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May Gibbs: Amateur Entertainer

Brendan Kelly

Much is known about May Gibbs as the literary mother of the Australian ‘Gum Nut’ babies. Little has been recorded of her accomplishments on the stage as a young woman. An Aquarian by the stars, May stood blessed with the signature characteristics of talent - charisma, ambition, cleverness - and ultimately success. The gifted Gibbs family’s deep involvement with the golden days of amateur entertainment in Perth, Western Australia, is covered briefly in Maureen Walsh’s biography of May. 1 However the level of exhilaration generated by the ‘amateurs’ of Perth is worthy of added wonder.
When May’s father Herbert moved his family to Perth in 1888, they immediately joined a burgeoning cultural arts scene. Herbert Gibbs sketched as an artist for the short-lived ‘Fremantle Bulletin’, where the ubiquitous Francis ‘Jerry’ Hart wrote chatty, albeit often acerbic, columns under the bylines of ‘Whispers’, ‘Grape and Canister’, ‘Plain Speaking’ and ‘Ink Splashes’. 2 Thereafter the Gibbs family became attached to the Perth Musical Union and the Perth Amateur Operatic Society, under the stirring force of the pervasive Hart. Jerry Hart’s highflying career in Perth theatre circles drove the amateurs to giddy heights in the 1890’s. He boldly promoted a talented and special generation of stage-struck ladies and gentlemen. 3
The Perth amateurs came in for righteous newspaper support, led by Hart. Following one season of theatricals, a critic praised the entertainment as an amusement of an “innocent and pleasant kind”, at the same time noting that the proceeds of the night supported charity. The amateurs of the time were not acting simply for glory. Their presence on the stage was made more respectable by raising money for good causes. In defending the amateur theatre, the same critic spoke of the previous poor public estimation of theatre and drama, and of the actors who undertook its interpretation:
The actor's calling has, in past times, been regarded as dishonouring, and this feeling has shown a most marked vitality. Within quite recent years it flourished among English people, and, to this day, there are many most estimable persons who regard acting and actors, whether amateur or otherwise, with far from favourable eyes. Both toward the ancient and modern drama this dislike has been strongly displaced. 4
The writer called the prevailing and growing taste for the stage as being positive. Whereas theatre people may once have been branded by a craving for notoriety, “when ‘player’ and ‘rogue and vagabond’ were almost synonymous terms”, this no longer applied. The typical amateur entertainer was now a respectable citizen of a better class, and “the ill-repute that once attached to the stage as a profession or as an amusement is now little more than a memory”. Followed by a gentle warning “But we should be taking an altogether one sided view of the question were we not to admit that, as in all things, there are the customary dangers of excess” 5
St. George's Hall in Hay Street turned into the pride of Perth’s amateur entertainers. Erected in 1879, the hall was the first purpose built theatre building in Perth, signalling a new era of entertainment. 6 Sponsored by the well know solicitor’s firm of Stone & Burt, Edward Stone was an enthusiastic amateur actor and singer, choirmaster of St George's Cathedral, and helped to found the Perth Musical Union. The hall opened with a performance of Dion Boucicault's melodrama, the ‘Colleen Bawn’, fittingly presented “by an amateur company embracing all the best recognised talent in the City”. 7 Throughout the 1880's and 1890s St George’s was used by visiting and local performers, becoming an institution for the 'respectable classes', who constituted the amateur entertainers. St. Georges Hall was only surpassed when the magnificent Majesty’s Theatre opened on Christmas eve 1904. 8
May Gibbs’s mother Cecelia was an ideal role model for her daughter. Cecelia’s own performances on the stage were roundly praised during the glory years of amateur entertainment. She possessed a full alto-soprano singing voice and her stage presence reflected a mature and confident woman. She fortified her daughter by her own aptitude. Cecelia and Herbert Gibbs were colleagues, as well as friends, of the dynamo Jerry Hart and his wife Lilian, a gifted pianist. Lilian also promoted the cultured class in her newspaper column ‘CORA’, reporting on Perth’s endless social watching. 9 The multi- talented Gibbs family, which included Herbert’s ability to design and paint stage sets, put them close to the epicentre of Perth’s amateur performers.
In 1890, thirteen year-old May Gibbs received her first substantial review. At a private entertainment in St. George's Hall, the large invited audience watched a selection from the cantata ‘The May Queen’. The part of the May Queen was aptly taken by May, while her mother Cecelia played the Hodge. Civil servant F. D. North filled the character of the Forester, while the chorus consisted of Mrs. Rogers' pupils from the Mulgrave House School. Cecelia was lauded for her “cultivated contralto voice lowered to a masculine depth”, while May “sang very creditably”. In a secondary reference, the review recorded:
Miss May Gibbs contributed a most amusing recitation, in character, and in response to a demand for its repetition, this versatile little lady and her brother, Master Ivan Gibbs, gave a funny dialogue, which in its turn was encored”. 10
Previously in the ‘Fremantle Bulletin’, Jerry Hart, ever generous in name-checking and promoting those in his wide circle of influence, wrote of the young Miss Gibbs, specifically her drawing talents:
We would call the attention of the public to the supplement in this week’s issue. It has been drawn especially for our Christmas number by Miss May Gibbs, who has attained the age of eleven years (sic). We must certainly congratulate this clever little lady on her production and we feel sure the public will endorse our words when we say “Further efforts, greater success". 11
“Further efforts, greater success" describes Hart’s assured attitude to business, journalism and the theatre. Lilian Hart, as ‘CORA’, was possibly the most well connected woman in Perth, certainly highly influential. Undoubtedly the Hart’s networking included the active identification and promotion of musical talent. To be recognised, acknowledged and promoted by the Harts was a silver ticket.
Cecelia Gibbs, already experienced in the excitement of the stage, encouraged May to develop her own capabilities. After her performances in Gilbert and Sullivan’s 'The Gondoliers' in 1892, May, now 15-years old, was tagged in one review as the “clever daughter of a clever woman”. 12 Her mother, playing by her side, earned praise for the “ripe perfection and finish” of her singing and acting. She provided the archetype for May. The satire and paradox and whirligig nature of Gilbert and Sullivan stagecraft, fanned by the amateurs, reflected the whim of Perth society, offering the perfect outlet for artistic expression. For the Gibbs family, it was a favoured pastime.
The Perth Amateur Operatic Society symbolised the cultural essence of the emerging times. At its peak of enthusiasm, audiences that patronised the popular light operas and stage shows of the amateurs felt they knew the leading performers as their own. May Gibbs would later say of Jerry Hart:
“Our producer Hart, was just out from London, where Gilbert and Sullivan had been going for a long time. He was slight and a marvellous actor, just made for those parts, whose singing, dancing, comedy and originality were all unique and perfect” 13
In fact Jerry Hart had been in Western Australia since 1878 and together with three-times Governor William Robinson they were champions of amateur entertainment. Hart cultivated connections across the community, government and administrative classes, as a newspaperman and impresario.
Importantly, he was a one man publicity machine, a showman, publicist and opportunist, an advertising man who by his own admission had become stage-struck. Hart played a key role in making Perth amateur theatre not only relevant, but also celebrated, with his band of talented amateurs. 14 The class of ladies and gentlemen that he influenced, which included May Gibbs and her family, were happy to follow his self-possessed get-up-and-go.
Shortly after Christmas in 1895 an article appeared in the ‘West Australian’ newspaper, regretting that Perth had outgrown its taste for amateur entertainment. The columnist praised prominent amateurs, the ‘Perth Musical Union’, former parliamentarian and Judge Alfred Peach Hensman, and the players in the ‘Amateur Operatic Society’, under Francis Hart. The paper lamented that these societies were “seemingly defunct” and nothing had taken their place. The writer pondered if the “general race for wealth”, in an altered community, after the great gold discoveries, had taken away the time for genteel engagement in musical arts. They hoped that there would be “a revival of a charming and defined art”. 15 The departure of Jerry Hart to England in 1896 perhaps punctuated the end.
In the second half of the 1890’s, May Gibbs and her family continued to absorb themselves in cultural interests across Perth, but something had changed. Statehood, the gold boom, talk of Federation, modern times, an old queen, all impacted the want or need for amateur amusements. At the end of 1899 May appeared in a production "The Grand Duchess", described by a critic in the Perth ‘Argonaut’ as “the best amateur show yet seen in Perth”. However May had a more minor role this time:
The maids of honor, Mesdames W. E. Cooke and Kerferd and Misses May Gibbs and Lela Hill, have nothing much to do beyond look attractive, and this they manage to accomplish in fine style. 16
Life would subsequently change for May Gibbs. In 1900, still only 22-years-old, she sailed with her mother, for England. Her reputation thereafter would be founded in her literary renown and as a visual artist. However her formative years as a stage performer, exposure to adult players and the self- assurance she gained, unquestionably contributed to her personal growth and special distinction.

