these two wealth – producers on a salary, and had refused it.  He had thrown away thousands.  Everybody knows that J.C. Williamson played John Stofel, and that Mrs. Williamson played Lizzie Stofel as nobody else has ever played those parts.  The critics raved over them.  The public fought at the doors of the theatre to be allowed by buy their way in.  The Dutch dialect became for a time the language of the street and the hotel.  The supreme height in wit was reached when one man said to another, “Is dot so?” or “Vat ye vant?”

The reason for this sudden flight into fame and popularity is not hard to find.  The Williamsons belonged to what was in 1874 the new school of acting.  They were natural.  This was their success.  This was their secret.  The John Stofel of J.C. Williamson was a real, live, natural Dutchman.  It was impossible to believe that Williamson was not Stofel.  While he was on the stage he lived the part, lost himself in it, was the character he portrayed, and so he captured and enthralled and delighted his audience.  The old style of acting — the style of the Kembles and others — had been artificial, frigid, unconvincing.  There were set rules, there were unalterable traditions.  There were rigorous formulae.  All these had to be obeyed, and respected, and followed.  The part of Hamlet or Othello had as many conventions and traditional usages attached to it as a test match or the opening of Parliament.  As a consequence, the sympathy and the ability of the actor were never given full rein, and the acting was formal and precise.

“Struck Oil” was kept on the boards week after week, and still the audiences were crowded . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Kalgoorlie Miner (WA) – ‘Chapter of Theatrical History – Mr. J.C. Williamson’s Career’ – published 5th March 1908

1876 – George Coppin began establishing the beautiful seaside resort of Sorrento on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.  In his own words, which are taken from a Birthday speech held in the April of 1890:

” . . . It is, now about 14 years ago since I originated companies to clear the bush, to form and make roads to the Ocean Amiphitheatre, to erect rotundas, and seats along four miles of paths running by the side of the ocean, to erect the Continental Hotel and several cottages, to erect public baths, Mechanic’s Institute and Public library and to purchase the New Zealand steamer ‘Golden Crown‘, reducing the return ticket from 20s by the tug steamer ‘Williams‘ to 7s 6d. by the first excursion steamer that ever ran down the Bay; and although have a balance of £6000 or £7000 upon the wrong side of my ledger, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have secured good health for my family, and the pleasure of seeing the gradual progress of the place . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Queenscliff Sentinel, Drysdale, Portarlington and Sorrento Advertiser (Vic) – Article ‘Mr Coppin at Sorrento’ – published 26th April 1890

Nov 1883 – George Coppin is fare-welled:

George S Coppin in Various Costumes c 1864

” . . . It will be seen on reference to our business columns that Mr. Coppin is about to commence a short season at the Theatre Royal on Monday next, November 5, prior to taking his final leave of the antipodes and proceeding to England, when he intends to settle down after having spent the best portion of his life on the colonial boards.  While theatrical people and theatre-goers will regret his departure from their midst, none will begrudge the famous actor his well earned rest, nor blame him for preferring to end his days with his friends in the mother – country, whence he came, and where he was born and educated.  Mr Coppin is now over 64 years of age, and perhaps there is no man in Australia who has played so many parts.  He was born in England on April 8, 1819, and for the past fifty years he has been before the public not alone as an actor on the theatrical stage, but in the arena of public life, he having been for some time a member of the Parliament of Victoria.  One act alone in his political career will never be forgotten even though he may be thousands of miles away from the scene of his labors, viz., the placing upon the Statute book of Victoria the Torrens’ South Australian Land Transfer Act, which has so much simplified the cumbrous system of conveyancing previously in vogue.  Up to a very recent period Mr. Coppin, who it may be remembered originated the movement for improving the back alums and dirty corners of Melbourne, was busy devoting himself to the erection of forty working men’s dwellings and a model lodging house for 900 beds in Lonsdale-street east, the cost of which is now ascertained to be about £20,000.  He introduced the Homestead Bill to enable persons to settle land in such manner as to make provision for their widows and children and from themselves in old age, a measure that was a fitting companion to his simplification of the law dealing with property.  He was also identified with the earliest attempts at local government, and for some time held the position of chairman of the borough council of Richmond, in which suburb he has until lately resided.  As a prominent advocate of Freemasonry, in which craft he held the position of Worshipful Grand Master, in the smaller matters of everyday life, and in many other ways, Mr. Coppin s memory will be held dear to the many friends he leaves behind him in Australia; and though he is best known as an eminent actor, his other qualifications are in themselves sufficiently marked to stamp him as a man of valuable talents and of great philanthropy . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – South Australian Advertiser (Adelaide, SA) – Article ‘Mr George S Coppin’ – published 5th November 1883

