George Coppin 1819-1906
In 1862 he built the Haymarket Theatre in Bourke Street.
After a year-long series of farewell performances, Coppin retired from the stage, but the bank crashes of the 1890s forced him to return to the theatre.
George Coppin died in Melbourne on 14 March 1906. He had built six theatres, brought some great theatrical talent to this country, and effectively introduced the star system here
In 1862 he built the Haymarket Theatre in Bourke Street. There he presented the American actor Joseph Jefferson, world famous for his perennial appearances in Rip Van Winkle. In 1863 he brought the aforementioned English actors Charles and Ellen Kean to Australia. He rebuilt the Theatre Royal after the fire of 1872 and brought J.C. Williamson and Maggie Moore from the United States to open it – a visit that eventually resulted in Williamson assuming a commanding position in Australian theatre.
After a year-long series of farewell performances, Coppin retired from the stage, but the bank crashes of the 1890s forced him to return to the theatre. He recouped his losses with the production of elaborate, long-running pantomimes in association with Bland Holt. One of his daughters, Lucy, became Bland Holt’s secretary.
George Coppin died in Melbourne on 14 March 1906. He had built six theatres, brought some great theatrical talent to this country, and effectively introduced the star system here. His papers are preserved in the State Library of Victoria.
Coppin was an astute, ruthless and imaginative entrepreneur, whose interests range far beyond the footlights. He had interests in mining and racing; he was the first to import ice, live turtles and deer for venison; he also imported English thrushes, white goldfish, white swans, and camels, some of which found their way into the Bourke and Wills expedition. And he was involved in the introduction of the cable car system in Melbourne; opened the first roller skating rink in Australia; organised the first balloon ascent; developed the Mornington Peninsula resort of Sorrento and a tramway to service it; and his copyright agency controlled the performing rights to thousands of plays.
His less than scrupulous business practices were, to some extent, balanced by his frequently innovative philanthropy. He pushed for a post office savings bank, helped found the Victorian Humane Society and the St John Ambulance in Melbourne, and founded free dispensaries in Richmond. He established Gordon House for homeless men. The Old Colonists’ and Old Actors’ Homes in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy still care for the elderly in a unique village setting. There is a portrait of him in the hall there, and a bust that proudly surveys the immaculately maintained gardens.
There’s a street named for him in Richmond, and a commemorative plaque in the foyer of the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne, which stands on the site where Coppin built his Olympic Theatre in 1855. At Sorrento, his grand house, The Anchorage, still sits atop the hill, while the Nepean Historical Society has its home in the Mechanics’ Institute whose erection Coppin sponsored in 1877. And in Adelaide, thanks to the efforts of a handful of passionate preservationists, Coppin’s Royal Victoria Theatre – or at least a significant part of it – is still standing in Gilles Arcade. It was proclaimed a heritage site in 1984 and is again used as a performance venue.
And in 1990 Coppin again strode the stage. At the Carlton Courthouse Theatre in Melbourne he was portrayed by actor Gary Files in Occupation: Comedian, a play by Garrie Hutchinson with music by Joe Dolce. It was revived at the Old Colonists’ Homes in 1906, to mark the centenary of their benefactor’s death.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Watch this space
Alec Bagot: Coppin the Great – Father of the Australian Theatre, Melbourne University Press, 1995
J.D.M. Hardwick (ed.): Emigrant in Motley – The Journey of Charles and Ellen Kean, Rockliff, 1954
Helen Musa: ‘George Coppin’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia,Currency Press, 1995
Sally O’Neill: ‘George Coppin’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 3. Melbourne University Press
S. Janet South: George Selth Coppin – ‘Father of Sorrento’, Nepean Historical Society, 2004 (revised edition)