Collection Spotlight: Theatre history at the PMI

Collection Spotlight: Theatre history at the PMI

By Riannon

theatre history

Theatre has been an important part of the Melbourne cultural landscape since its inception. Community theatres have become meeting places for artists and audiences to converge, study, challenge and share creativity and ideas and often experiment with the Avant Guard. Professional theatres have generally provided more ‘mainstream entertainment’ and an important part of the artistic economy and creative support structures for Melbourne. The first ‘official’ theatre in Melbourne was Queen’s on the west side of Queen Street between Bourke and Little Bourke Streets and opened in 1843. This was after much conjecture when the other ‘penal’ colonies had already began theatrical presentations. Queen’s was well built, but small, it’s packed house only earned 91 pounds/11/-. Royal, the Alexandra (in 1928 referred to as His Majesty’s and currently Her Majesty’s) was built in 1886.

Did you know that the PMI has the original Opening Souvenir of the Melbourne Comedy Theatre from 1928? A beautiful book with original ribbon intact detailing the opening night of “Australia’s Latest and Most Artistic Playhouse – The Comedy”. In fact, not just this building, but this historic site, holds much interest for theatre goers. The opening of The Comedy was a part of the longstanding plans of J.C. Williamson Ltd (The Firm) to provide “an intimate” theatre for Comedy. Prior to 1855 this was the site of the Hippodrome where “circuses and horse-and-tank drama’s flourished”. The stage was a solid dirt embankment and had a tank for “water sensations”. The stage had a roof, but the stalls and pit “were open to the skies” so when it rained and audience took shelter in the covered gallery the performers would shout out across to them. The Kelly Gang was played “and when in doubt as to his lines, Ned Kelly on his steed would fire a few rounds of revolver shots and yell, “To the bush, boys, to the bush!” and gallop off. Nobody seemed to mind.”

George Coppin and his wife often starred in the earlier mentioned Queen’s and are integral to the history at the site of the Comedy Theatre. Coppin built 6 theatres in Australia. He make his fortune in 2 years when he took a weatherboard theatre in Geelong with a capacity of 500 and extended to catch all the passing gold diggers from Ballarat flocking through Geelong and to Melbourne. At 35 he returned to England. He knew how difficult it would be to get a theatre in Melbourne, so had an iron theatre constructed and prepared into sections in England. Coppin brought this portable theatre to Melbourne and had it erected on the corner of Lonsdale and Stephen (now Exhibition) streets. In 1855 The Olympic, 88ft. by 40ft, fondly known as The Iron Pot, was opened by George Coppin who “has it on record that he saw diggers in the ‘roaring days’ wrap nuggets of gold in banknotes and throw them onstage. ”

Jump through the years of vaudeville and travelling tents and we land in the 1960’s where I’m going to highlight some amazing resources from our collection that celebrate one of our most integral and persistent theatres in Melbourne: La Mama.

From the earliest days, Lygon street had its fair share of artists, but in the late 1960’s the artists started to define Carlton. The establishment of La Mama theatre by Betty Burstall was the most significant factor in Carlton becoming, at this time, the home of alternative theatre in Australia. Bustall had just returned from New York where coffee houses put on theatrical performances that punters could watch for the price of a coffee. She wanted to create “cheap, accessible theatre that was immediate, exciting and challenging” reflecting Australian voices and experiences.  She thought Carlton, with its flair and nearby students, was the place to try.

Behind the Del Monaco tailor shop on the corner of Lygon and Drummond Streets there was a small, two storey building that had been around since 1883. It had been used as a printers’ workshop, a boot and shoe factory, an electrical engineering workshop and a silk underwear factory.  Burstall opened La Mama as a coffee house staging poetry and play readings with the first play staged being Jack Hibberd’s Three Old Friends. La Mama continues to thrive under the direction of Liz Jones, despite the building being reduced by flames last year, with patrons and government funding pledged to a rebuild; it is acknowledged as one of the most important small theatres in Australia. “La Mama is virtually unique in Australia as a place that nurtures new theatrical talent at a grassroots level and it continues to provide a vital stepping stone for emerging artists…to get a first show.” With a second theatre, The Carlton Courthouse Theatre in Drummond Street, La Mama’s influence continues. La Mama spawned many offshoots and breakaway groups, two of the most well known being the Australian Performing Group operating out of the Pram Factory in Drummond Street and the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-Operative based in the Holdsworth Building. Our very own Judith Buckrich created two shows at La Mama in the 1980s, Uncultured Pearls and Reflections in Water and Glass and it seems that the building and the ethos of the place have remained much the same since I also worked there too in 2014 with A Pocketful of Joy (except that the  family of stray cats who used to live at the top of the La Mama stairs had moved out).

