James Cassius Williamson (1845-1913) was born in Mercer, Pennsylvania, and joined a theatrical company while still a boy. He became known as a dialect comedian. In 1871 he moved to San Francisco and two years later married a comedienne Margaret Sullivan (Maggie Moore). They achieved success in a comedy Struck oil, which they staged in Australia in 1874. In 1879 they purchased the Australasian rights of H.M.S. Pinafore and returned to Sydney. In 1880 Williamson formed the Comic Opera Company and soon after became the sole lessee of the Theatre Royal in Melbourne. He entered into a partnership with Arthur Garner and George Musgrove and they brought to Australia notable artists such as George Rignold, Dion Boucicault and Sarah Bernhardt. In 1886 they opened the new Princess’s Theatre in Melbourne with a performance of The Mikado. The partnership was dissolved in 1899.
In 1904 Williamson entered a partnership with George Tallis (1869-1948), his Melbourne manager. In 1911, following a merger with the theatrical entrepreneurs Rupert Clarke and Clyde Meynell, J.C. Williamson Ltd was formed. After Williamson died in 1913, Tallis headed the company and E.J. Tait was the general manager. In 1920 the company merged with J. & N. Tait, with Tallis and E.J. Tait as joint managing directors. At a later stage Tait’s brothers Frank and John also became directors. Based at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne, J.C. Williamson Ltd controlled a network of theatres across Australia and New Zealand. In 1937 J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd was formed to manage productions, while the parent company dealt with properties and investments. The company organised the successful tours by the singer Nellie Melba in 1924 and 1928 and the ballerina Anna Pavlova in 1926 and 1929 and it later brought the Ballets Russes and the Bolshoi Ballet to Australia. In the 1940s it backed the Kirsova Ballet and the Borovansky Ballet. Among other artists who came to Australia under the auspices of J.C. Williamson were Fyodor Chaliapin, Maurice Chevalier, Percy Grainger, Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin and Ignacy Paderewski. The fortunes of the company depended heavily on productions of Gilbert and Sullivan and on outstanding musicals such as Annie Get Your Gun (1947), Oklahoma! (1949), Kiss Me, Kate (1952), South Pacific (1952) and My Fair Lady (1959).
In the late 1950s and 1960s J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd lost its position as the dominant theatrical agency in Australia, mainly due to competition from television and cinema. Sir Frank Tait, the surviving brother, organised the tour of Joan Sutherland in 1965 and died shortly afterwards. The company struggled to survive mergers and changing managements. In 1976 its theatres were sold and its name was leased.
The J.C. Williamson Ltd archive, comprising business records, playscripts, libretti, music, programs, magazines, books, costume designs and photographs, was purchased by the Library from J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd in 1978.
The papers and photographs of the Tait Family were presented to the Library by Lady Tait, the wife of Sir Frank Tait, in 1994. Further Tait papers were received as part of the Tallis bequest in 1999. The papers of Sir George Tallis were bequeathed to the Library by his son John Tallis and received in 1999. Additional papers were presented by Michael Tallis, the nephew of Sir George, in 2002-3. The papers of Harald Bowden were donated by his daughter, Joyce Bowden, in 1989.
Archives of J.C. Williamson Ltd
The archives of J.C. Williamson Ltd acquired by the Library has been physically divided, with the music, photographs, programs and magazines transferred to other collections. The remaining archives is still very large, comprising 578 boxes and 7 cartons. Manuscript and typescript playscripts and libretti make up the largest component (339 boxes). While there are a few earlier works, most of the plays were written by British and American writers in the first half of the twentieth century. They include Michael Arlen, Dion Boucicault, Noel Coward, Arthur Conan Doyle, Frederick Lonsdale, W. Somerset Maugham, Arthur Pinero, Ivor Novello, J.B. Priestley, Terrence Rattigan, Ben Travers, Edgar Wallace, Emlyn Williams and Tennesee Williams. There are also a small number of works by Australian playwrights such as Randolph Bedford, Dymphna Cusack, Ray Lawler, Gwen Meredith, Rex Rienits, A.G. Stephens and Louis Stone.
There are some legal records and correspondence dating from the early years of the company, in particular letters from George Musgrove in London to J.C. Williamson in Melbourne (1893-1900). The agreements and contracts, while far from complete, extend from 1897 to 1970, but most of the business records are limited to the declining years of the company. There is an extensive correspondence (1962-74) and also financial accounts (1920-76), theatre takings (1969-73), box office and bookings (1971-78), wages and salaries (1943-76), technical notes, stage production and advertising (1953-76) and addresses. There are also a number of scrapbooks (1933-60) and many books and other published items.
