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George Selth Coppin (1819–1906)

George Coppin, Falk Studios, n.d.

George Coppin, Falk Studios, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, 49386560

It is with extreme regret that we announce the death of Mr. George Selth Coppin, who has been a leading figure in Victoria for the last 60 years as comedian, theatrical manager, politician, bank director and philanthropist. Mr. Coppin was born at Steyning in Sussex, in 1819. His father deserted the medical profession for the stage, and became a theatrical manager. The son, at an early age, showed a liking for theatrical work, and when quite a boy played in the orchestras in his father's theatres. At the age of 17 he started life on his own account, and after being employed as second violin in an orchestra he obtained an engagement as second low comedian in a provincial company, then performing at Richmond-on-the-Thames. He played at the Queen's Theatre, London, and afterwards went through the provinces, gaining considerable reputation as a comedian. He returned to London, and played for a season at the Strand, but, dissatisfied with the low rates of pay, left the stage and embarked on business pursuits.

At the age of 22 years he was managing a store in Glasgow, but left that to organise a company of bell-ringers. In 1843 he sailed for Sydney, and, obtaining an engagement as "star" comedian, accumulated a sum of money. With this capital he set up business as an hotelkeeper, and lost it all. He went to Tasmania, and assumed the management of a small theatre at Launceston. There, again, he was successful, and in 1845 he appeared in Melbourne with a strong company. The new Queen's Theatre had just been opened in Queen-street, but Mr. Coppin could not come to terms with the proprietor, and engaged a large hall at the Royal Hotel in Collins-street. Mr. J. T. Smith, proprietor of the Queen's Theatre, and Mr. Coppin, however, after a short rivalry, entered into partnership, and Mr Coppin’s company was transferred to the Queen's Theatre.

After a year spent in Melbourne Mr. Coppin went to Adelaide, and opened a theatre which he had built in five weeks. Subsequently he resumed his former occupation of hotelkeeper. He made money, but a series of unfortunate mining speculations lost it all. He returned to Victoria on the news of the discovery of gold, and tried his fortune as a digger. This, however, he soon gave up, and accepted an engagement as comedian in a new theatre at Geelong. He remained there in partnership with the proprietor of the theatre until 1854. Then, after 11 years spent in Australia, he returned to London. There he obtained an engagement at the Haymarket Theatre, and “the Australian comedian," as he was advertised, made a great success.

In the course of a provincial tour he met Mr. G. V. Brooke in Birmingham, and the two decided to go out to Australia with a company. Mr. Coppin had an iron theatre put together in Manchester, and shipped to Australia. This theatre was erected in Lonsdale-street. Mr. Coppin and Mr. Brooke arrived in Melbourne in December, 1854, and the new theatre was opened on July 30, 1855. The play staged was the "Lady of Lyons" in which Mr. R. Younge played Beauséant, Mr Heir played Glavis, Mr. G. V. Brook played Claude Melnotte, Miss Fanny Catheart played Pauline, Mrs. Brougham played Mine Deschappelles, and Mr Coppin played Dammas. The drama was followed by a farer, "To Oblige Benson." The opening was a great success and "the old iron pot," as Coppin's Royal Olympic Theatre was familiarly known, became at once highly popular. Mr. Coppin and Mr. Brooke in partnership later on brought the Theatre Royale, which had been built in Bourke-street, and the Cremorne gardens, on the bank of the Yarra, paying £21,000 for the theatre and £10,000 for the gardens. They spent on the two properties the sum of £60,000. In 1859 they dissolved the partnership, Mr. Coppin taking the Olympic Theatre and Cremorne-gardens as his share, while Mr. Brooke took the Theatre Royale. Both soon got into difficulties, Mr. Coppin through having become security for a bill of £40,000 on behalf of the Melbourne and Suburban Railway of which he was one of the promoters. The sale of the line cleared Mr. Coppin of his liability, and he then erected the Haymarket Theatre, on the site now occupied by the Eastern Arcade on Bourke-street. The theatre was opened on September 15, 1862, the cost of the building being £11,000. It was burned down in 1871. It was in this theatre that Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean played a brilliant and highly successful season under Mr. Coppin’s management, appearing first on October 10, 1863.

During the later years of this period Mr. Coppin, besides attending to the duties of his position as theatrical manager and proprietor, had taken an active interest in public affairs. In April, 1858, he was elected a member of the Richmond Municipal Council. In that capacity he exercised that eminently practical side of his nature which was noticeable in all his doings. He gave (in May, 1858) a banquet to about 100 representatives of municipal councils in and around Melbourne, and at his instance a committee was appointed to promote the system of local government. One result of the labours of this committee was a parliamentary enactment authorising municipalities to tax unoccupied private lands. This enactment compelled many owners of waste urban lands to subdivide and sell or otherwise utilise them. He was twice elected as chairman (a position corresponding to that of mayor) of the Richmond municipality and he acted for three years as chairman of the local bench of magistrates. In 1858 also he was elected to represent the South-western Province of the day in the Legislative Council. This seat he held for five years, when he resigned it, in consequence of leaving the colony temporarily. During his candidature in 1858 he announced himself in favour of reforms of the Upper House, which were carried out about a quarter of a century afterwards.