Whether it be stray cats that frequent stairs, Gold Prospectors throwing nuggets onto the stage or the actual pistols and water tanks of the Hippodrome; one can never say that the stories held in the PMI’s collection are not also performative or theatrical. Perhaps this will spark your interest to investigate and enjoy the theatrical and performative corners of our collection which house many interesting Australian Drama, Theatre and performance resources.

Used in this article:

La Mama / Adam Cass and the La Mama community.

Lygon Street : stories and recipes from Melbourne’s melting pot / Michael Harden.

Comedy Theatre: opening souvenir Saturday April 28th, 1928 / compiled by Phil Finkelstein

Theatre buildings in Australia to 1905: from the time of the first settlement to arrival of cinema : volume 1: text and illustrations / Ross Thorne.

Curtain call / as told by Nancye Bridges to Frank Crook.


Just some of the many resources that might interest you:

The dictionary of performing arts in Australia. Vol. 1, Theatre, film, radio, television / Ann Atkinson, Linsay Knight and Margaret McPhee.

La Mama, the story of a theatre / Liz Jones with Betty Burstall and Helen Garner.

The Pram Factory : the Australian Performing Group recollected / Tim Robertson.

Community theatre in Australia / edited by Richard Fotheringham.

Summer of the seventeenth doll / Ray Lawler.

The Drover’s Wife / Leah Purcell

Minefields and Miniskirts: Australian women and the Vietnam War / Siobhan McHugh

Theatre Heritage Australia: Onstage 2009-2012

CATHS’s databases are available on our public computers for members to search and they work out of the building and are always up for a chat. The Cinema and Theatre Historical Society are a wealth of knowledge to tap into.

Collection Spotlight: Ephemera

Collection Spotlight: Ephemera


The PMI ephemera collection began its life as a vertical file collection (we’re in fact still in the process of changing the name on the Library Management System). A vertical file is clippings of articles (mainly from newspapers) and the PMI’s is about Victoria and especially towns in Victoria. Over the years it has also accumulated brochures and other programs and pamphlets. Then in 2017 the decision was reached to transition it away from a newspaper clipping focus to a pure ephemera collection. This has resulted in an immensely varied collection of everything from programs, to brochures, to maps, to cookbooks. It also makes any travel PMI staff do interesting, because we collect all the surrounding ephemera. It is not unusual for us to walk out of a tourist information centre with half the contents (you can see an example below), or have people photocopying information that you aren’t allowed to take with you.


We have also been actively seeking ephemera, we’ve been writing to councils and historical societies to have them send us their brochures. It is both an organised and serendipitous collection. All new material is sorted into folders for indexing. It is currently indexed by Sonya, one of our dedicated volunteers. All material in the ephemera collection is key word searchable on the PMI catalogue.

The material is called ephemera because it is ephemeral- that is lasting for a short time- and this is what makes it invaluable. It is often the sort of information that doesn’t make it into history books, it can be very local and small scale. Additionally, it is also fascinating social history, especially with some of the more social items such as little cookbooks, household guides and theatre programs. The advertising, clothing and what is considered important can give an unexpected insight into an era or a place.

The ephemera collection contains nearly 11 000 individual items covering over 1000 places and subjects. You can find folders for Victorian towns and suburbs from Abbotsford to Zumsteins and a wide range of subjects from Alcohol to Writers. While there are many old brochures and pamphlets etc in the ephemera collection, the modern material will become increasingly valuable and useful over time as it isn’t preserved anywhere else and becomes unique. Even though the modern material may not seem remarkable, the ephemera collection brings together a geographically disparate collection that isn’t accessible anywhere else.

Ephemera resources make a fascinating adjunct to all research. You can see some examples at the start of this post and you can explore the indexed material using or delve into an area or subject you might be interested in by searching the subject with the words vertical file.

There are all sorts of gems in the ephemera collection, just waiting to be discovered.

Collection Spotlight: Databases: The Police Gazettes

Collection Spotlight: Databases: The Police Gazettes

police gazette

This Collection Spotlight we thought we’d shine the light on our electronic resources. The PMI has a really strong collection of electronic resources, from books, to audio recordings, indexes, electoral roles, databases, periodicals, rate books, heritage studies and more. Today though we are going to focus on one of the databases: The Police Gazettes.

The Police Gazettes at the PMI runs from 1855 to 1930 and existed to provide information and instructions to members of the police force.

They can be extremely useful for almost all types of research and isn’t just a record of criminals. It records people who came into contact with the police in a wide variety of ways.

