Charles Thatcher, dubbed by his contemporaries the "Colonial Minstrel" was one of many talented young men who left England in the early 1850s to seek his fortune on the goldfields of Australia. He was the eldest son of a Bristol curio dealer, but apparently preferred the entertainment business to the shop, and by his early twenties had left Bristol for the bright lights of London. There he found employment as a flautist in a number of theatre orchestras, but he was also drawn to the music halls, and it was no doubt in these most democratic of entertainment houses that he learned many of the popular songs he was later to exploit so successfully in Australia.
Thatcher evidently responded swiftly to the news of gold discoveries in Victoria, arriving in Melbourne in November 1852. He was fortunate to fall in with some congenial companions and together they set off on foot for Bendigo. Their early attempts at digging were discouraging, but after trying several different claims they eventually chanced on a winner. Thatcher’s share of the profits was a very satisfactory 1,000 pounds, whereupon, like many other unused to heavy manual labour, he promptly abandoned digging with relief.
But what to do next? The story goes that Thatcher was wandering down the main street of Bendigo, (grandly, or mischievously, known as Pall Mall) when he noticed a new entertainment tent being erected by none other than one of his former theatre colleagues in London. He was offered a job as a singer on the spot and seems to have been an instant success. He had, by this time, already composed a number of topical songs, drawing humorously on the scenes he saw around him for lyrics, which were then set to well-known tunes of the day. It was a formula which was to prove enduringly popular.
Concert Room, Napier Hotel, Ballarat, June ’55, Thatcher’s popular songs.
22.8 x 31.9cm
By permission of the National Library of Australia
Thatcher sang about the trials of digging, with its many uncertainties, but also its charms. In “Who wouldn’t be a digger?”, sung to the tune of “Ratcatcher’s daughter”, he acknowledged the many privations of goldfields life and the false picture of digging presented in emigration propaganda, but urged his patrons to persevere.
No one out here need toil in vain
If his mind to work he’s giving,
In spite of hardships it is quite plain,
Each one may get a living;
So in Australia stay awhile,
And work away with vigour,
For many a one will make his pile
That’s now a hard-up digger.
He was to return to the theme many times. Perhaps his clearest expression of the democratic yearnings of the diggers was "Hurrah for Australia".
Hurrah for Australia the golden,
Where men of all nations now toil,
To none will we e’er be beholden
Whilst we’ve strength to turn up the soil;
There’s no poverty here to distress us,
‘Tis the country of true liberty,
No proud lords can ever oppress us,
For here we’re untrammelled and free.
Thatcher was not the best singer on the goldfields, but he had the happy knack of combining shrewd insights into society on the diggings with a ready wit and a strong sense of the ridiculous. Newspaper columnists dubbed him the "inimitable Mr Thatcher".
As tension mounted on the goldfields over the licensing questions Thatcher chronicled digger resistance, poking fun mercilessly at the gold commissioners and the police. The chorus from one of his songs, "Where’s your Licence?" was widely adopted by resisting diggers to taunt the police on their licence hunts.
Young man of the Crown
Why don’t you come down?
the diggers would chant, challenging the hapless "traps" (police) to descend their holes after them. Although he was in Bendigo at the time of the Eureka stockade, Thatcher immediately composed a new song to record the event:
"The Private Despatch of Captain Bumble of the 40th stationed at Ballarat to His Excellency Sir Charles Hotham";
He writes thus to His Excellency;
Myself and Major Stiggings
Go our brave fellows all equipped
And started for the diggings.
Our band struck up God Save the Queen,
Into cheers our men were bursting,
And every gallant soldier was
For glorious action thirsting.
Our first attack was on two drays,
Which we saw in the distance,
But the enemy just surrendered,
After just a slight resistance.
We were disappointed in our search,
Of these two wretched traitors,
For instead of seizing powder,
It was loaded with potatoes.
At length into the diggings,
Footsore our men did tramp there,
And we took up our position
Within the Government Camp there.
We watched at night, but all was still,
For glory we were yearning,
And we fired upon a tent in which
A candle was seen burning
We killed a woman and a child,
Thought ‘twas not our intention.
But that slight mistakes sometimes occur,
Of course I needn’t mention
And so on for many verses.
Charles Thatcher remained in Victoria until 1861, when he and his new wife Annie sailed for New Zealand. In 1870 he returned to England, where he resumed the family curio business. He died of cholera in Shanghai in 1878.
By Margaret Anderson.
From Gold and Civilisation, National Museum of Australia 2001. Published by Art Exhibitions Australia Ltd and the National Museum of Australia.