Repairing the Disjointed Narrative of Ballarat's Theatre Royal




goldfields history, theatre history, theatre royal ballarat, lost buildings

How to Cite

Brackley du Bois, A. (2017). Repairing the Disjointed Narrative of Ballarat’s Theatre Royal. M/C Journal, 20(5).
Vol. 20 No. 5 (2017): history
Published 2017-10-13


Ballarat’s Theatre Royal was the first permanent theatre built in inland Australia. Upon opening in 1858, it was acclaimed as having “the handsomest theatrical exterior in the colony” (Star“Editorial” 7 Dec. 1889) and later acknowledged as “the grandest playhouse in all Australia” (Spielvogel, Papers Vol. 1 160). Born of Gold Rush optimism, the Royal was loved by many, yet the over-arching story of its ill-fated existence has failed to surface, in any coherent fashion, in official history. This article takes some first steps toward retrieving lost knowledge from fragmented archival records, and piecing together the story of why this purpose-built theatre ceased operation within a twenty-year period. A short history of the venue will be provided, to develop context. It will be argued that while a combination of factors, most of which were symptomatic of unfortunate timing, destroyed the longevity of the Royal, the principal problem was one of stigmatisation. This was an era in which the societal pressure to visibly conform to conservative values was intense and competition in the pursuit of profits was fierce.

The cultural silence that befell the story of the Royal, after its demise, is explicable in relation to history being written by the victors and a loss of spokespeople since that time. As theatre arts historiographer McConachie (131) highlights, “Theatres, like places for worship and spectator sports, hold memories of the past in addition to providing a practical and cognitive framework for performance events in the present.” When that place, “a bounded area denoted by human agency and memory” (131), is lost in time, so too may be the socio-cultural lessons from the period, if not actively recalled and reconsidered. The purpose of this article is to present the beginning of an investigation into the disjointed narrative of Ballarat’s Theatre Royal. Its ultimate failure demonstrates how dominant community based entertainment became in Ballarat from the 1860s onwards, effectively crushing prospects for mid-range professional theatre. There is value in considering the evolution of the theatre’s lifespan and its possible legacy effects. The connection between historical consciousness and the performing arts culture of by-gone days offers potential to reveal specks of cross-relevance for regional Australian theatrical offerings today.

In the Beginning

The proliferation of entertainment venues in Ballarat East during the 1850s was a consequence of the initial discovery of surface alluvial gold and the ongoing success of deep-lead mining activities in the immediate area. This attracted extraordinary numbers of people from all over the world who hoped to strike it rich. Given the tough nature of life on the early gold diggings, most disposable income was spent on evening entertainment. As a result, numerous venues sprang into operation to cater for demand. All were either canvas tents or makeshift wooden structures: vibrant in socio-cultural activity, however humble the presentation values. It is widely agreed (Withers, Bate and Brereton) that noteworthy improvements occurred from 1856 onwards in the artistry of the performers, audience tastes, the quality of theatrical structures and living standards in general. Residents began to make their exit from flood and fire prone Ballarat East, moving to Ballarat West. The Royal was the first substantial entertainment venture to be established in this new, affluent, government surveyed township area. Although the initial idea was to draw in some of the patronage which had flourished in Ballarat East, Brereton (14) believed “There can be no doubt that it was [primarily] intended to attract those with good taste and culture”. This article will contend that how society defined ‘good taste’ turned out to be problematic for the Royal.

The tumultuous mid-1850s have attracted extensive academic and popular attention, primarily because they were colourful and politically significant times. The period thereafter has attracted little scholarly interest, unless tied to the history of surviving organisations. Four significant structures designed to incorporate theatrical entertainment were erected and opened in Ballarat from 1858 onwards: The Royal was swiftly followed by the Mechanics Institute 1859, Alfred Hall 1867 and Academy of Music 1874-75. As philosopher Albert Borgmann (41) highlighted, the erection of “magnificent settings in which the public could gather and enjoy itself” was the dominant urban aspiration for cultural consumption in the nineteenth century.  

