“Applause and tin came tumbling in”: The songsters of Charles Thatcher

Charles Thatcher has a good claim to being the most popular singer and lyricist of New Zealand’s colonial period. Wherever Thatcher performed “applause and tin came tumbling in”, according to a verse in the Hawke’s Bay Herald , “tin” being slang for money. (1) His unique entertainment model was a hit during the Otago, Nelson, West Coast and Coromandel gold rushes of the 1860s, and cast a long shadow on popular memory.

Fortunately for researchers, a large number of Thatcher’s topical songs have survived in newspapers and small printed songsters. These songs – or “locals”, as they were called – capture in vivid detail the incidents and milieus, attitudes and prejudices, banter and colloquial language of the times. The Alexander Turnbull Library, Hocken Collections and Auckland Libraries have recently been working to digitise their copies of Thatcher’s songsters and make these available online. Read on to learn more about how we are bringing Thatcher into the digital age.

Charles Thatcher, 1869. Ref: New South Wales State Library, P1/1744Charles Thatcher, 1869. Ref: New South Wales State Library, P1/1744.

“Roars of irrepressible and uncontrollable laughter”

Born in Bristol, England, Charles Robert Thatcher (1830-1878) emigrated to Australia in 1852, hoping to make his fortune on the goldfields of Victoria. Nuggets proved elusive, but Thatcher found that his entertainment skills were in high demand at local hotels and theatres. He had previously worked as a theatre musician in London, but down under he supplemented his act with topical songs describing humorous events on the diggings: these proved extremely popular with gold miners.

In 1862, Thatcher and his wife, singer Annie Vitelli, arrived in Dunedin for the first of three New Zealand tours, giving concerts in the burgeoning goldfields settlements, provincial towns and main centres. The Thatcher troupe even operated their own hotel during a long residency in Queenstown. Concerts featured Thatcher’s “locals”, sentimental ballads and opera from Madame Vitelli, and comic songs and recitations by Irish sidekick Joe Small.

Goldmining settlement of Napoleon Hill, 1866. Ref: PA1-o-530-25Goldmining settlement of Napoleon Hill, 1866. Ref: PA1-o-530-25.

In New Zealand, Thatcher’s songs were a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, apparently eliciting “roars of irrepressible and uncontrollable laughter” from audiences wherever he performed. (2) People enjoyed his witty verses, often penned on the day of performance in response to things he had observed about town or heard from local insiders. It was a unique form of reportage-in-song that combined the art of music hall singer, editorial cartoonist, and stand-up comedian. Such was Thatcher’s skill that he became widely known as the “Inimitable Thatcher”.

Thatcher’s subjects ranged across the spectrum of colonial life: street scenes, law and order, government and politics, the New Zealand Wars, Chinese immigration, commerce and trade, and more. Songs like ‘The Bazaar’ alerted unwary consumers that “There are lots of little swindles / In all New Zealand towns”, while others lampooned the incompetence of the goldfields judiciary, such as one ‘Major Croker’, whose “convictions were all bosh”. Even the highest political authorities were fair game, one song jeering at Governor Grey for possibly conniving in the escape of Māori prisoners from Kawau Island during the Invasion of the Waikato: “Ka Kino! Hori Grey, for you let us get away / And you’ll never see your Maoris any more”. As musicologist Robert Hoskins notes, he had a gift for tapping into populist feeling:

There is no question that Charles Thatcher profited, not only commercially, but artistically, from a deep sympathy with the underlying currents of his age. He enjoyed its speculative spirit and even its mendacities. His greatness lay in his ability to feel what his contemporaries felt. (3)

Charles Thatcher’s associate, the singer Joe Small (detail), ca.1863-1870. Ref: E-309-q-1-003Charles Thatcher’s associate, the singer Joe Small (detail), ca.1863-1870. Ref: E-309-q-1-003