Brendan Kelly 2 October 2023


1. May Gibbs - Mother of the Gumnuts, Maureen Walsh, (paperback edition), 1994.
2. Article - The W.A. Bulletin Saturday 21 April 1888 - Page 5
3. ‘Francis Jerome Ernest Hart’, Brendan Kelly in Early Days 102, RWAHS, 2019’.
4. THE THEATRE - Western Mail, Saturday 22 June 1889 - Page 6.
5. ibid
6. ‘Public Inventory’, retrieved 25 September 2023.
7. Article - The [Fremantle] Herald, Saturday 13 December 1879 - Page 3.
8. retrieved 30 September 2023.
9. Brendan Kelly ‘CORA – A presswoman of repute’, unpublished 2023.
10. Article-The West Australian Thursday 22 May 1890 - Page 3.
11. Article Illustrated - The W.A. Bulletin Saturday 21 December 1889 - Page 4
12. Article - The Inquirer and Commercial News, Saturday 2 July 1892 - Page 7.
13. (p. 39) May Gibbs - Mother of the Gumnuts, Maureen Walsh, (paperback edition), 1994.
14. ‘Francis Jerome Ernest Hart’, Brendan Kelly, in Early Days, 102, RWAHS, 2019.
15. Article - The West Australian, Monday 30 December 1895 - Page 4
16. Article - The Argonaut, Saturday 2 December 1899 - Page 6

Australian Dictionary of Biography, retrieved 30 September 2023 - Gibbs, Cecilia May (1877–1969)
- Sir Edward Albert Stone (1844–1920)
- Frederic Dudley North (1866–1921)

Brendan Kelly is a part-time historian and writer, with a specific interest in Amateur Entertainment in Western Australia between 1875 and 1895. He views his subject through the lens of the class and culture of that time. Brendan writes daily and describes himself as an eclectic writer of history, fiction, poetry, essays, emails and file notes. He has produced three period essays for the Royal Western Australian Historical Society – ‘Francis Jerome Ernest Hart’, ‘Gerald Raikes - A Discreet Silence’ and ‘CORA - A Presswoman of Repute’. He is also tinkering with historical fiction as a side-shoot of his research. Brendan is a public speaker, who enjoys the input of audiences with their own stories. He lives in Bunbury, where he is a member of the South West History Writer’s Group and the South Side 'QUILLS' Writing Group.


Many thanks to Brendan Kelly.

Garry Gillard | New: 2 October, 2023 | Now: 2 October, 2023