Men of influence in Victorian cities believed strongly in progress and grand investments as a conscious demonstration of power, combined with Puritan vales, teetotalism and aggressive self-assertiveness (Briggs 287-88). At the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone for the Royal on 20 January 1858, eminent tragedian, Gustavos Brooke, announced “… may there be raised a superstructure perfect in all its parts, and honourable to the builder.” He proclaimed the memorial bottle to be “a lasting memento of the greatness of Ballarat in erecting such a theatre” and philosophised that “the stage not only refines the manners, but it is the best teacher of morals, for it is the truest and most intelligible picture of life. It stamps the image of virtue on the mind …” (Star“Laying” 21 Jan. 1858). These initial aspirations seem somewhat ambitious when viewed with the benefit of hindsight. 

Ballarat’s Theatre Royal opened in December 1858, ironically with Jerrold’s comedy ‘Time Works Wonders’. The large auditorium holding around 1500 people “was crowded to overflowing and was considered altogether brilliant in its newness and beauty” by all in attendance (Star“Local and General” 30 Dec. 1858). Generous descriptions abound of how splendid it was, in architectural terms, but also in relation to scenery, decorations and all appointments. Underneath the theatre were two shops, four bars, elegant dining rooms, a kitchen and 24 bedrooms. A large saloon was planned to be attached soon-after. The overall cost of the build was estimated at a substantial 10,000 pounds.

The First Act: 1858-1864

In the early years, the Royal was deemed a success. The pleasure-seeking public of Ballarat came en masse and the glory days seemed like they might continue unabated.  By the early 1860s, Ballarat was known as a great theatrical centre for performing arts, its population was famous both nationally and internationally for an appreciation of good acting, and the Royal was considered the home of the best dramatic art in Ballarat (Withers 260). Like other theatres of the 1850s diggings, it had its own resident company of actors, musicians, scenic artists and backstage crew. Numerous acclaimed performers came to visit and these were prosperous and happy times for the Royal’s lively theatrical community. 

As early as 1859, however, there was evident rivalry between the Royal and the Mechanics Institute, as suggested on numerous occasions in the Ballarat Star. As a multi-purpose venue for education and the betterment of the working classes, the latter venue had the distinct advantage of holding the moral high ground. Over time this competition increased as audiences decreased. As people shifted to family-focussed entertainments, these absorbed their time and attention. The transformation of a transient population into a township of families ultimately suffocated prospects for professional entertainment in Ballarat. Consumer interest turned to the growth of strong amateur societies with the establishment of the Welsh Eisteddfod 1863; Harmonic Society 1864; Bell Ringers’ Club 1866 and Glee and Madrigal Union 1867 (Brereton 38). 

By 1863, the Royal was reported to have “scanty patronage” and Proprietor Symonds was in financial trouble (Star“News and Notes” 15 Sep. 1864). It was announced that the theatre would open for the last time on Saturday, 29 October 1864 (Australasian). On that same date, the Royal was purchased by Rowlands & Lewis, the cordial makers. They promptly on-sold it to the Ballarat Temperance League, who soon discovered that there was a contract in place with Bouchier, the previous owner, who still held the hotel next door, stating that “all proprietors … were bound to keep it open as a theatre” (Withers 260-61). Having invested immense energy into the quest to purchase it, the Temperance League backed out of the deal. Prominent Hotelier Walter Craig bought it for less than 3,000 pounds.  It is possible that this stymied effort to quell the distribution of liquor in the heart of the city evoked the ire of the Protestant community, who were on a dedicated mission “to attack widespread drunkenness, profligacy, licentiousness and agnosticism,” and forming an interdenominational Bible and Tract Society in 1866 (Bate 176). This caused a segment of the population to consider the Royal a ‘lost cause’ and steer clear of it, advising ‘respectable’ families to do the same, and so the stigma grew. Social solidarity of this type had significant impact in an era in which people openly demonstrated their morality by way of unified public actions.

