A direct north general view of Sydney Cove c1794 Courtesy Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales (a795001 / DG 60)

A direct north general view of Sydney Cove c1794 Courtesy Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales (a795001 / DG 60)

When do you think Sydney got its first theatre? (Hint: it’s earlier than you might think.) 

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Sydney was still a fledgling penal colony when the first theatre was constructed in 1796. Yes, that’s right – 1796. This fact reminds us of the importance of popular culture, even in the earliest days of a penal colony. Our first theatrical productions were given by permission of His Excellency the Governor John Hunter. He appreciated the importance of social customs and entertainment.

Sydney’s first theatre opened on 16 January 1796. Lieutenant-Governor David Collins, who wrote a journal of his time in early Sydney, recorded his impressions of it. It had been built by ‘some of the more decent class of prisoner‘ and the convicts had ‘fitted up the house with more theatrical propriety than could have been expected, and their performance was far above contempt‘.

Collins expresses mild surprise at the accomplishment of the building and the actors. Such back-handed compliments were common fare as the penal community banded together to provide themselves with the familiar social customs and culture that they enjoyed.

That said, our first theatre was a simple structure. A basic rectangular hall, constructed of timber, with a pit formed by a stepped floor, and a front box and gallery. We don’t know exactly where this first theatre was. It was down around Circular Quay or the Rocks, possibly in Bent Street or George Street.

laybill from the Theatre, 30 July 1796 Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.aus-vn4200235)

Playbill from the Theatre, 30 July 1796 Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.aus-vn4200235)

The theatre was known simply as “The Theatre” or “Sidaway’s Theatre”. Robert Sidaway, who opened operated the theatre, was a convict and baker.  It seems that he got a bit of a taste for the arts and became something of a philanthropist for Sydney’s culture.

When he died in 1809 the Sydney Gazette recorded
He was one of the first inhabitants of this Colony; during his very long residence in which he ever supported the reputation of a true philanthropist, and in all other respects a valuable member of society, in which he was universally respected.”

What is extraordinary is that an advertising handbill survives from the theatre.

It is held in the National Library of Australia and is one of the earliest forms of advertising in the colony.
The play to be performed on July 30, 1796 was Jane Shore, by Nicholas Rowe, a tragedy first performed in 1714 in Drury Lane. Doors opened at 5.30pm with the play to commence at 6pm.

The playbill was printed by the first Government Printer, George Henry Hughes, on a small wooden screw press and type which came out with the First Fleet. Hughes, the Government Printer, was also, as it turns out, an actor! His name along with others is listed on the handbill.

Sadly, the theatre only lasted a few years; temporarily shut down by Governor Hunter and then permanently by Governor King in 1800. The Governors became suspicious of the theatre, and objected to nefarious behaviour that it seemed to encourage, such as convicts robbing houses while their occupants attended the theatre.

The original document is currently on display as part of the National Library of Australia’s exhibition The Sell: Australian Advertising, 1790s to 1990s. But be quick if you want to see it, the exhibition wraps up in a couple of weeks.

The Sydney Theatre playbill for Jane Shore, 30 July 1796, was inscribed as item no.36 on the Australian Register of the Memory of the World in 2011 (here). It is a very historic playbill indeed.

To read more about Sydney’s theatrical past, take a squizz at Ross Thorne’s 2016 article Sydney’s Lost Theatres and Ailsa McPherson‘s 2008 article Theatre.

You can also read more about the playbill and the performance in Gillian Russell’s 2011 book The Playbill and It’s People.


Listen to the podcast with Lisa & Tess here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Nic Healey on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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