Sarah Hanmer and Ballarat’s Adelphi Theatre

By John Hagan


Ballarat Victoria

Murray’s Guide to the Gold Diggings, published in London in 1852, advised all those leaving the UK in search of wealth on the Victorian Goldfields, just how easy that task might be. “[Gold] lies on the surface and after a shower of rain, you may see it with the naked eye”, the guide informed its avid readers.

It was blacksmith Thomas Hiscock’s discovery of the precious metal, in August 1851, amongst the backblocks of colonial Victoria, which triggered a human tidal wave in search of fortune. Across Europe, and beyond, believing they had the Midas touch, individuals and families uprooted themselves, abandoned their employers, friends and relations, and took to the high seas en masse – all lured by the potential of instant wealth. The fervent pursuit of gold’s life-changing potential saw Victoria’s population increase from 77,000 in 1851, to 237,000 by 1854, before soaring to 540,000 in 1861. At the time, this constituted about half the population of Australia, of which 370,000 were living on the Goldfields. It is uncertain just how much influence Murray’s Guide exerted in enticing Irishwoman, Sarah Hanmer, to try her luck on the Goldfields, where she was destined to play a major role in the Ballarat community and in the legendary Eureka Stockade.

Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

Sarah Ann McCullough, was born in 1821, to a Protestant, Scots-Irish, County Down, farming family. Following a spell in the United States, where she worked as an actress, she married widowed surgeon, Henry Augustus Leicester Hanmer, at St James Church, Clerkenwell (England) in 1844. Nine years later, accompanied by daughter Julia (from a previous liaison) and her brother William, she left London – and Henry – for Melbourne, where she arrived in August 1853. It was a journey which magically removed six years from her age. Departing England as a 32 year old, she registered as a 26 year old upon embarkation in the Colony. At the time Julia was 12, but immigration officials seemingly failed to do the maths. A determined – and younger – Mrs Henry Harmer was about to make a new start, and her adopted home of Ballarat would soon know all about her.

By early 1854, both Sarah and Julia were working at the Queen’s Theatre in Ballarat, where Sarah soon established herself as a star attraction. But despite this new fame, she had something more ambitious in mind. In May 1854, Sarah placed an advert in the Geelong Advertiser proclaiming a new enterprise – the launch of her own theatre in Ballarat.

Mrs Leicester Hanmer has the honour to announce to her friends, the public, that she is about opening at the above place [Adelphi Theatre] on or about the 15th instant, in a style worthy of herself and the colonies.

Equipped with a large tent, Sarah soon assembled a troupe of seasoned actors, which included Julia and several American male and female performers. Ballarat could now boast another first-rate theatrical group – the Adelphi Players – which quickly attracted an enthusiastic and loyal following. Such was their ability that the theatre critic of the Geelong Advertiser (8 June 1854) was moved to trumpet,

The Adelphi, under this lady’s [Sarah’s] superintendence, has achieved a position hardly, if anything, inferior to any theatre in Victoria.

While the new theatre consistently drew large audiences, Sarah was not the only one to benefit. She regularly offered the theatre to raise money for charitable causes such as the local Miners’ Hospital. This largesse did not go unnoticed, especially in the pages of the Ballarat Times.

Mrs Hanmer and her daughter are immense favourites on the diggings, and we do not wonder at it, for there are none here who have more earnestly strove to gain the good-will of the digging community………..her endeavours to please deserve every success.

In a matter of months, Sarah had been able to convert herself from immigrant, actress, and single mother, into a respected Ballarat businesswoman and community identity.

While things may have been going splendidly for Sarah, the same could not be said for the thousands of diggers, and their wives, who struggled to make a living on the Goldfields. Despite Murray’s declarations, the precious metal was hard to find. Miners were also reeling under the imposition of excessive taxation, burdened by authoritarian diktat, often humiliated by unwarranted bureaucracy and continually harassed by military and police personnel. By 1854, Ballarat and its environs were a hotbed of simmering unrest and disaffection. To counteract their perceived injustices, the miners established a Diggers Rights Society and launched a Diggers Defence Fund. It was in support of this cause, that Sarah Hanmer exerted her considerable energies, announcing a fundraising event at the Adelphi on 26 October 1854. Her efforts on that night raised over £70. This performance was followed by several other benefits, and by the end of November, Sarah had raised more money for the Defence Fund than any other citizen of Ballarat.

Storming of the Eureka Stockade

Storming of the Eureka Stockade

While the Adelphi was a source of support and finance for the diggers, Sarah also, very delicately, maintained a good relationship with the Goldfields Resident Commissioner, Robert Rede. On 1 December 1854, under Rede’s patronage, she staged a performance of the play ‘Money’. On the following day, Saturday 2 December, in order to underline their grievances, about 1500 disaffected miners and families defiantly crammed into the makeshift Eureka Stockade. After being regaled by some rousing speeches, and fortified with a limited amount of drilling, by evening most of the crowd had drifted back to their tents on the diggings. At daybreak on Sunday only about 150 stalwarts remained inside the Stockade, about half of whom were Irish.

It was then that the army and mounted police chose to attack. To meet this unexpected assault the rebels brandished a number of firearms and pikes, but some were also ‘armed’ with pistols, revolvers and sabers, all courtesy of the Adelphi Theatre props department. In 20 minutes it was all over; 25 diggers lay dead and 30 wounded, while the troops sustained four deaths and 11 woundings. Following the fall of Eureka, troops went on the rampage, bayoneting dying and wounded rebels, hacking and setting fire to miner’s tents and generally descending to ‘cruel deeds —– that would strike any civilized person with horror’. Many of the dissidents fled into the bush and in order to evade the authorities some males even donned female costumes, acquired from the Adelphi.

Declaration of Martial Law brought the rebellion to an end. It is uncertain just how much influence the bloody events of that early December had on Sarah Hanmer’s decision to leave Ballarat. By the spring of 1855 she had sold her beloved Adelphi and, accompanied by Julia, was performing at various theatres around Victoria. On 1 December 1855, while she was ‘on tour’, a fire broke out in the United States Hotel, Ballarat, quickly razing all the new wooden buildings on Main Street before consuming the Adelphi Theatre.

When Sarah Hanmer left Ballarat, she was well off financially, supported by rent derived from a number of properties she still owned in the town. By 1864, she had settled in Brisbane, where she established a new Adelphi Company. On New Year’s Eve 1864, she staged a benefit concert under the patronage of the Queensland Governor, Sir GF Bowen. Sadly, on 9 August 1867, Irishwoman, and former darling of the Goldfields, Sarah Ann Hanmer, died in Adelaide, aged 46. Her daughter, Julia, a mother of seven children, died in Melbourne in 1920, and was buried at Waverley Cemetery.

John Hagan is a graduate of TCD. He emigrated in 1976 to take up a lecturing position in Perth, Western Australia. Now living in Tasmania, he contributes to magazines and newspapers in South Korea, UK, Ireland, Canada and Australia.

Footnote: Sarah Hanmer’s story has been extracted from Claire Wright’s recent book, The Forgotten Rebels Of Eureka. Wright’s well researched, exhilarating and beautifully told account focuses on the role females played in this eminent chapter of Australia’s democracy. In addition to Sarah Hanmer, the book also features contributions from other Irishwomen, including Catherine Bentley, Martha Clendinning, Alicia Dunne, Anne Diamond, Anastasia Hayes and Catherine McLister, made towards, what Mark Twain dubbed, ‘The finest thing in Australia’s history’. The Forgotten Rebels Of Eureka is issued by Text Publishing, Melbourne.