The Second Act: 1865-1868

The Royal closed for renovations until May 1865. Of the various alterations made to the interior and its fittings, the most telling was the effort to separate the ladies from the ‘town women’, presumably to reassure ‘respectable’ female patrons. To this end, a ladies’ retiring room was added, in a position convenient to the dress circle. The architectural rejuvenation of the Royal was cited as an illustration of great progress in Sturt Street (Ballarat Star“News and Notes” 27 May 1865). Soon after, the Royal hosted the Italian Opera Company.

However, by 1866 there was speculation that the Royal may be converted into a dry goods store. References to what sort of impression the failing of theatre would convey to the “old folks at home” in relation to “progress in civilisation'' and "social habits" indicated the distress of loyal theatre-goers. Impassioned pleas were written to the press to help preserve the “Temple of Thespus” for the legitimate use for which it was intended (Ballarat Star, “Messenger” and “Letters to the Editor” 30 Aug. 1866). 

By late 1867, a third venue materialised. The Alfred Hall was built for the reception of Ballarat’s first Royal visitor, the Duke of Edinburgh. On the night prior to the grand day at the Alfred, following a private dinner at Craig’s Hotel, Prince Alfred was led by an escorted torchlight procession to a gala performance at Craig’s very own Theatre Royal. The Prince’s arrival caused a sensation that completely disrupted the show (Spielvogel, Papers Vol. 1 165). While visiting Ballarat, the Prince laid the stone for the new Temperance Hall (Bate 159). This would not have been required had the League secured the Royal for their use three years earlier.

Thereafter, the Royal was unable to reach the heights of what Brereton (15) calls the “Golden Age of Ballarat Theatre” from 1855 to 1865. Notably, the Mechanics Institute also experienced financial constraints during the 1860s and these challenges were magnified during the 1870s (Hazelwood 89). The late sixties saw the Royal reduced to the ‘ordinary’ in terms of the calibre of productions (Brereton 15). Having done his best to improve the physical attributes and prestige of the venue, Craig may have realised he was up against a growing stigma and considerable competition. He sold the Royal to R.S. Mitchell for 5,500 pounds in 1868.

Another New Owner: 1869-1873

For the Saturday performance of Richard III in 1869, under the new Proprietor, it was reported that “From pit to gallery every seat was full” and for many it was standing room only (Ballarat StarTheatre Royal” 1 Feb. 1869). Later that year, Othello attracted people with “a critical appreciation of histrionic matters” (Ballarat Star“News and Notes” 19 July 1869). The situation appeared briefly promising. Unfortunately, larger economic factors were soon at play. During 1869, Ballarat went ‘mad’ with mine share gambling. In 1870 the economic bubble burst, and hundreds of people in Ballarat were financially ruined. Over the next ten years the population fell from 60,000 to less than 40,000 (Spielvogel, Papers Vol. 3 39). The last surviving theatre in Ballarat East, the much-loved Charles Napier, put on its final show in September 1869 (Brereton 15). By 1870 the Royal was referred to as a “second-class theatre” and was said to be such bad repute that “it would be most difficult to draw respectable classes” (Ballarat Star“News and Notes” 17 Jan. 1870). It seems the remaining theatre patrons from the East swung over to support the Royal, which wasn’t necessarily in the best interests of its reputation. During this same period, family-oriented crowds of “the pleasure-seeking public of Ballarat” were attending events at the newly fashionable Alfred Hall (Ballarat Courier“Theatre Royal” June 1870). 

There were occasional high points still to come for the Royal. In 1872, opera drew a crowded house “even to the last night of the season” which according to the press, “gave proof, if proof were wanting, that the people of Ballarat not only appreciate, but are willing to patronise to the full any high-class entertainment” (Ballarat Courier“Theatre Royal” 26 Aug. 1872). The difficulty, however, lay in the deterioration of the Royal’s reputation. It had developed negative connotations among local temperance and morality movements, along with their extensive family, friendship and business networks. Regarding collective consumption, sociologist John Urry wrote “for those engaged in the collective tourist gaze … congregation is paramount” (140). Applying this socio-cultural principle to the behaviour of Victorian theatre-going audiences of the 1870s, it was compelling for audiences to move with the masses and support popular events at the fresh Alfred Hall rather than the fading Royal. Large crowds jostling for elbow room was perceived as the hallmark of a successful event back then, as is most often the case now.