A salary book (1933-43) of J.C. Williamson Ltd, arranged chronologically and recording the salaries and allowances of all the actors in each production.
This collection consists of agreements, contracts and correspondence between J.C. Williamson Ltd and 43 artists (1913-60). They include Maurice Chevalier, Gracie Fields, Cecil Kellaway, Marjorie Lawrence, Nellie Melba, Gladys Moncrieff, Max Oldaker, Anna Pavolva and Roy Rene.
The papers of the Tait Family, which occupy 19 boxes, date from 1908 to 1970 and consist of personal and business correspondence, cables, financial and legal papers, performance contracts, newspaper cuttings and the manuscript of Viola Tait’s book A Family of Brothers (1971). The correspondence of the four brothers is particularly strong in the period 1915-23, covering the time when J. & N. Tait merged with J.C. Williamson Ltd.
The papers of Charles Tait include an important source on the history of J.C. Williamson, a compilation by Tait entitled ‘Actors, plays, musicians and concerts, 1885-1932’. There are also letters, a J.C. Williamson letterbook (1899-1900), legal agreements, and a typescript on grand opera in Australia.
Letters, programs, photographs, music and other papers of Romola Hanstein (Hansen), an actress who had leading roles in many J.C. Williamson productions between 1927 and 1937.
Harald Bowden, who had worked for J. & N. Tait, became general manager of J.C. Williamson Ltd. in 1934 and retired in 1966 as an executive director. His papers consist of correspondence, manuscript and typescript notes, programs, newspaper cuttings and photographs.
A scrapbook (1899-1901) of the actress Georgina Musgrove, the niece of George Musgrove, containing theatrical cuttings, programs and pictures, mainly of productions of J.C. Williamson.
The papers of Sir George Tallis, which occupy 13 boxes, include correspondence (1889-1932), legal and financial papers, a diary on an overseas trip (1902), scrapbooks, programs, posters, photograph albums and loose photographs. There are also memoirs that he wrote in 1948 and biographical material collected by Michael Tallis.
The largest component of the J.C. Williamson archives, occupying about 1200 boxes, consists of printed and manuscript scores of 363 operas, light operas, musical comedies, musicals and musical plays. In many cases, there are full scores, vocal scores, instrumental and chorus parts, and libretti or playscripts. The collection extends in time from Struck oil, which achieved great success in 1874, to Stephen Sondheim’s A little night music (c. 1973).
Among the operas held in the collection are The barber of Seville (Rossini), Carmen (Bizet), Don Carlos (Verdi), Faust (Gounod), Il Travatore (Verdi), Lohengrin (Wagner), Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti), Macbeth (Verdi) and Rigoletto (Verdi). There are a great variety of musicals, operettas and musical plays, as the following examples show: Annie get your gun (Irving Berlin), Anything goes (Cole Porter), The boys from Syracuse (Richard Rodgers), Camelot (Frederick Loewe), Dancing years (Ivor Novello), Fiddler on the roof (Jerry Brock), The gondoliers (Arthur Sullivan), The gypsy baron (Johann Strauss), Kiss me Kate (Cole Porter), Mame (Jerry Herman), The Mikado (Arthur Sullivan), My fair lady (Frederick Loewe), Oklahoma! (Richard Rodgers), Oliver! (Lionel Bart), Show boat (Jerome Kern) and The student prince (Sigmund Romberg).
In addition, the collection contains about 200 miscellaneous works, such as overtures, songs, piano pieces, dances, marches, ballet suites, arrangements and selections from operas.
Paintings and drawings
The J.C. Williamson archive contains several hundred costume designs, usually in watercolours, of early productions of the company. They include Carmen up to date (1893), The girl from Utah, The girls of Gottenberg (1907), The merry monarch (1891), Princess Caprice (1912), Tapu (1904) and Who’s Hooper. The designers are not known in most cases, but Will R. Barnes drew the costume designs for Alfred Hill’s opera Tapu.
The J.C. Williamson archive includes about 4000 photographs of about 210 productions of plays, operettas, variety shows and musicals. Most of them are posed photographs taken during dress rehearsals and used for publicity. There are a small number of rehearsal shots and photographs of staged publicity events, audiences and theatre interiors.
