State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 83 May 2009


Mimi Colligan
Theatre in the Neild Scrapbooks

James Edward Neild was one of Victoria's most interesting and versatile 19th century public figures. As well as being a busy medical practitioner and sometime coroner, he was also an ardent theatregoer and journalist. He combined the latter interests as Melbourne's foremost theatre critic for more than 50 years. This article concentrates on the theatrical aspect of the scrapbooks although there is also a wealth of medical clippings and letters that would be of interest to a medical historian.
Born in Yorkshire in 1824, Neild arrived in Melbourne in 1853 holding an LSA (Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries). He was later awarded an MD by the University of Melbourne. As his biographer, the late Harold Love observed, when Neild was not dissecting bodies as a surgeon or coroner, he was dissecting actors’ performances.1 The fact that the entry for Neild in the Australian Dictionary of Biography was written by a medical historian, the late Bryan Gandevia, and that his biography was written by a theatre and literary historian reflects Neild's wide interests. Both historians feared that most of Neild's papers had disappeared. In his 1973 ADB entry on Neild,2 Bryan Gandevia noted that most of the Neild family papers have been lost, listing only the Neild Papers held by the Australian Medical Association Archives in his short bibliography. The late Harold Love, who published a definitive biography, James Edward Neild: Victorian Virtuoso in 1989, lamented the loss of what must have been a vast collection of papers but speculated that ‘some scrap-books and manuscripts may survive … in private hands’.3
Two of Neild's missing scrapbooks have recently been acquired by the State Library of Victoria. They had been in the possession of collector and dealer, the late Richard Berry, part of whose extraordinary collection was sold by Australian Book Auctions over three auctions. The Berry family had remarkable collecting habits. From about the 1950s antique dealers Dick and Fran Berry and their children Elizabeth and Richard put together a huge collection of items ranging from precious porcelain, jewellery, books, paintings, photographs, and stamps to ephemera which included postcards, theatre programmes and scrapbooks. It was noted over the years that many objects in their shops were often, randomly, not for sale. With the death of Richard Berry, the last of the Berry's children, in July 2005 the collection passed to his aunts and a cousin. These heirs put the first portion of the collection on sale in September 2007.
The two Neild Scrapbooks were Lot 38 in the auction and described as ‘A Highly Important Archive’ in the catalogue4 and the auctioneers emphasised that they had been assumed to be lost and placed an estimate of $5,000/10,000 on them. The State Library realising their importance put a priority on their purchase and were successful in obtaining them.

Program of combined ‘Grand Complimentary Concert’ held at the Melbourne Town Hall and ‘Special Dramatic Matinee’ held at the Princess Theatre, 19 July and 26 July 1890 respectively, in honour of Dr James E. Neild.
Pasted into J. E. Neild Scrapbook, c.1874–1948, MS 13557, MS Box 4011, Australian Mansuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.

