Several short articles have been published over the years, mainly based on two contemporary newspaper reports, discussing what has been called Brisbane’s first theatre or circus. In this post, I describe the interesting story of George and Amelia Croft, both before and after their early performances at Ipswich and South Brisbane.
The Croft family in Canada
John Croft served for 16 years in the British Army, including time in the 49th Foot Regiment. This unit was stationed in Canada from 1802 and John and his wife Celia arrived there sometime between 1805 and 1808 when their son George was born in Montreal.
In 1812, a war between the United Kingdom and the United States of America broke out that was to last for almost three years. The 49th was involved in a number of battles in the war and John almost certainly saw action.
Celia gave birth to three more children in Montreal between 1811 and 1814. Shortly after they returned to England.
George Croft’s early years
George was just 6 or 7 years old when the family returned home. In later years in Australia, he claimed to have performed on the tight rope at Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre.
Phillip Astley’s amphitheatre, built in 1773, is considered to be the first modern circus ring. It burnt down and was rebuilt several times and in George’s youth it had become a large structure known as Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre.
George certainly demonstrated skills in these performing arts in later years, so that his claims could very well be true. He is also described in Australian documents as a baker and pastrycook so that his early years were quite busy.
However they weren’t busy enough to keep George out of trouble. In 1825 at age 17, he was convicted of larceny and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment. He was onboard the “Midas” when it set sail from Plymouth in October, 1826 bound for Sydney. She was carrying 148 male convicts, soldiers and a few private passengers. George was the youngest prisoner on board, although boys as young as 13 were transported to Australia.
George serves out his time
After a journey of 122 days, the “Midas” landed in Sydney in early 1826. After arrival, George would have been assigned to work. Perhaps his trade skills as a baker were taken into account, or just as likely he was assigned to a labour gang working on government projects.
George just couldn’t keep out of trouble and he was convicted in December of the same year of aiding and abetting a robbery at Windsor, committed by one Thomas Kelly. He was promptly transferred to the prison Hulk “Phoenix” and sailed on the “Lucy Ann” to Moreton Bay a few months later to serve out a three year sentence.
The penal settlement at Moreton Bay was established in 1824 to house reoffending prisoners. At the time, it was under the command of Captain Patrick Logan who had a reputation for harsh discipline. Convicts worked long hours of hard labour with insufficient rations.
Logan was killed by Aborigines during George’s stay at Moreton Bay, but conditions remained tough with common floggings of up to 300 lashes at the triangles, for misdemeanors such as insubordination, inadequate effort at work and attempted escape.
George served his three years at Moreton Bay and returned to Sydney early in 1831. Despite his additional conviction, the 7 year sentence was not extended and George was granted his freedom in 1832.
Back on the stage
As the free European population of Sydney grew and convicts gained their freedom, the demand for entertainment increased. Performances were strictly controlled, with Government licences required that specified the type of entertainment, time period and location. In the 1830s, hotels began holding musical evenings. In 1833, Barnett Levley opened his 1,300 seat Theatre Royal, replacing an earlier arrangement in the saloon of his George Street Royal Hotel.
George Croft was the first circus style performer in the theatre and perhaps in Sydney, sharing the bill with dancers, singers and actors performing short plays.
A December 1833 newspaper report on a Thursday night performance at the Theatre Royal noted that the theatre was “full in every part to overflowing” and commented that “a clog hornpipe on the tight rope was danced by a Mr. Croft, and was certainly a clever performance, bringing down thunders of applause”.
Subsequent reports have him appearing with a pupil “Master Quinn” who later performed in his own right.
George in the meantime had day jobs working as a pastry cook. He picked up a week’s work at the Pulteney Hotel in October of 1836 for 15 shillings pay. He was given 10 shillings as an advance and promptly disappeared for the night. When he returned, preparations were underway for the dinner following Sydney’s annual hurdle race.
The Sydney Gazette reported that he strutted into the Kitchen, when he was asked by the Major Domo, what part of the play he was going to act, he replied with a most ineffable twist of the nose. ” I’m not going to cook for any sweeps, not I,” he then packed up his wardrobe, and made off. George was sentenced to one month’s labour under the Hired Servants Act.
The Theatre Royal closed in 1838, but Joseph Wyatt’s Royal Victoria Theatre opened a few months later. George though had other plans and in 1837 had obtained a licence to perform rope dancing, tumbling and horsemanship in country hotels.