Inevitably, Thatcher’s songs ruffled feathers, especially those lyrics which communicated his dislike of elites, social conservatism, and political humbug. But the singer’s tendency to reply to any such criticism with yet another set of cutting verses, not to speak of his abilities as a boxer and marksman, seemed to quell most complaints. Thatcher’s songs can be cruel and some exhibit the racist attitudes prevalent in the colonial society (such as his attacks on Chinese migrants). Yet even these prejudices underscore the significance of Thatcher’s songs as an historical chronicle. Period commentators recognised the singer’s importance, even as he toured the country:

Such caricatures [as Thatcher’s]… are, in some sense, historical records of local events, and fill up the omissions in our histories proper. Furthermore, ephemeral and insignificant as they appear to be, they help make history by their influence on public opinion. Not only do they indicate the passions and illusions of the hour, but they contribute materially to the conclusions of the hour about to follow. (4)

Thatcher’s influence didn’t end with his final New Zealand tour in 1870 either. Some “locals” were printed in the Colonial Songster series published in Dunedin during the 1870s, and they continued to be performed for decades afterwards. Premier Richard Seddon, for one, was reportedly given to singing Thatcher songs at “convivial gatherings”. (5) In 1913, James Cowan referred to them as “bush-camp classics” alongside other vernacular ditties known to Kauri bushmen, coastal sailors and railway navvies. (6)

Charles Thatcher’s songsters and vocalists

The sale of printed booklets of Thatcher’s songs – known as “songsters” or “vocalists” – was another source of “tin” for Thatcher’s entertainment troupe. The singer had already published several large collections of lyrics in Australia before venturing across the Tasman, including the Colonial Songster and Colonial Minstrel. But in New Zealand he seems to have discovered a demand for smaller, more locally-themed, parochial publications. According to Robert Hoskins’ bibliographic research, at least 12 different songsters were released between 1862 and 1869, most named after a particular city, region or locality. (7)

Otago Songster (1865) and Songs of the War (1864). Hocken Collections.Otago Songster (1865) and Songs of the War (1864). Hocken Collections.

These booklets of lyrics were not built to last and had already become exceedingly rare by the 1930s. (8) Several libraries and museums in New Zealand have preserved copies, with the largest holdings being those at Alexander Turnbull Library, Hocken Collections and Auckland Libraries. Together these three institutions hold copies of all but two of Thatcher’s New Zealand productions, together with three of his Australian songsters. (9) For a list with links to digitised versions, go to the end of this blog.

The songster digitisation project is intended to help researchers to directly access Charles Thatcher’s lyrics in their original printings. More songs can be found by searching Papers Past for “Charles Thatcher” or “Inimitable Thatcher”. The project also provides an opportunity to compare annotations and library bindings, and delve into the interesting provenance of different copies, as the remainder of this blog details.

Alexander Turnbull Library

The Turnbull Library holds original copies of nine Thatcher songsters, all of which have been rebound in hard covers. How these copies came to the Library is sometimes well-documented and sometimes less clear. For instance, at first sight the Canterbury Songster (1862) and Colonial Minstrel (1864, and bound together with the Colonial Songster and the Victoria Songster) appear to have formed part of Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull’s original bequest, as both bear one of Turnbull’s personal armorial bookplates.

Alexander Turnbull’s personal bookplate from the Canterbury Songster (1864). Alexander Turnbull Library.Alexander Turnbull’s personal bookplate from the Canterbury Songster (1864). Alexander Turnbull Library.

Curiously, though, Johannes Andersen is noted in the Library’s first donation book as having gifted the Canterbury Songster on the 5 November 1923, together with the Invercargill Minstrel (1864). Both songsters also bear the ownership markings of Joseph Lowthian Wilson (1846-1926), an English migrant who settled in Kaiapoi in 1863 who, after initially working for the Press newspaper, became a councillor and mayor of the borough.

