Alfred Dampier 1847-1908
he son of a builder, Alfred Dampier was born in Horsham, Sussex, on 28 February.
Dampier accepted a three-year engagement with the Theatre Royal in Melbourne and made his Australian debut there on 20 September 1873 as Mephistopheles in his own adaptation, Faust and Marguerite.
In 1878 Dampier and his family toured the United States.
Australian plays for Australian audiences
‘Alfred Dampier’s enthusiasm for the Australian play was remarkable, both in his own day and looked at from the present,’ wrote Leslie Rees. ‘His plucky as well as self-interested policy of airing Australian plays for Australians had a magnificent popular justification, when, in 1890 he presented Robbery Under Arms. With its cast of 40, it was to be played again and again. A story sometimes quoted to illustrate Dampier’s quickness and resourcefulness of mind is that one night during the play he saw some of the scenery shake, then topple towards the stage. “A landslide!” shouted Captain Starlight to the other actors. “Run for your lives!”’
Alfred Dampier was the ideal actor-manager – a consummate man of the theatre with impeccable credentials: a commanding stage presence, an uncanny knack for picking crowd-pleasing melodramas, a penchant for Shakespeare, a talent as a dramatist, a commitment to Australian plays, and theatrically-useful wife and children.
The son of a builder, Alfred Dampier was born in Horsham, Sussex, on 28 February, though the actual year is unconfirmed – 1843, 1845, 1847 and 1848 have all been suggested; 1847 seems most likely. He started out as a barrister’s clerk, but his interest in the stage soon took him from amateur theatricals to a place in Henry Irving’s company in Manchester. In 1866 he married a pianist, Katherine Russell, and fostered her acting talents. He moved with Irving to London and soon graduated to leading roles.
Dampier accepted a three-year engagement with the Theatre Royal in Melbourne and made his Australian debut there on 20 September 1873 as Mephistopheles in his own adaptation, Faust and Marguerite. He starred in many productions, and stage-managed others – such as J.C. Williamson and Maggie Moore’s first season of Struck Oil in 1874. With his own company, Dampier made his Sydney debut in Hamlet early in 1877. This was followed by All for Gold; or, Fifty Millions of Money, which local playwright F.R.C. Hopkins had adapted for him from Eugène Sue’s The Wandering Jew. Similarly, Garnet Walch adapted a comic novelette called Helen’s Babies; or, The Best Children in the World for Dampier, with featured roles for Dampier’s wife and two little daughters, Lily and Rose.
In 1878 Dampier and his family toured the United States. They presented Helen’s Babies at the Broadway Theatre in New York from 4 February. The highlight of an 1881 British tour was a season of All for Gold at the Surrey Theatre in London.
Apart from a second visit to Britain in 1894, Dampier spent the rest of his life in Australia. His company specialised in melodrama, not just proven overseas plays but locally-written pieces as well. Dampier wrote many himself, invariably in collaboration with others. But he didn’t neglect Shakespeare. When his company was in town, ‘Friday Night was Shakespeare Night’, and often the melodramas’ profits subsidised his Shakespearean offerings.
Watch this space
Richard Fotheringham: ‘Alfred Dampier’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia. Currency Press, 1995
Eric Irvin: Dictionary of the Australian Theatre. Hale and Iremonger, 1985
Hal Porter: Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby, 1965
Leslie Rees: The Making of Australian Drama. Angus and Robertson, 1973
John Rickard: ‘Alfred Dampier’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 4
Margaret Williams: Australia on the Popular Stage, Oxford University Press, 1983