During the 1840s, he was living in Goulburn working as a baker and where he also established a theatre of some sort. By this time he was a well known performer. He also made appearances in Sydney from time to time, with reports of performances at the Royal Victoria Theatre and at a Rushcutters Bay Hotel appearing in newspapers. Old habits however die hard, and George was back in jail in 1843 for stealing. George married Amelia Burke in Goulburn two years later.
Amelia Burke’s father William was born in Limerick, Ireland. As a servant soldier or officer’s batman, in the 87th Royal Irish Fusiliers Regiment of Foot, he was stationed in England, possibly at Forton Barracks in Hampshire. In 1817, he and an accomplice pleaded guilty to a charge of highway robbery at nearby Alverstoke, and was sentenced to death. However, he was transported to New South Wales with a 7 year sentence.
After gaining his certificate of freedom in 1825, William worked as an assistant to the Surveyor of Distilleries at a comfortable salary of £100 a year and later was the publican at the Spread Eagle Hotel.
Amelia’s mother was Bridget Thornton, an Irish woman who arrived in 1823 as a free passenger on a convict ship. Bridget and William married in 1826 and Amelia was born the year after.
The Crofts at Moreton Bay
The NSW Colonial Secretary records have a letter sent to the Police Magistrate at Moreton Bay confirming the authorisation of George Croft’s application of August 1846 to
“hold exhibitions consisting of tight and slack rope dancing, vaulting and horsemanship in certain buildings in towns of Ipswich and North Brisbane for the period of six calendar months”.
George and Amelia went first to Ipswich and in September he was in court there charged with assault and using threatening language against Constable Magrath. The case was dismissed and Magrath was soon after transferred to Brisbane. The Crofts were staying at the Golden Fleece Hotel and George was performing at ad hoc locations around Ipswich. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in January 1847 that a Mr. Croft gave exhibitions of “tight rope dancing and other feats of agility” on the evening of Boxing Day.
That the Crofts went first to Ipswich is strange, as the 1846 census gives the total European population of the town as only 103, with others living on nearby stations. However, the next mention of them appears in the diary of merchant Thomas Dowse. He made daily notes associated with his role as correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and for his articles published locally. On the 26th April 1847, he made the entry “tight rope dancing exhibition at South Brisbane”. Soon after an advertisement appeared in the Moreton Bay Courier, which at that time had only been in existence for 8 months.
George had constructed an amphitheatre and had assembled a small troupe comprising himself, and Messrs. Feathers and Benson who were to act as clowns and perform recitations. The choice of late April for the opening night was not accidental, as it was a few nights before a full moon. South Brisbane at that time was a very dark place to walk around at night, with only the lights of candles and lanterns in the few buildings that had been erected to supplement whatever moonlight there was.
The location of the amphitheatre
South Brisbane at the time was a very small community with a European population of just 346 recorded in the 1846 census, with another 483 living north of the river. There was a ferry service connecting the two settlements which had its landing place at the end of Russell Street.
Ten years later, a map by Surveyor Galloway shows that South Brisbane was still sparsely populated. The land rose back from the river and then dropped off around Merivale Street where there was a long water hole and swampy land. Croft would not have wanted his audience to walk far in the dark from the ferry, and needed sloping ground for an amphitheatre effect. It’s therefore likely that the location was near the corner of Russell and Grey Streets.
It’s also possible that the amphitheatre was located quite close to the river, as the the image below shows that at that time the land rose quite steeply from the bank, making the area very suitable for an amphitheatre.
The Brisbane amphitheatre performances
The opening night, Monday 27th. April 1847, was reviewed in the Moreton Bay Courier where it was reported that all the seats were filled and some 50 people were standing. The amphitheatre was “admirably lit up” and the audience, especially the children, enjoyed the performance. The reporter concluded by saying that “as long as Mr. Croft confines himself to harmless and legitimate fun, to the exclusion of scurrility and indecency, we have no doubt that he will be supported by the inhabitants.” What had he been up to over the previous 7 months in the Moreton region to warrant such a comment?
There were at least four performances with the last reported on the 29th of May, close to another full moon. This event was also reported in the Courier. Amelia Croft performed on the tight rope and “making due allowance for the timidity natural to a first performance, she acquitted herself tolerably”. The reporter however criticised Croft for the use of an “obscene song” in the performance, which was encored.