So how did Andersen, then the Library’s Chief Librarian, come to donate Turnbull’s own copy of the Canterbury Songster to the Turnbull Library? One explanation is that the booklet was separated from Turnbull’s collection before his death – he had possibly lent it to Andersen (or perhaps to Wilson or another party) – before it was returned. Another theory is that Andersen may have had a supply of Turnbull’s original bookplates.

Interesting also are the Library’s copies of Thatcher's Dunedin Songster no.3 (1862) and Thatcher's Lake Wakatipu Songster (1863) for the substantial handwritten annotations they contain. These include variant verses of songs such as ‘The Old Identity’, Thatcher’s classic dig at the Dunedin “establishment”, and lengthy commentaries on the circumstances that inspired other ditties. “Occasionally”, the notes state, “his songs were somewhat coarse and vulgar, or unpleasantly personal”.

Annotations inside copy of Thatcher’s Lake Wakatipu Songster (1864). Alexander Turnbull Library.Annotations inside copy of Thatcher’s Lake Wakatipu Songster (1864). Alexander Turnbull Library.

These comments are unsigned, but appear to be in the hand of William Henry Sherwood Roberts (1834-1917), a Welshman who emigrated in 1855, settled in Oamaru, and become an authority on Otago history and local Māori nomenclature. The handwriting can be readily checked against a range of Roberts’ writings which have been archived. One interesting example is online: an entire issue of the Oamaru Times he copied out by hand! Read more about the story behind this newspaper in the Handwritten newspapers blog.

Hocken Collections

Amanda Mills, Music Curator

Raconteur, performer, satirist, and colonial, Charles Thatcher represented many things to his audience. The Englishman had arrived in Dunedin from Melbourne in 1862, accompanied by his wife Annie and his brother (and manager), Richmond, to start his first season as a guest of Shadrach Jones, new owner of the Commercial Hotel in High Street, which boasted an improved concert hall, the Theatre Royal. Dr. Thomas Morland Hocken, who collected many of these songsters as part of the original Hocken collection, was unimpressed with this theatre, and notes in the margins of his copy of Thatcher’s Dunedin Songster no. 1 that “the so-called Theatre Royal was a rough room in the Commercial Hotel, High St”.

Dr. Hocken’s commentary inside Thatcher’s Dunedin Songster no.1 (1862). Hocken Pamphlets.Dr. Hocken’s commentary inside Thatcher’s Dunedin Songster no.1 (1862). Hocken Pamphlets.

Thatcher’s lyrics reported everyday news and trivialities, and then satirised the subjects, a social critique of the day that spared no one, or no major event, as this verse on the 1865 Dunedin Exhibition illustrates:

The exhibition doesn’t take
So well as expected,
The people do not rush in crowds
To see the things collected.
They betray a wond’rous apathy
About five bob admission;
And some have actually declared
That it’s an imposition.

While not an authentic lyrical improviser, Thatcher made his words up often hours prior to performances. One notable occasion occurred on May 10, 1862, when Thatcher performed topical songs about the matter of the Middle Island (South Island) of New Zealand becoming separate and independent to the North Island – the official, public meeting about this subject having only taken place hours beforehand.

Thatcher’s provocative side is demonstrated by a stir in the Oamaru Times he caused with a letter penned to the editor: “Sir – This is to inform you that if you allude to me again in your paper in any uncomplimentary way, I will pull your nose in the most public place I can find you in Oamaru, and will return from Timaru to do it”. The editor observed with some bemusement, that Thatcher “did not pen this epistle until he was safe out of Oamaru”. (10)

Thatcher generally did not write music, preferring to set his lyrics to tunes sourced from the popular and folk repertoire of Scotland, Ireland, England, and the United States. On his death in 1878, the Australian newspaper, The Bendigo Advertiser (as reported in the Otago Witness ), called Thatcher “one of the most clever and amusing public performers we ever met with, and… a thoroughly steady and saving man”. (11)

Hocken Collections holds eight original Thatcher publications – spanning the length and breadth of New Zealand – which are spread among different publications collections. These include the Lawlor and Hocken collections, Hocken Pamphlets, as well as the general published collections. The physical state of Hocken’s Thatcher material is excellent for its age (over 150 years old), but they are bound with other items, so photographing and digitising them took extra time and care to ensure they remained in excellent condition, while capturing all the content.