The productions represented in the collection include Ma mie Rosette (1894), Canary Cottage (1917), Katja the dancer (1926), All the King’s horses (1927), Ballet Russe (1936), Balalaika (1937-38), Private lives (1940-41), The girl friend (1942-43), Blithe spirit (1945), Family album (1946), Gay Rosalinda (1946) Annie get your gun (1948, 1950, 1963), Oklahoma! (1949), Kiss me Kate (1952), Call me Madam (1953), Charley’s aunt (1954), The reluctant debutante (1956), My fair lady (1959, 1964, 1970), Bye, bye, birdie (1961), Black Theatre of Prague (1964), Camelot (1964), Great Moscow State Circus (1965, 1971), Funny Girl (1966), Fiddler on the roof (1967-69), Mame (1968), Twelfth night (1970), The front page (1973), No, no Nanette (1973) and Gypsy (1975). There are also photographs of overseas productions.
As well as photographs of productions, the collection contains many studio portraits of actors, dancers and musicians. Some examples are Edouard Borovansky, Gordon Chater, Hayes Gordon, Kathleen Gorham, Toni Lamond, Cyril Ritchard and Sybil Thorndike. Among the photographers are Sam Hood, Laurence Le Guay, Monte Luke and Athol Shmith.
The Library also holds the Viola Tait Collection of about 700 photographs, cabinet cards and postcards of J.C. Williamson tours, productions, performers and theatrical identities. They include photographs of costume and set designs of Gilbert and Sullivan productions and musicals such as The desert song, The maid of the mountains, South Pacific and The student prince. Among the performers represented are Clara Butt, Eric Edgley, Madge Elliott, Gracie Fields, Margot Fonteyn, Harry Lauder, John McCallum, Gladys Moncrieff, Cyril Ritchard and Nellie Stewart,
The Library has an extensive collection (151 boxes) of J.C. Williamson programs, flyers and magazines extending from about 1882 to 1975. They include substantial runs of opera programs (1901-65) and Gilbert and Sullivan programs (1882-1969). There are also bound programs of performances at the Theatre Royal (1946-65), Empire Theatre (1949-60) and Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney (1960-69). The holdings of J.C.W. Magazine date from 1947 to 1954, including a bound set for 1927-40.
Bevan Ian, The story of the Theatre Royal, 1993
Dicker, Ian G., J.C.W.: a short biography of James Cassius Williamson, 1974
Fraser, Corille, Come to dazzle: Sarah Bernhardt’s Australian tour, 1998
Irvin, Eric, Theatre comes to Australia, 1971
Kingston, Claude, It doesn’t seem a day too much, 1971
Love, Harold, ed., The Australian stage: a documentary history, 1984
Tait, Viola, A family of brothers: the Taits and J.C. Williamson: a theatre history, 1971
Tallis, Michael and Joan, The silent showman: Sir George Tallis, the man behind the world’s largest entertainment organisation of the 1920s, 1999 [new ed. 2006]
West, John, Theatre in Australia, 1978
The archives of J.C. Williamson Ltd and the collections of personal papers are housed in the Manuscript Collection. A finding aid for the papers of Sir George Tallis (MS 9522) is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-245752432/findingaid. A guide to the papers of the Tait Family (MS 309) is available on-line at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-296709164/findingaid.
The scores of operas, musicals and other works performed by J.C. Williamson are kept together as a collection within the Music Collection. They are arranged alphabetically by the name of the work. They have been catalogued as a collection and the individual works have also been catalogued. The call numbers have the prefix MUS JCW. The paintings, drawings and photographs are held in the Pictures Collection at various locations. The paintings and photographs in the J.C. Williamson archives have been catalogued individually and a large proportion of them have been digitised. The Viola Tait Collection has been catalogued and most items have been digitised.
The programs, magazines and other printed ephemera are housed in the PROMPT Collection. They are arranged in eight sequences: bound volumes of programs and magazines, general (94 boxes, alphabetical by name of production), magazines (1927-54, 24 boxes), opera (1901-65, 17 boxes), Gilbert and Sullivan (1882-1969, 9 boxes), pantomime (4 boxes), overseas productions (1 box), and posters (27 items). They have been catalogued at the collection level. Finding aids for the performing arts programs and ephemera are available on-line at https://www.nla.gov.au/prompt/jc-williamson-theatres.
Stone, Richard, The business of show business: the Tallis Collection, National Library of Australia News, vol. 12 (10), July 2002, pp. 11-14
Thomson, John, The J.C. Williamson Collection of Photographs: a visual record of popular theatre, National Library of Australia News, vol. 15 (9), June 2005, pp. 3-6
Van der Poorten, Helen M., Williamson, James Cassius (1845-1913), Australian Dictionary of Biography online
Van Straten, F., Tait, Sir Frank Samuel (1883-1965), Australian Dictionary of Biography online
West, John, J.C. Williamson’s, Companion to Theatre in Australia, edited by Philip Parsons, Sydney, Currency Press, 1995, pp. 299-304
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)