Bert Bailey 1868-1953

Bert Bailey

Bert Bailey

Albert Edward Bailey was originally a New Zealander, a farmer’s son born in Auckland on 11 June 1868.

n 1910 the producers claimed that The Squatter’s Daughter ‘had made more money than any other Australian play ever produced, realising £70,000 in three years, and witnessed by over 1,500,000 residents of Australia and New Zealand.

‘Life is a melodrama’

For several generations of Australians, including author and playwright Hal Porter, Bert Bailey was Dad, the archetypal strong willed bush battler of Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection stories on stage and screen. Porter, however, was not Bailey’s greatest fan: ‘One can admire him for providing the world of entertainment with the first group of characters presumably to illustrate essential Australianism, or vilify him for setting up a collection of crudely carved folk-idols with a sinister command of the techniques of mass-hypnosis which make the sentimental and the false appear in the satisfying and self-flattering colours of the normal and true.’

Paradoxically, however, Albert Edward Bailey was originally a New Zealander, a farmer’s son born in Auckland on 11 June 1868. By 1871 he was living with his mother in Sydney, where he attended Cleveland Street Public School. He started his working life as a telegram boy, served as a floor manager at the Crystal Palace Skating Rink and eventually faced the footlights as a ‘descriptive vocalist’ at the Canterbury Music Hall in George Street.

1n 1889 Bailey found work as a comedian with Edmund Duggan’s touring company, which brought melodrama, pantomime and even light opera to far flung communities in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, venturing as far north as the Gulf of Carpentaria. Bailey and Duggan went on to make similar sorties with companies run by Irve Hyman and the indomitable Kate Howarde, who toured for years with a much-loved bucolic entertainment called Possum Paddock. It was a superb apprenticeship in popular theatre, at the same time providing a treasure house of characters and incidents.

In 1900 Bailey and Duggan ‘came to town’, joining the company of city-based producer William Anderson, who was Duggan’s brother-in-law. Two years later Bailey married Ivy Gorrick, one of Anderson’s actresses. Bert and Ivy acquired a property at Lake Macquarie and built Kendall Grange, an 18-room mansion. Bailey kept a cruiser and a speedboat on the lagoon. When Ivy died in 1932 he sold the property to the Little Company of Mary (now known as the Blue Nuns), who used it as an adjunct to their nearby hospital. In 1947 the property passed to the Brothers of St John of God who used it as a special school. It has since been subdivided for residential use.

Anderson’s audiences responded enthusiastically to Australian plays, so he was quick to accept The Squatter’s Daughter; or, The Land of the Wattle, a bushranging melodrama that Bailey and Edmund Duggan wrote under the combined pseudonym ‘Albert Edmunds’. Bailey directed and played Archie McPherson, a comic ‘new chum’ from Scotland; Duggan played the daring bushranger, Ben Hall, while his wife, Eugenie, was the spirited heroine, Violet Enderby. The Squatter’s Daughter was the ultimate in what was known as ‘bush realism’ – the curtain rose as a flock of sheep ‘entered, left’, accompanied by barking dogs. There were laughing kookaburras, real bush foliage, whip crackers and wood choppers, a shearing contest, a fight between a man and a kangaroo, and a waterfall dumping 500 gallons per minute into ‘a lake of real water’. This ‘Romantic Australian Drama’ premiered at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne on 9 February 1907 and ran for an astonishing seven weeks. It did even better in Sydney and went on to become Australia’s most successful home-grown melodrama. In 1910 the producers claimed that The Squatter’s Daughter ‘had made more money than any other Australian play ever produced, realising £70,000 in three years, and witnessed by over 1,500,000 residents of Australia and New Zealand.’ When Anderson produced a film version, The Bulletin’s reviewer correctly predicted that it had ‘enough horse and girl in it to appeal to crowded houses six nights a week.’

Media Gallery

Photograph courtesy of National Library of Australia. an22985237

Biographical references

J. Beresford Fowler: The Green-Eyed Monster, Arthur H. Stockwell, 1968
Eric Irvin: Australian Melodrama, Hale and Iremonger, 1981
Eric Irvin: Dictionary of the Australian Theatre, 1788-1914, Hale and Iremonger, 1985
Helen Musa: ‘Bert Bailey’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Andrew Pike: ‘Bert Bailey’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 7, Melbourne University Press
Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper: Australian Film, 1900-1977, Oxford University Press, 1980
Hal Porter: Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, Rigby, 1965
Margaret Williams: Australia on the Popular Stage, 1829-1929, Oxford, 1983