Auckland Libraries

Marilyn Portman, Music Librarian

At his Auckland Farewell address at Odd Fellows Hall during his second tour of New Zealand (1863-65), Thatcher sang:

There’s no mistake, my mission’s very clear.
I’ll speak my mind out without any fear;
though some may think that I am rather bold,
the mirror up to nature I will hold. (12)

This lyric illustrates that while Thatcher’s main inspiration for his songs were the goldfields he also reflected issues such as social injustice and prejudice, he promoted fair-play and presented reform through his satire. He was also a raconteur of current events both extraordinary and scandalous. Some songsters are filled with lyrics relating to the Auckland scene. ‘Things you don’t often see’ from Thatcher’s Auckland Songster, for instance, ironically highlights certain civic shortcomings:

There are strange sights in Auckland exciting surprise,
You’ll observe some queer things, if you open your eyes: -
Now you don’t often see on a very dark night
A lamp in the city that gives any light;

You don’t often notice a Post-Office clerk
That ever has time to out for a “lark”;
Nor a Commodore here who is not very large,
Or a baker in Auckland who don’t overcharge:
You don’t often see many natives out here
Who of brandy or rum have a horror or fear:
Or a roadside hotel, go wherever you please,
Where the blankets are not the head quarters of fleas.

Auckland Libraries acquired four of Thatcher’s entertaining songsters by donation as part of the Sir George Grey collection. The Library’s copy of Thatcher’s Otago Songster (1865) contains a personal inscription from Thatcher.

Inscription from Thatcher’s Otago Songster no.1 (1865). Auckland Library.Inscription from Thatcher’s Otago Songster no.1 (1865). Auckland Library.

Sir George Grey was obviously no stranger to Thatcher’s entertainment in Auckland, as several letters in the Sir George Grey Special Collections (pdf, 1.49MB) show. A letter from Thatcher to Grey’s secretary dated 22 August 1864 asks Sir George to contradict a “stupid paragraph” appearing in some Australian newspapers which claimed that Grey had had Thatcher imprisoned for singing insulting songs. The secretary’s response states Grey “is much amused at its contents”, and that he was always pleased with Thatcher’s entertainments and he would in fact have been glad to have kept Thatcher prisoner in Auckland!

Letter from Charles Thatcher to secretary of Sir George Grey, 22 August 1864. Auckland Libraries, ref: GLNZ T7Letter from Charles Thatcher to secretary of Sir George Grey, 22 August 1864. Auckland Libraries, ref: GLNZ T7

As a farewell stunt to Auckland in his third and final tour of New Zealand in 1869, Thatcher apparently tried and failed to ride a horse up Queen Street. On the 3rd of August, the New Zealand Herald reported “whatever his hobby in satirical line may be his vein evidently does not run on the hobby or any other horse”. (13)

Digitised songsters

Digitised versions of Thatcher’s songsters from Turnbull, Hocken and Auckland Libraries are listed below, with links to online copies and/or downloadable PDFs.

Alexander Turnbull Library
Thatcher's Dunedin Songster no.3 (1862)
Thatcher's Canterbury Songster (1862)
Thatcher's Auckland Vocalist (1862)
Thatcher's Lake Wakatipu Songster (1863)
Songs of the War (1864)
Thatcher's Invercargill Minstrel (1864)
Thatcher's Colonial Minstrel (1864)
Thatcher’s Colonial Songster (1865) (bound in with Colonial Minstrel, after page 72)
The Victoria Songster , 2nd ed. (1860) (bound in with Colonial Minstrel, after page 108)

Hocken Collections
Thatcher’s Dunedin Songster no.1 (1862)
Thatcher’s Dunedin Songster no.2 (1862)
The Auckland Songster (1864)
Songs of the War (1864)
Thatcher’s Invercargill Minstrel (1864)
Thatcher’s Otago Songster no.1 (1865)
Thatcher’s Colonial Songster (1865)

(Or browse the Hocken’s Charles R. Thatcher songsters collection.)