Aug 1889 – Coppin entered the Upper House as a member representing the Melbourne province, as it was known at the time.  A summary some of the political achievements instituted &/or assisted by Coppin during his politcal career include:

  establishing the Victorian Humane Society in Melbourne

  establishing the St John’s Ambulance service in Melbourne

  the erection of 40 working men’s dwellings

  the erection of a model Lodging House of 900 beds in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne

  establishing the Homestead Bill which enabled land owners to provide for their wives, children, as well as for themselves in old age when settling land

  establishing the Post Office Savings Bank Act

  establishing the Statute Book of Victoria

  establishing the Torrens Act

  he held the position of Chairman of the Borough Council of Richmond – amongst the first attempts at local governance

Though he had affected change, he declared:

” . . . I look upon any change in our constitution as a simple piece of patchwork until we arrive at the grand ultimatum of confederation of the Australian colonies – uniform laws and tariff, and intercolonial reciprocity in trade . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Age (Melbourne, Vic) – Article ‘Mr George Coppin – Old Colonists’ Association Conversazione’ – published 15th May 1899

Something that has not yet been achieved in our political evolution . . .

14 Mar 1906 – George Selth Coppin died in Richmond, Victoria, Australia.

” . . . On April 8 last year Mr Coppin celebrated his 86th birthday at the “Anchorage,” Sorrento, when he contributed a couple of songs to the programme with all his old spirit and fore, and he continued to enjoy his usual health till a few days ago, when he was seized with his last illness.l  Serious symptoms developed on Monday, and from that day his medial adviser (Dr. W. R. Fox) held out no hopes of his recovery.  Dr. John Williams was called into consultation, but he could only confirm Dr. Fox’s opinion, and Mr. Coppin died at half-past 1 o’clock this morning . . . “

Source:  Argus (Melbourne, Vic) – Article ‘Death of Mr. George Coppin’ – published 14th March 1906

There appears to be little record of George Coppin’s wife (Amelia Caush or perhaps Cosh?) though she was, in her own right, a brilliant and very successful actor and appears on many a theatre advertisement as Mrs Coppin.  The date of their marriage remains elusive as do the records of the children borne by them  ?? . . . 

Source: Excerpt – ‘The Chronicles of Early Melbourne – 1835 to 1851 – Vol I’ – by Garryowen – published 1888

” . . . Coppin’s first appearance obtained the substantial compliment of a bumper attendance and the reception accorded the newcomers was all that could be desired.  Their second appearance was on the 24th in the comedy of “The Soldiers Daughter”; but Coppin, according to the scribes, “did not show at his best” while Mrs. Coppin was a “tremendous success” as the Widow Cheerly.  Rogers absolutely stormed the place by his spirited delineation of  Governor Heartall, and Mr. Young’s “acting was far from being as good as his dancing.”  As for Megson, he had “become musically acquainted with the people, and his violin solo was much admired . . . “

Source:  Excerpts – ‘The Chronicles of Early Melbourne – 1835 to 1851 – Vol I’ – by Garryowen – published 1888


View other important events in Central Victoria’s History . . .