In December, 1859, he moved for leave to bring in a law to simplify the transfer of land. What is known as the Torrens's system was then in force in South Australia, and its advantages readily commended themselves to a mind like Mr. Coppin's. His bill, which embodied this system, was passed in the Upper House, and rejected in the Assembly, but in 1862 a similar measure became law, Mr. Service taking charge of it in the Assembly and Mr. Coppin in the Council. That was the commencement of our present system of land transfer. While in the Council he also advocated the establishment of the Post-office Savings Banks.

In September, 1858, a meeting was held for the purpose of establishing suburban gas works, and Mr. Coppin was elected chairman of it. The Melbourne Gas Company was then charging for gas 22/6 per 1,000ft. The new movement resulted in the formation of the Collingwood Gas Company, which soon brought down the price of this illuminant. About the same time he was one of the promoters of the Richmond Mechanics' Institute, of which, in 1859, he became the first chairman. During his career as a member of the Legislative Council some difficulty was experienced in inducing persons to enter the volunteer force of the day. In order to encourage the movement, Mr. Coppin and some of his fellow-legislators assisted to form and joined the old Yeoman Cavalry Corps. In June, 1864, he received a complimentary address and a purse of gold from the Richmond Fire Brigade, in recognition of his services to and liberal assistance to that institution.

Unsuccessful speculations, having again wrecked Mr. Coppin financially, he, about the middle of 1884, after playing a short engagement in Sydney, left Victoria for the United States, in company with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean. Before his departure he was entertained at a farewell dinner at Richmond, when a cheque for 300, subscribed by residents of the metropolis, was presented to him. In January 1886, he returned, and was accorded a public reception. Not long after Brooke's management of the Theatre Royale had brought him to financial ruin Mr. Coppin joined Harwood, Stewart, and Hennings in the management of it. The theatre was destroyed by fire in March, 1872; six months after the Haymarket Theatre came to the same end. Mr. Coppin's loss by the fire amounted to £5,600. The press invited capitalists and patriots to come forward and erect a theatre worthy of the Queen City of the Southern Hemisphere. This invitation was not accepted, and, after a little delay, Mr. Coppin Ray stepped into the breach, secured a 99 year's lease of the ground, and formed a Theatre Royale Proprietary Association, by whom the present building was erected. The new theatre was opened under the management of Coppin, Harwood, Stewart and Hennings on November 6, 1872. Mr Coppin never took a very active part in the management of the new theatre, which was leased first to Mr. Harwood, and subsequently to Messrs. Williamson, Garner, and Musgrove, and more recently to Mr. Bland Holt.

A farewell entertainment was given to Mr. Coppin on June 28, 1882, when he retired altogether from management (still, however, holding his interest in the Theatre Royale Proprietary Association). He had then had an experience of management in Victoria extending over a period of 37 years. The theatre on this occasion was crowded. In his farewell speech he gave some interesting reminiscences of his early theatrical life. That was the last appearance on the stage.

A list of useful public or semi-public movements which Mr. Coppin, at one time or another, supported would take up a great amount of our space. When only 19 years of age he joined the Oddfellows, and he remained a contributing member of the Manchester Unity. He was also an industrious Freemason, and a prominent adherent of the Victorian constitution of that order. He was one of the founders of the Royal Humane Society of Australasia, and of the Old Colonists' Association. The "Founder's Cottage" connected with the latter association was erected by Mr. Coppin. It was chiefly owing to his exertions that the Richmond Free Dispensary was many years ago established, and he was its first chairman. He was instrumental in introducing the paddle steamer Golden Crown into Port Phillip, and thus cheapening bay excursions. For some years he was a director of the Commercial Bank.

On April 8 last year Mr Coppin celebrated his 88th birthday at the "Anchorage," Sorrento, when he contributed a couple of songs to the programme with all his old spirit and toree, and he continued to enjoy his usual health till a few days ago, when he was seized with his last illness. Serious symptoms developed on Monday, and from that day his medical advisor (Dr. W. R. Fox) held out no hope of his recovery. Dr. John Williams was called into consultation, but he could only confirm Dr. Fox's opinion, and Mr. Coppin died at half past 1 o'clock this morning.

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'Coppin, George Selth (1819–1906)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 April 2024.

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