For example towards the end of last year we had a member who was trying to track down a great grandmother and we found the grandmother listed in the Police Gazettes. Now the grandmother wasn’t a criminal, but her husband had deserted her and run off to WA, so she was listed as his wife because as a deserter and the police were circulating a description of him to track him down.

Our Gazettes are electronic and can be key word searched. You can also access them through the library edition of Ancestry, though the PMI records are more complete.

The gazettes are a great, slightly left of field, way of thinking about research and they can also just be interesting. They are the small scale of history, not the grand scale – though some of the scandals that make their way into them can be quite grand. For the most part though, they depict normal people and the many ways (both good and bad they came into contact with the law).

They have some excellent descriptions of people too, they can be extremely evocative.

Private James Crane deserted from H.M Service in the 99th Regiment on the 28th of December 1854. He is described as 5 feet 9 inches high, sallow complexion, dark brown hair, grey eyes, native of Saint Paul’s, Dublin, a laborer, marked with letter D on left side, dressed in regimental clothing.

George Shelley charged with in 1874 with forging and uttering a cheque. He is described as English, 38 years of age, 5 feet 9 inches high, medium build, fresh complexion, brown hair, sandy beard, whiskers, and moustache turning grey, blue eyes, left eye slightly turned upwards, long face, large red nose, general appearance that of a drunkard, a joiner, and travelling painter; dressed in old dark coat, light tweed trousers, and old dirty-looking billycock hat.

Caroline Dark was charged on the 11th of January 1884 with disobeying a summons. She is described as a Victorian, prostitute, 5 feet 6 or 7 inches high, sallow complexion, dark hair, stout build, full face, dissipated look, fond of drink ; wore old dirty dark clothes, and black straw hat.

 Mary Kelly was charged on the 11th of July 1894 with stealing five pounds from the house of Nellie Dyer in 64 Napier St Fitzroy. She is described as Servant, about 23 or 24 years of age, 5 feet high, medium build, dark complexion and hair with fringe; wore a black dress body trimmed with braid, brown felt hat trimmed with brown velvet and a wing, and a black veil.

On the 13th of February 1904 pattern-maker Edward Robinson was asulted and robbed by three Men in Princess St Port Melbourne. He described them as let. 28 years of age, 5 feet 8 inches high, red hair, red moustache, slight build ; wore dark grey paget suit and black alpine hat. 2nd. 19 to 21 years of age, 5 feet 6 or 7 inches high, slight build, slight stoop, long pale face , clean shaved ; wore dirty clothes, dark alpine bat. 3rd. 20 to 21 years of age, 5 feet 7 inches high, a light build, moss-coloured hair, no hair on face : wore darkish clothes.

In 1914 Jane Juckett was being enquired for by her mother. She was described as 18 years of age, 5 feet 4 inches high, stout nuggety build, florid complexion, full face, dark-auburn hair, one tooth missing, from front upper set; wore a dark three-quarter costume, black hat, and black shoes.

In 1924 Georgina Hyem, milliner, reported a brown leather bag containing money and private papers stolen from her shop. The two thieves are described as lst. About 5 ft. 10 in.; dressed in a dark velvet dress, short fur coat, black suede shoes and black hat with a peak on each side. 2nd. About 5 ft. 7 in.; dressed in a dark one-piece dress, black shoes, and black hat with sprays at the rear.

So, as you can see they really bring the people to life. This is of course only a small sample of what can be found in the gazettes. They’re another PMI resource that you can explore next time you are in the library.

Collection Spotlight: Local Histories: Walls of Wire: Tatura, Rushworth, Murchison

Collection Spotlight: Local Histories: Walls of Wire: Tatura, Rushworth, Murchison

walls of wire

As part of a new initiative to more closely highlight the incredibly diverse collection the PMI holds, we are going to be discussing an area of the collection and an individual collection item within that area each month.

This month we are looking at local histories, the core of the PMI collection. We have information on pretty much every town in Victoria, as well as a lot more specific material on institutions within towns.

We are focusing on the material about the town of Tatura (we have 21 books on Tatura and its environs) and specifically the book Walls of Wire: Tatura, Rushworth, Murchison. The PMI collects Victorian History (and a selection of Australian History with Victorian content) and this book is an excellent example of the many items that feature in the PMI’s collection, highlighting the memories and experiences of people in even the smallest towns in Victoria.

Walls of Wire: Tatura, Rushworth, Murchison “is a social history of the humane Internment and Prisoner of War camps set up during WW2, (among others throughout Australia) at Tatura, Rushworth and Murchison in Central Victoria, Australia, under Army Southern Command, to accommodate both local and overseas internees and Prisoners of War.

