THATCHER, Charles Robert
A new biography of Thatcher, Charles Robert appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Charles Robert Thatcher was born in Bristol in 1831 where his father was a natural history collector. The family soon moved to Brighton and there they opened a “Foreign Warehouse”. While yet a youth, Thatcher left for London and before long was playing the flute in theatre orchestras. In 1853, however, he emigrated to the goldfields of Victoria. He was unsuccessful as a digger but was able to earn his living by taking part in concerts at Bendigo. Soon he attracted notice by his gift for making up local parodies of well-known tunes which he sang in a pleasing tenor voice. In 1854 the first Thatcher “Locals” were printed in Melbourne as broadsheets. His fame as a comic singer spread, and before long the “inimitable” Thatcher, as he was henceforth known, was able to tour the goldfields as an independent entertainer.
The language of his songs was the racy speech of the diggers, spiced with words and expressions coined by Thatcher himself. Students of Australian and New Zealand slang have found a rich vein in these ballads. The subject-matter of Thatcher's songs was confined at first to episodes of life on the goldfields, the differences between England and Australia, and the troubles of the “new chum” on the diggings. Later, Thatcher branched out into satiric comments on local scandals, private or political. This caused him to become involved in fist fights, horsewhippings, and court cases, but they served to increase his fame and popularity among the diggers. In 1861 he married at Geelong a fellow entertainer, Annie Vitelli, the Australian-born widow of an Italian singing teacher. The Thatchers followed the gold rush to Otago. On 1 March 1862 the “Inimitable” and Madame Vitelli gave their first concert in Dunedin's Commercial Hotel. The solid citizens of Dunedin (the “old identities”, Thatcher called them) affected to despise his vulgarity, but with the immigrant gold miners, the “new iniquity”, he was an immediate success. Unquestionably his song, The Old Identities, was the “hit” of the gold-rush era. One verse runs as follows:
Go on the same old fashion and ne'er improve the town,
And still on all newcomers keep up a fearful “down”,
Touch not that old Post Office, let that old jetty be,
And thus you'll be preserving the Old Identity.
After singing nightly for four months in Dunedin, the Thatchers went on a tour of New Zealand which took them to Auckland and back again to Otago. Early in 1863 they were singing on the goldfields. They appeared at Arrowtown under the auspices of the notorious Bully Hayes, and were for a time at Queenstown where Thatcher ran his own hotel.
After a brief absence in Australia, Thatcher returned to Invercargill in December 1863, and set out on a second tour of New Zealand. From Auckland he visited the British troops at Drury and Queen's Redoubt (now Pokeno) and sang to them in their encampments. In Hokitika, which he reached soon after the opening of the goldfield in 1865, he was the victim of a celebrated hoax when a distinguished gathering presented him with a toy watch instead of the genuine article in gold.
Thatcher left New Zealand in November 1865. For several years he toured Australia with a painted panorama of “Life on the Gold-Fields”, each picture of which he illustrated with songs and anecdotes. In 1869 he brought this exhibit to New Zealand for his third and final tour. Starting at Auckland and the newly opened Thames goldfield, Thatcher and his company, which included another popular comic singer, Joe Small, continued on south, taking in many smaller centres which he had not previously visited. In May 1870, Thatcher's company broke up at Temuka and he left for Australia and then England. He gave up the stage and set up as an art dealer in London's West End. Several times he travelled to the Far East to buy curios and on his last trip, in September 1878, he died at Shanghai of cholera.
The brightly coloured “Songsters” and “Vocalists” which Thatcher published have become collectors' items. The songs themselves remained popular long after his death. “Bush camp classics”, James Cowan called them, and many have been revived and recorded by folksinging groups in New Zealand and Australia.
by Herbert Otto Roth, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Deputy Librarian, University of Auckland.
- The Colonial Minstrel, Anderson, H. (1960)
- The History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949).