The Third Act: 1874-1878

An additional complication faced by the Royal was the long-term effect of the application of straw across the ceiling. Acoustics were initially poor, and straw was intended to rectify the problem. This caused the venue to develop a reputation for being stuffy and led to the further indignity of the Royal suffering an infestation of fleas (Jenkins 22); a misfortune which caused some to label it “The Royal Bug House” (Reid 117). Considering how much food was thrown at the stage in this era, it is not surprising that rotten debris attracted insects.  

In 1873, the Royal closed for another round of renovations. The interior was redesigned, and the front demolished and rebuilt. This was primarily to create retail store frontage to supplement income (Reid 117). It was reported that the best theatrical frontage in Australasia was lost, and in its place was “a modestly handsome elevationfor which all play-goers of Ballarat should be thankful, as the miracle required of the rebuild was that of “exorcising the foul smells from the old theatre and making it bright and pretty and sweet” (Ballarat Star, “News and Notes” 26 Jan. 1874). The effort at rejuvenation seemed effective for a period. A “large and respectable audience” turned out to see the Fakir of Oolu, master of the weird, mystical, and strange. The magician’s show “was received with cheers from all parts of the house, and is certainly a very attractive novelty” (Ballarat Courier, “Theatre Royal” 29 Mar. 1875). That same day, the Combination Star Company gave a concert at the Mechanics Institute. Indicating the competitive tussle, the press stated: “The attendance, however, doubtless owing to attractions elsewhere, was only moderately large” (Courier“Concert at the Mechanics’” 29 Mar. 1875). In the early 1870s, there had been calls from sectors of society for a new venue to be built in Ballarat, consistent with its status. The developer and proprietor, Sir William Clarke, intended to offer a “higher class” of entertainment for up to 1700 people, superior to the “broad farces” at the Royal (Freund n.p.) In 1875, the Academy of Music opened, at a cost of twelve thousand pounds, just one block away from the Royal.

As the decade of decreasing population wore on, it is intriguing to consider an unprecedented “riotous” incident in 1877. Levity's Original Royal Marionettes opened at the Royal with ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to calamitous response. The Company Managers, Wittington & Lovell made clear that the performance had scarcely commenced when the “storm” arose and they believed “the assault to be premeditated” (Wittington and Lovell in Argus“The Riot” 6 Apr. 1877). Paid thuggery, with the intent of spooking regular patrons, was the implication. They pointed out that “It is evident that the ringleaders of the riot came into the theatre ready armed with every variety of missiles calculated to get a good hit at the figures and scenery, and thereby create a disturbance.” The mob assaulted the stage with “head-breaking” lemonade bottles, causing costly damage, then chased the frightened puppeteers down Sturt Street (Mount Alexander Mail“Items of News” 4 Apr. 1877). The following night’s performance, by contrast, was perfectly calm (Ballarat Star“News and Notes” 7 Apr. 1877). Just three months later, Webb’s Royal Marionette pantomimes appeared at the Mechanics’ Institute. The press wrote “this is not to be confounded, with the exhibition which created something like a riot at the Theatre Royal last Easter” (Ballarat Star“News and Notes” 5 July 1877).

The final performance at the Royal was the American Rockerfellers’ Minstrel Company. The last newspaper references to the Royal were placed in the context of other “treats in store” at The Academy of Music, and forthcoming offerings at the Mechanics Institute (Star“Advertising” 3 July 1878). The Royal had experienced three re-openings and a series of short-term managements, often ending in loss or even bankruptcy. When it wound up, investors were left to cover the losses, while the owner was forced to find more profitable uses for the building (Freund n.p.). At face value, it seemed that four performing arts venues was one too many for Ballarat audiences to support. By August 1878 the Royal’s two shop fronts were up for lease. Thereafter, the building was given over entirely to retail drapery sales (Withers 260). 


