Story: Thatcher, Charles Robert

Page 1 - Thatcher, Charles Robert

Thatcher, Charles Robert

1830–1878

Singer, entertainer, songwriter

This biography was written by Robert H. B. Hoskins and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

Charles Robert Thatcher was born in Bristol, England, on 21 August 1830. He was the eldest son of Sophia Matilda Hossey and her husband, Charles Robert Thatcher, a conchologist, a dealer in curios and a Methodist deacon. Before Charles junior was 10 years old, his family had moved to Brighton, where his father opened a 'Foreign Warehouse' or curio shop. Charles was taught the flute and by 1847 he was in London, playing for various theatre orchestras. Here he was particularly influenced by the repertory of music-hall songs and the outstanding gifts of such earthy entertainers as Sam Cowell, Harry Clifton and Jack Sharp.

In his early 20s Thatcher emigrated to Australia. Arriving in Melbourne on the Isabella in November 1852, he first tried his hand at goldmining but soon joined the orchestra at the Royal Victoria Theatre, Bendigo. He began filling in between the plays by singing topical verses to well-known tunes in his pleasant tenor voice. After this engagement Thatcher's reputation as a goldfields balladeer proceeded apace and by May 1854 he was given top billing at the Shamrock Hotel at Bendigo, which remained his base for several years.

While there he met Annie Vitelli, a young widow supporting herself by singing; they married on 8 February 1861 at St James' Church (Anglican), Newtown, Geelong, Victoria. There were at least two daughters of the marriage.

Thatcher depended for his success on topical, ephemeral, and regional balladry; he travelled around all the principal goldfields of Victoria and also undertook three tours of New Zealand. His wife, 'Madame Vitelli' as she was known on the stage, provided a contrast to his descriptive 'local' songs by singing popular, sentimental ballads.

Thatcher was considered good looking, with his delicately moulded features, lank hair and moustache. He was known for his vivacity, wit and sparkling conversation. Although he tended to drink to excess, he was also 'susceptible to deep religious impressions'. He was a big man, a crack shot and ready with his fists.

Thatcher's first tour of New Zealand began in early 1862. He and his wife arrived in Dunedin in January on the Mary Scott, and on 1 March he began a series of nightly entertainments at Shadrach Jones's Commercial Hotel. He pocketed an entrance fee of 2s. 6d., and the publican received the takings from the bar. Thatcher's topical songs were reported to 'hit off very happily…local peculiarities and incidents, which elicited vociferous applause', and audiences numbering 600 were common. At this time Thatcher immortalised the expression 'old identity' in a song which lampooned Dunedin's conservative administrators. Leaving Dunedin in July, Thatcher travelled to Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland, Napier, and the Queenstown diggings, where he performed from late February to August 1863, mostly at his own hotel.

In December 1863 he was back for a second tour, which was by far the most strenuous. Starting at Invercargill on Boxing Day, Charles Thatcher, Annie Vitelli, his brother and manager, Richmond Thatcher, and his support, the pseudo-Irish comedian Joe Small, visited Wellington, Auckland, Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin, as well as smaller towns. From Auckland he entertained the British troops at Drury and Queen's Redoubt, Pokeno, and from Dunedin he followed the exodus of diggers to the West Coast, where for three months in mid 1865 his ready wit and racy doggerel delighted everybody. He came by the Wakool, wrecked on a beach near Hokitika; he left after a farewell banquet at the Empire Hotel, Hokitika, during which a local merchant he had pilloried substituted a toy watch for the presentation article intended. A few weeks later, after falsely representing himself as a journalist, Thatcher was ejected from the reporters' gallery in the House of Representatives. He returned to Melbourne in November 1865.

In June 1869 Thatcher began his last tour of New Zealand with his lecture, 'Life on the goldfields'. He had 15 large scenes painted on canvas, with which to illustrate his talk, and sang songs he had written. This show was especially enjoyed by miners on the West Coast. After playing at Auckland and the newly opened Thames goldfield, Thatcher and Joe Small called at many small towns which they had not previously visited. In May 1870 Thatcher's company broke up at Temuka.

In 1870 Thatcher returned with his family to England, where he established himself in the West End as an importer of curios. Business interests took him to Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and he made several trips to China and Japan. On 14 September 1878 he arrived in Shanghai to buy goods for his business. He contracted a tropical disease and died three days later, on 17 September.

As a result of his three tours 'The Inimitable Thatcher' achieved considerable popularity with New Zealand audiences. While the Wanganui Chronicle complained that 'Mr.Thatcher evidently wishes to minister to the tastes of the groundlings', the colonial press was in general supportive.

His influence as a songwriter was lasting. He possessed a fertile imagination and some of his songs were passed on from singer to singer to become folksongs. Thatcher published a dozen songbooks; in addition over 50 songs were printed in newspapers and there are almost as many again in the Thatcher manuscripts held in the State Library of Victoria. The dates of their original presentation and publication, during the goldrushes, New Zealand wars and urban expansion of the 1860s, place them at a significant point in the literary and social development of New Zealand. The character types, the mode of delivery, and the philosophical position assumed by their author provide valuable material for any student of the local growth of the genre. Thatcher's songs seize the reader's interest by their narrative impetus, their exposure of personality, their vividness and their satirical force. He relies heavily on facile verbal humour and extravagant jokes, the use of the vernacular, the appropriation of well-known tunes and the contrast of character types for comic effect. Thatcher was a prophet of colonial imperialism in its expansionist phase, and his confidence and vulgar vitality derived from his identification with the gold seekers, the soldiers and the enterprising administrators, whose praises he sang.