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
Thatcher’s Auckland Vocalist (1862) Download PDF (3.1MB)
Songs of the War (1864) Download PDF (3.4MB)
The Auckland Songster (1864) Download PDF (3.6MB)
Thatcher’s Otago Songster no.1 (1865) Download PDF (4.6MB)

Thanks to Anthony Tedeschi, Claire Viskovic, Robert Hoskins, and Tim Barnett.


1. Hawke’s Bay Herald, 23 December 1862, p.3. ^
2. Daily Southern Cross, 25 March 1864, p.3. ^
3. Robert Hoskins, Charles Thatcher ‘Life on the Goldfields’: An Entertainment (Christchurch: School of Music, University of Canterbury, 1996), p.14. ^
4. Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 28 May 1864, p.3. ^
5. Star, 6 April 1912, p.9. Seddon’s private secretary, Frank Andrews, was also given to singing Thatcher songs, e.g., see Otago Daily Times, 6 June 1905, p.3. ^
6. Canterbury Times, 24 September 1913, p.14. ^
7. Robert Hoskins, An Annotated Bibliography of Nineteenth Century New Zealand Songbooks (Christchurch: School of Music, University of Canterbury, 1988). ^
8. Evening Post, 22 December 1931, p.14. ^
9. Waikouaiti Songs (1865) is held by the Otago Settler’s Museum, while copies of Wit and Humour (1869) are held by Auckland Museum, Victoria University and National Library of Australia. ^
10. Reprinted in North Otago Times, 6 May 1870, p.3. ^
11. Otago Witness, 30 November 1878, p.13. ^
12. New Zealander, 26 March 1863, p.3. ^
13. New Zealand Herald, 3 August 1869, p.4. ^

Teaser image: Portrait of Charles Robert Thatcher, 1960. Artist unknown. Ref: PUBL-0217-frontis

By Michael Brown

Michael Brown is Music Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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Lynne Carmichael October 12th at 3:42PM

Just for information, a few of Charles Thatcher's goldfield songs were recorded by the vocalist Alex Hood and broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Musica Australis - a radio program covering pre-Federation music between 1969-1971 (produced by a very young Richard Divall). The songs are 'Look out below', 'Poll the grogseller' and 'Where's your license'.
The particular program 'Thatcher - Bard of the Goldfield' went to air on 18 April 1970 and there is a copy in the ABC archives.

Michael Brown October 12th at 4:45PM

Thanks Lynne for the information. The folksinger Graham Wilson also recorded a version of 'Poll the grogseller' for his 1980 cassette, 'The N.Z. Goldrush Songster' (https://natlib.govt.nz/records/36565213).

Thatcher was a real trans-Tasman musical phenomenon.

Robert Hoskins October 16th at 12:20PM

Warmest congratulations to Michael Brown and the team for managing a project that not only preserves Thatcher materially but also offers us an appreciation of a voice like his that challenges the status quo. Any researcher in the field will find here inspiration.

Keith Giles October 30th at 12:23PM

When Thatcher appeared in Auckland in November 1862 he was joined by the champion dancer Mackney from New South Wales. Robert Hoskins calls him Charles Mackney, but when he first performed in Sydney in 1860 he was "W H Mackney" from London. There is evidence that points to Mackney actually being the Auckland photographer and blackface minstrel W H Reed, who later ran a hotel in Staffordtown (near Hokitika) which hosted Thatcher in January 1870 (see West Coast Times, 6 January 1870, p2).