Could it be that he was catering to visiting seamen and squatters’ men in the audience? South Brisbane was the main location for the shipment of wool at that time and was considered far less refined than north of the river where the journalist would have lived. See my post The Early Days of South Brisbane for more on this. Very closeby at the corner of Grey and Russell Streets was a “barracks” for squatters and their men.
With a total European population of just over 800 in Brisbane and small numbers of visitors, it was inevitable that a circus type theatre with limited variety would soon run out of patrons.
Just a few weeks after the last reported performance, the advertisement below appeared in the Moreton Bay Courier. Andrew Graham was the licensee of the Harp of Erin Hotel in South Brisbane. It would seem that the Crofts were in financial difficulty. They stayed on at Moreton Bay for another year, probably paying off their debts.
There is one further interesting mention of George Croft in Brisbane. At 7.30am on the morning of the Sunday 26th. March 1848, the mutilated and severed parts of the body of Robert Cox were found on the river bank at Kangaroo Point. The murder became controversial 150 years later with the publication of the book “The Mayne Inheritance’ by Rosamond Siemon.
At the coroner’s inquest into the murder, George Croft was called as a witness, as he had called in to the “Bush Inn” at Kangaroo Point at around a quarter to 5, a few hours before the body was found, delivering ginger beer. There he had seen William Fyfe, who was later hung for the murder, but not Cox.
Back in NSW
George had returned to Sydney by early June where he appeared as a witness in the trial of Fyfe. Meanwhile, he and Amelia were planning a return to the stage of the Royal Theatre and coloured placards appeared around town featuring a “flighty engraving of a lady in blue muslin”.
A tongue in cheek report on the first performance ventured the opinion that
“the unexceptionable turn of Mrs. Croft’s ankle, and the Medicean contour of her calf, were displayed to the highest advantage, and were unquestionably the chief attraction of the evening.”
The reporter continued on to Simpson’s Hotel with the performers where an argument broke out over the fact that after two performances, they still had not been paid. After some animated discussion, Amelia Croft is reported to have exclaimed to the promoter of the show, probably reported in paraphrase, that
“if he did not soojee his cocoanut, or clap a stopper on his tater trap, she’d fix her digitals in his countenance in less than no time at all.”
The Crofts moved to Bathurst where George had a bakery. As well as a talented tightrope walker, George was also a good swimmer. In November of 1849, he was attempting to ford the swollen Macquarie River in his bread cart when his young assistant was swept away. After several dives under water, he located the boy and brought him to safety.
In 1851, alluvial gold was discovered at Major’s Creek near Braidwood. Gold miners and fossickers rushed from other diggings and before long, there were around 2,000 living in a shanty town. Anticipating a need for bread and circus, the Crofts travelled to Major’s Creek to give performances. Their second child Susan was born during their stay.
Between her pregnancies, Amelia continued to perform. In the mid 1850s the couple had joined Ashton’s circus that was touring New South Wales. By this time, George was in his mid 40s and in some performances, he was content to support Amelia in the role of clown. The couple were also performing comic dialogues.
Golding Ashton was born in Rochford, Essex, in 1820. In 1834 he was convicted of larceny. It must have been a minor theft as he was sentenced to just 14 days and a whipping. Two years later, however, he was sentenced to 14 years for another theft and transported to Van Diemen’s Land.
There, he developed exceptional equestrian skills, and began performing in around 1848. By 1850, he was running his own circus and soon after moved to New South Wales. He was known professionally as James Henry Ashton.
George was still working on new tricks. An advertisement for Ashton’s show at the 1854 Singleton Races announced that George would “throw a summersault through a fire balloon, 12 feet high, and waltz blindfold between nine eggs intersected, being the only person that had achieved this feat in the colony”.
From around this time, the Crofts fade from news reports. Amelia had 3 children at Mudgee and her 7th and last child was born at Orange in 1864. George was mentioned in the Police Gazette of that year after being arrested by the Bingera police for feloniously slaughtering a bullock.
George died at Dubbo in 1887 at almost 80 years of age. Amelia passed away at Goulburn two years later at age 61.
Just what induced the Crofts to travel to the tiny settlements of Ipswich and Brisbane in 1846 we’ll never know. George is remembered today by the naming of George Croft Lane near the probable position of their amphitheatre.
© P. Granville 2022