According to Harold Love's bibliography in his book on Neild, the State Library had several scrapbooks and albums compiled by, or pertaining to Neild. These include a scrapbook of Shakespeare cuttings5 as well as others from the Shakespeare Society of which Neild was one of the founders and may have been the compiler, and a scrapbook of theatre clippings which Love attributed to Neild but which the State Library of Victoria as yet catalogues separately.6 With the ‘Berry’ acquisition the Manuscript Collection now owns three scrapbooks definitely compiled by Neild. The two ‘new’ scrapbooks add a great deal to our knowledge of Neild both as medical practitioner, theatre critic and, perhaps, gives an insight to some aspects of his psyche.
One album7 is thought to have been started by Neild and continued by one of his children as it contains cuttings dated after Neild's death in 1906. For example, it contains reports of some notable criminal cases, such as the Knorr poisoning trial and the Needle baby farming trial, in which Neild gave forensic evidence. Numerous obituaries of Neild are also among the clippings. One of the virtues of scrapbooks is that they often good sources for information on others who associated with the subject of the scrapbook. For example, there are two articles on novelist Mary Grant Bruce. One from the magazine Woman's World, 1 July 1924, the other from Woman's Mirror, 2 September 1930. The cuttings mention that Neild had been something of a mentor to the young writer and it is clear that the compiler inserted the cuttings as a continuing interest in their father's contacts. Also among the manuscript letters in this volume is an invitation and offer of a box at a performance in the Alexander Theatre (later Her Majesty's) from actor-manager Dan Barry expressing his respect for Neild's theatre criticism. The letter is dated 15 February 1894 four years after Neild had left the Australasian, and his longest standing theatre criticism page and virtually retired from journalism so Barry's motive seems to be unencumbered with self interest. Another letter is from ‘F. McCubbin’ (presumably the artist) in April 1894 accepting ‘your kind invitation for Friday next’. So we see in just two letters the breadth of Neild's acquaintances.
The last ‘paste-in scrap’ in the first album is from a ‘blood and thunder’ article in Smith's Weekly, 29 April 1933, on the 1868 suicide of the Melbourne actress Marie St Denis. The illustrator of the article seems to have had access to a picture of Neild for the highly charged image (reproduced on page 117) shows a good likeness of Doctor Neild attempting to calm the distraught Marie.
The other album8 contains cuttings of printed articles and letters by Neild's fellow journalists and theatrical critics as well as several manuscript letters. Two handbills from the late 1850s criticising Neild are also pasted into the book, one from Sohier of the Waxworks, the other expressing displeasure on Neild's opinions on the opera.
The clippings cover a period from the late 1850s where as the weekly Examiner critic, ‘Christopher Sly’, Neild castigated the performances of magician ‘Professor’ Anderson at the Theatre Royal, through Neild's time as ‘Jaques’, his subsequent pseudonym as ‘Tahite’ in the
weekly Australasian and several other ‘Neildean’ controversies in other newspaper, up to the 1870s. Many of these clippings are appended with Neild's identifying comments. He seems to have written the name and date of the clipping, printing it in neatly in black ink then, years later, written twenty words or so describing their (usually) unfortunate fates. Most of the latter reveal that Neild was even more curmudgeonly and perhaps even pathologically morbid and malicious than the belligerently, ‘terrier-like’ character presented in the biographies. Neild seems to take a masochistic delight in collecting letters and newspaper clippings that take him to task for biased theatre reviews and medical opinions. Then, dipping ‘his pen in vitriol’ and writing his comments on the scrapbook page under the clipping, Neild identifies the writers and adds how many of them died in ‘miserable circumstances’ or were mere hack writers, jealous of his prominence. These identifications can be of value to literary and newspaper historians and biographers in adding other, if unfavourable, views to some of the ‘literary’ community of 19th century Melbourne. The second scrapbook can happily be read in conjunction with the diaries of Curtis Candler, and Annie Baxter Dawbin which cover some of the same period.9
The first few pages of the second scrapbook cover a public quarrel between Neild (as ‘Jaques’) and John Henry Anderson, a magician advertised as ‘the Wizard of the North’. When one of his colleagues, who Neild identifies as T. L. Bright, published a piece criticising Anderson, the doctor comments thus:
A clever genial man, but thriftless and shiftless. He was the first editor of the Age. Then he started, the [My] Note Book, then he became editor of the Examiner. Getting into money difficulties he went to New Zealand. He came back after some years, a wreck. He wrote a little for the Argus but his powers were blunted by excess. He died miserably at Sandhurst.
One of the clippings identified as being by the journalist and playwright, William Mower Akhurst has comment that puts one in mind of Alexander Pope or John Aubrey:
Written by Akhurst. Formerly on the Argus, afterwards sub-editor of the Herald. Author of some burlesques. A second-hand wit; a Drunkard always. He went to London and was known as “Drunken Akhurst”. He died of drink on the return passage to Australia.
A remark on another writer carries the words ‘left a disreputable wife and three daughters’. Neild describes James Simmonds, who at the time, February 1863, was manager of the Haymarket Theatre as a ‘low Jew who was for a time a theatrical man in Melbourne. He died poor and miserably in New Zealand’. In 1865 a writer signing himself ‘Long Tom’ wrote two letters to the press on ‘What is the state of Dramatic Criticism in Melbourne and who are our Dramatic Critics?’ He protested against the dominance of one critic in particular among whose nom de plumes were ‘Jaques’ of the Australasian, ‘Punch at the Playhouse’ and ‘Gallery Boy’ in ‘Bell's Life in Victoria’. Neild identifies ‘Long Tom’ as journalist and playwright George Scott Hough, and dismisses his argument that there are only two theatre critics with the words, ‘written by Hough a vapid vain shiftless creature who, failing in all he attempted in this country, went to London, failed there and died in wretchedness’.10

Illustration to accompany article published in Smith's Weekly, 29 April, 1933, on the 1868 suicide of Melbourne actress, Marie St Deni. The doctor attending to the distraught actress bears a close resemblance to James Edward Neild. Pasted into J. E. Neild Scrapbook, c.1874–1948, MS 13557, MS Box 4011, Australian Mansuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.