The Royal was erected, at enormous expense, in a moment of unbridled optimism, after several popular theatres in Ballarat East had burned to the ground. Ultimately the timing for such a lavish investment was poor. It suffered an inflexible old-fashioned structure, high overheads, ongoing staffing costs, changing demographics, economic crisis, increased competition, decreased population, the growth of local community-based theatre, temperance agitation and the impact of negative rumour and hear-say.

The struggles endured by the various owners and managers of, and investors in, the Royal reflected broader changes within the larger community. The tension between the fixed nature of the place and the fluid needs of the public was problematic. Shifting demographics meant the Royal was negatively affected by conservative values, altered tastes and competing entertainment options. Built in the 1850s, it was sound, but structurally rigid, dated and polluted with the bacterial irritations of the times. “Resident professional companies could not compete with those touring from Melbourne” by whom it was considered “… hard to use and did not satisfy the needs of touring companies who required facilities equivalent to those in the metropolitan theatres” (Freund n.p.). 

Meanwhile, the prevalence of fund-raising concerts, created by charitable groups and member based community organisations, detracted from people’s interest in supporting professional performances. After-all, amateur concerts enabled families to “embrace the values of British middle class morality” (Doggett 295) at a safe distance from grog shops and saloons. Children aged 5-14 constituted only ten percent of the Ballarat population in 1857, but by 1871 settler families had created a population in which school aged children comprised twenty-five of the whole (Bate 146). This had significant ramifications for the type of theatrical entertainments required. By the late sixties, as many as 2000 children would perform at a time, and therefore entrance fees were able to be kept at affordable levels for extended family members.  Just one year after the demise of the Royal, a new secular improvement society became active, holding amateur events and expanding over time to become what we now know as the Royal South Street Society. This showed that the appetite for home-grown entertainment was indeed sizeable. It was a function that the Royal was unable to service, despite several ardent attempts. 


The greatest misfortune of the Royal was that it became stigmatised, from the mid 1860s onwards. In an era when people were either attempting to be pure of manners or were considered socially undesirable, it was hard for a cultural venue to survive which occupied the commercial middle ground, as the Royal did. It is also conceivable that the Royal was ‘framed’, by one or two of its competitor venues, or their allies, just one year before its closure. The Theatre Royal’s negative stigma as a venue for rough and intemperate human remnants of early Ballarat East had proven insurmountable. 

The Royal’s awkward position between high-class entrepreneurial culture and wholesome family-based community values, both of which were considered tasteful, left it out-of-step with the times and vulnerable to the judgement of those with either vested interests or social commitments elsewhere. This had long-term resonance for the subsequent development of entertainment options within Ballarat, placing the pendulum of favour either on elite theatre or accessible community based entertainments. The cultural middle-ground was sparse. The eventual loss of the building, the physical place of so much dramatic energy and emotion, as fondly recalled by Withers (260), inevitably contributed to the Royal fading from intergenerational memory. The telling of the ‘real story’ behind the rise and fall of the Ballarat Theatre Royal requires further exploration. If contemporary cultural industries are genuinely concerned “with the re-presentation of the supposed history and culture of a place”, as Urry believed (154), then untold stories such as that of Ballarat’s Theatre Royal require scholarly attention. This article represents the first attempt to examine its troubled history in a holistic fashion and locate it within a context ripe for cultural analysis.


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Author Biography

Ailsa Brackley du Bois, Deakin University Australia

Ailsa Brackley du Bois is undertaking interdisciplinary PhD studies with Deakin University's School of Communications and Creative Arts. Her thesis is titled ‘Stardust on the Goldfields: Theatrical Entertainment, Popular Culture and Public Place in Victoria 1851-1911’. Ailsa receives the support of an 'Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship'. Her research interests include historiography of theatrical entertainment 1851-1911; cultural heritage and political sociology of the Victorian Goldfields; adaptive reuse of heritage buildings and streetscapes; the reinvention of cityscapes; and narrative non-fiction.