The group of Tatura camps was one of the largest internment establishments in Australia – classed as a “model,” holding approx. 12,000 – 13,000 people of multi-cultures, multi-nations, men, women and children from almost every country in the world.” (blurb)

It is a wonderful resource of maps, photographs and advertisements/ration cards from its era. This book provides context about the Dictators that triggered the establishment of many camps, how many people who, despite living in Australia for many years, were interned with the outbreak of WW2 and the stories of many other who came from all over the globe as refugees and migrants.

There are characters waiting to jump out of these photos and make their way into an historical novel! A group that particularly captures my imagination are the Templers, from the Temple Society of Australia, a German community of Christian values that had been settlers in Palestine for approx 80 years. When WW2 broke those who remained were interned and most of the community immigrated to Australia, having had their homes effectively taken away and Germany not in a state to support many more new citizens.

I can only imagine what other stories, family histories and characters are waiting to be found in these pages!

For example, did you know that:

“Some Templers were deported to Australia in 1941 and were interned in the camps at Rushworth until 1946, one year after the war ended. At this time, despite having been deported to Australia, acquired their 5 years residential qualifications and could become Australian citizens. 95% of them did so…Apparently none of the members have ever regretted coming to Australia. Temple Society headquarters are in Melbourne, and their elderly members are cared for in the Temple Aged Peoples Home, consisting of self-contained units, hostel and nursing home.” (pg 111)

“ Rev. Martin Winkler, Lutheran minister originating from Nuremburg, Germany, maintains that all escapes from the camps occurred because the young virile men missed women’s company, so sought it outside the wire. Rev. Winkler himself, an interned civilian, was granted permission to roam freely from camp to camp, carrying out his role as chaplain, performing religious duties, conducting mass, burial exercises when necessary. Martin Winkler met his wife a young Templer girl from Palestine when interned in Camp 3. They were married in the camp.” (pg 110)

This brief precis only touches the edges of the many stories found in the internment camps and the history of Tatura. To find out more you’ll just have to borrow the book…


Collection Spotlight: Periodicals: The Spirit of Progress

Collection Spotlight: Periodicals: The Spirit of Progress


spirit of progress photo


As part of a new initiative to more closely highlight the incredibly diverse collection the PMI holds, we are going to be discussing an individual collection item each month.

We are kicking off with the always very visually appealing Art Deco and Modernism Society journal Spirit of Progress. It’s an excellent example of the many national periodicals which feature in the PMI’s collection.

The journal covers all things relating to Art Deco and Modernism: updates on planning for Art Deco and Modernist buildings all around Australia, the history of said buildings, the Art Deco and Modernism movements more generally and much more. It is truly amazing the immense influence that the movement had.

It can also show you exactly what Art Deco and Modernism is and what falls under its umbrella. You might be very surprised to discover how much Art Deco and Modernism surrounds you in your city or town.

Spirit of Progress is a must for anyone interested in design, art or architecture. It can also be useful for other less immediately related areas of research. For example, you might want to add accurate historical colour to your historical fiction or discover the history behind a building your ancestors might have lived in.

As well as being informative, Spirit of Progress is always lovely to look at and really interesting.

For example, did you know that:

In 1934 there was a dance held at the Palais de Dance (on the site of what is now the Palais Theatre) to celebrate the end of the Centenary Air Race from London to Melbourne. The dance hall was decorated as an airport with hangars, a revolving aeroplane suspended from the ceiling and searchlights lighting model aeroplanes.

In the 1920s it wasn’t the ‘done thing’ to have too much of your dress shirt exposed under a suit, so three-piece suits with a jacket, trousers and waistcoat were a must. Trousers were held up with a belt or suspenders and were high waisted and short – often exposing a man’s socks.

Bricks, in a variety of patterns and colours, are a feature of a number of Art Deco designs and can be seen across Melbourne. This was helped by the brick yards in South Yarra and Richmond, and later Hawthorn and Camberwell, making use of Melbourne’s extensive clay pits. The most common brick in Australia was the ‘ordinary red’ and came in a variety of colours such as sun-dried and unburned.

The Wesley College Chapel on Punt Road was opened on the 3rd of March 1936 and designed by Harry Norris, who also designed the Nicholas Building in Swanston Street. The money for the chapel was given to the school by the Nicholas family who built their fortune by producing Aspro, which was a version of Aspirin they developed after the German made Aspirin was banned in Australia during WWI.

Spirit of Progress only represents a fraction of our journal collection and a fraction of the works that we hold on art, design and architecture. So, come into the library and explore, you’re sure to find something fascinating.

You can find all of Spirit of Progress from 2000 to the present in the library and indexed on our catalogue.