Harold Love deals with Neild's shortcomings in music criticism in the biography.11 A cutting from 1858 is of a letter to the Examiner signed ‘Paul Pry’ (identified as one Pollard) criticising Neild's review of the opera at the Princess's where Neild made unkind comments on the acting ability of singers new to opera, Marie Carandini and Octavia Hamilton:
When Madame Carandini first appeared she was … defective in her acting, but who will now say that she does not acquit herself most creditably as an operatic actress? And if in so short a time Madame Carandini has so much improved, we can see no reason to hunt down Miss Hamilton, who has but yesterday made her debut on the operatic stage.
Neild comments: ‘Pollard was a softly spoken sneak in the government service. He thought he knew most things. He died in misery’. Seemingly writing years after he pasted-in the clippings, it is as though Neild, in later life needed to express exaltation in the difficult deaths of his enemies.
As well we are able to read that writers such as S. H. Bancks and even Dr John Quick (of Federation fame, at the time a reporter on the Age) were also anti-Neild.12
Some of the manuscript letters insinuate that Neild required that actors and actresses (especially those newly arrived from Britain or the USA) to pay him varying degrees of respect and flattery or he would write unfavourable reviews about them.
One such review was of actress Nellie Maher's performance of Dora in the Boucicault melodrama, The Octoroon, at the Academy of Music in 1878. Several journalists came to her defence and implied that the actress had not paid due tribute to the critic. A clipping from the (Collingwood) Observer of 26 October 1878 (writer is identified by Neild as Tate, possibly Tait, the editor of the Observer) has malicious fun comparing Nellie with Hattie Shepparde by referring to Neild not ‘Tahite’ but ‘Hattie’!13 Clippings on Nellie Maher are pasted into the scrapbook together with a very unflattering drawing of the actress and Nellie's own advertisement objecting to Neild's review where, like Lola Montes, she threatened to ‘horse-whip him’. This, of course, was good publicity for her performances.14
Neild's troubled relationship with Mrs T. P. Hill forms part of a chapter in the biography by Love.15 Cecilia Hill wrote a novel, Checkmated, which was a thinly disguised story about Dr Neild and his various extra marital amours. Here Neild is called ‘Doctor de la Morte’. Neild and Mrs Hill's husband had come to blows over Thomas Padmore Hill's (an elocutionist) lectures and the latter sued Neild for malicious prosecution. This painful episode is not ignored by the good doctor in his scrapbook: there are clippings on the subject from most of the Melbourne newspapers including the Herald, Age, Argus, the suburban Collingwood Observer and country papers which ridicule both the badly written novel and Mrs Hill's relationship with Dr Neild, publishing damaging letters from Neild to Cecilia Hill addressing her as ‘Chere Amie’. There are, however, in this case no Neildean manuscript comments.
So, was Neild a mere curmudgeon? Does this scrapbook show him as a malicious old man? It is clear from the examples in his scrapbooks that his theatre criticism had the ability to arouse much hatred among players and journalists. From his own manuscript comments it is also clear that he had a jaundiced view of many of his fellow journalists. Yet much of his criticism was focussed on improving the state of Melbourne theatre by goading complacent managers and performers to aspire to higher standards. Neild's theatre journalism still makes entertaining reading in its sophisticated acerbic comments.16 Consulting these scrapbooks gives us a window into the lively world of colonial Melbourne.
The late Harold Love would have been delighted that two more Neild Scrapbooks had surfaced and are now in their rightful home, the State Library of Victoria. His relatively early death from cancer at the age of seventy in 2007 robbed him of the chance of ever seeing them.


Harold Love, The Golden Age of Australian Opera: W. S. Lyster and his companies, Sydney: Currency, 1981, p. 22.


Bryan Gandevia ‘James Edward Neild’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 5. Also available at


Harold Love, James Edward Neild: Victorian virtuoso, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1989, p. 328


Australian Book Auctions, The Berry Collection First Sale, Armadale, Vic: ABA, 2007. See the introduction to the catalogue for an outline of the remarkable collecting habits of the Berry family.


J. E. Neild, Scrapbook [Manuscript] ca. 1870–1901, MS 12380, MS Box 4019.


Love, op. cit., p. 299; Collection of press cuttings, 1862–1864, relating to entertainment held at theatres including Royal Haymarket, the Royal Princess's, new Haymarket theatres, the Apollo Music Hall and the Royal Lyceum. MS BOX 3575/3


J. E. Neild, Scrapbook [Manuscript] ca. 1858–1880, MS 13557, MS Box 4010.


J. E. Neild, Scrapbook [Manuscript] ca. 1874–1948, MS 13557, MS Box 4011.


See- ‘Notes on Melbourne life by Curtis Candler, together with his manuscript copy of the diaries of Captain Frederick Charles Standish, ca.1848–1877’. Historian Paul De Serville is preparing an annotated edition of Standish's diaries. See also Journals of Annie Baxter Dawbin, July 1858–1868, St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1998.


These cuttings are dated by Neild as 28 October 1865 and 11 December 1865. Presumably the other critic dealt with by Hough was James Smith.


Love, James Edward Neild, pp. 6, 259–60.


Quick, in this case, wrongfully accused Neild of writing doggerel for actress Louise Pomeroy to speak at a benefit. However, Neild wrote many such ‘occasional verses’.


Marcus Clarke's feud with Neild, where he took the Doctor to task for excessive behaviour at the funeral of the actress Hattie Shepparde, is well documented by Harold Love in the biography. Neild was so enamoured with the actress that he chose an anagram of her name, ‘Tahite’ as his signature in his weekly Australasian theatre reviews.


Herald, 24 September 1878. Neild's criticism of Nellie (Australasian, 14 September 1878, p. 23) was fairly innocuous.


Love, James Edward Neild, chapter nine.


For Neild, London was the centre of the theatrical universe. Yet he never returned after leaving for Australia in 1853. It is clear, however, that he ‘kept-up’ with London criticism and this was behind much of his aspirations for Melbourne theatre.