One of the many fascinating people on the Dictionary of Sydney is William Castell, ‘professor of dancing’, musician and philanderer who lived in Sydney during the 1830s.
In May 1789, William Joseph Castell was born in Kilkenny, Ireland. He came from a travelling, theatrical family – his father, Peter Castelli, was a soldier who also worked in the theatre, and his mother Sophia, was a singer and actress.
Castell began his own career as a musician – a violinist, violist, double bassist, pianist and organist – in London. In 1826 he fled London, leaving his creditors, his wife Susannah and their four children behind, and went to France in the company of his mistress, Ellen Jones.
In 1831, under the assumed name of Cavendish and describing himself as an artist, he set sail for Mauritius accompanied by a Mrs Mary Cecil, who was officially listed as his sister. Mary was in fact Castell’s de facto spouse.
Leaving Mauritius quite soon after their arrival due to some social and financial difficulties, Castell and Mary (now known as Miss Cavendish) arrived in Sydney in January 1833. He established a ‘Salle de Danse’ in their home in Macquarie Place where he taught ‘every species of fashionable dancing’ under the name or Mr Cavendish de Castell, and hosted regular monthly balls, with one ‘masquerade’ described in the Sydney Monitor :
‘all the fashionables of Australia were present. Elegance in all its pleasing shapes, and the most refined hilarity, reigned throughout the evening.’1
Over the next few years, Castell was embroiled in a series of dubious business ventures and sex scandals before tragedy struck.
On 26 January 1839, he and Mary drowned when their boat capsized off Bradleys Head as they were on their way to North Sydney during the annual Anniversary Day regatta celebrations. The Sydney Gazette dramatically reported the accident, maintaining the prevailing brother-sister narrative:
‘He was seen to make towards her as she floated away, and the last words which he was heard to utter, were “Mary dear, don’t be afraid – I’ll hold you up.”’2
Their deaths were much lamented in Sydney’s society.
Castell’s 1833 manuscript held at the State Library of NSW contains quadrilles titled ‘Kurry Jong’ (Kurrajong) and ‘Woo-loo-moo-loo’. It is possibly the earliest known example of a settler Australian musical composition to survive from colonial times.3
1 MAITLAND RACES The Sydney Monitor, 20 July 1833, p3 via Trove http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32144190
2 DOMESTIC INTELLIGENCE, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, p.2 via Trove http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2551500
3 Graeme Skinner ‘William Joseph Cavendish’, Austral Harmony website: http://sydney.edu.au/paradisec/australharmony/cavendish-william-joseph.php
The excellent blog Australian Colonial Dance has a great piece by Heather Blasdale Clarke on the quadrille and its introduction to Sydney society here: The Quadrille Arrives
Ann V Beedell, The Decline of the English Musician 1788–1888, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator, and the Executive Officer of the History Council of NSW. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
The Dictionary of Sydney has no ongoing operational funding and needs your help. Make a tax-deductible donation to the Dictionary of Sydney today!