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Minstrels and the Banjo


  Acknowledgment to my long-standing associate and music researcher, GARY LE GALLANT for this information-packed article. If you are interested in blues, ragtime, minstrel and other American music found in Australia visit www.nugrape.net


As mentioned in the article Minstrelsy in Australia Blythe Waterland’s troupe was the initial minstrel group to appear in Australia in a total minstrel performance. Included in their performance was the first appearance of the “American banjo” on the stage in Sydney.

Following the Sydney performances of the Waterland troupe, the group travelled up to the Maitland and Newcastle region by steamer. The Serenaders performances were enthusiastically received with the Maitland press greeting Waterland’s concert on the 29th of May, 1850, at the Rose Inn, West Maitland with the following lines:

 “The performance of the company on Wednesday evening was fully equal to the high character of their Tuesday’s entertainment. It is wonderful that with such apparently imperfect instruments as the banjo, the flutina, the tambourine, and the bones, these artists can produce really excellent music, their time and harmony being perfect…”

“The second part was introduced by “Christ Church Bells”, beautifully given on the banjo by Mr.Reading, and which obtained a well-deserved encore…”

The Serenaders were sent a deputation on their return from Singleton on the 1st June and requested to give a benefit for the Maitland Hospital, the crowd being such that the resultant attendance grossed £34/4/6d, with ticket sales totalling £23/11/-, and people being turned away at the door.

There was not all clear sailing though, with the ill health of Mr.Reading seemingly causing problems as he could not perform in some of his Sydney concerts as well as a number of the Maitland/Newcastle concerts. Following the troupe,s last performance in the Hunter Valley region they left for Sydney on the 11th June,1850 with resultant Sydney advertisements shown below:

 “Messrs. Charles V. Howard & George B. Howard, the celebrated and unequalled tambourine & flutina players, beg respectfully to inform the inhabitants of Sydney and the public generally that they are no longer in association with the person known as Blythe Waterland, and that they have now formed a company of Ethiopians unequalled in talent in New South Wales….”

13th June,1850.

“Messrs. Blythe Waterland and J. W. Reading, beg to notify the public, in reference to an advertisement which appeared in yesterday’s Herald, from the Messrs. Howards, that they have selected a splendid new band of Serenaders, which is now in active practice, and who will in a few days solicit the patronage of the public .Messrs. Waterland & Reading’s motive for this announcement is to guard their former supporters from being imposed upon by pretenders, whose early claim is the circumstance of their having once being engaged as part of their company. Sydney, June 13…”

14th June,1850.

This conflict did not go unnoticed and one journal had the following to say:

 “If the two bands were to coalesce, their success would be indubitable, but clashing together, as they necessarily must (if they adopt not this suggestion) we fear they will cut each other’s throats, in a professional sense….”

The Waterland troupe subsequently toured Goulburn, Berrima, and Picton, while the Howard Serenaders ventured to Bathurst, as well as publishing a songster “containing all the most popular nigger songs” available from the publisher Mr. Mason at 147 Castlereagh St., or Mr. Grocott’s music saloon in George St., for the price of 6d. The Waterland & Reading troupe also published their own songster which was available at the door of their concerts for the price of 1/-.

The two troupes then boarded the steamer, Shamrock, for Melbourne on the 5th July,1850, where they continued to carry out their aggressive advertisements to draw the crowds. This practice developed into a tradition as judged by subsequent years.

The Howard’s Serenaders opened in Melbourne at the Queen’s Theatre Royal on Friday, the 12th July,1850, with the Waterland and Reading’s Serenaders opening the following night at the Royal Hotel. The Howard Serenaders continued to perform in Melbourne and Geelong before returning to Sydney. The Waterland troupe also performed at various venues (Collingwood etc), as well as publicising their own songster for sale prior to travelling onto Tasmania.

Reviews for the two groups continued to be of interest with one mentioning the “clever imitation of the start of a railway train” (a feature of latter Bluegrass music!). Also the Waterland and Reading Serenaders’ advertisements mentioned that “they are the original performers of the American banjo in N. S. W.”.

Along with these two groups there were a number of other individual artists who staged minstrel acts in Sydney, Melbourne, Tasmania and the districts. These individual acts generally accompanied themselves with bones/tambourine or sang unaccompanied. Some of these artists included:

* John Hyde
* Mr.Jackson
* Mr.Golding
* Master Chambers
* Billy Barlow etc.

One of these individual minstrels went on to be significant in being the first to try and teach the local inhabitants the rudiments of playing the banjo.

Troy Knight appeared in Melbourne at the Queen’s Theatre, August, 1850 on the same bill with Master Chambers. It can be surmised that Master Chambers was one of the original performers that was part of the “The Four Ethiopian Serenaders” who first appeared in Melbourne around July,1849. (as per article on Minstrelsy in Australia).

Troy Knight was billed on the 15th August,1850 at the Queen’s Theatre as the celebrated Banjoist, and Master Chambers as the celebrated Picanniny Congo Minstrel. Troy Knight performed such pieces as “Happy Moments” and “a variety of favourite songs”.

Following performances by Troy Knight in Melbourne he ventured to Tasmania on the heels of the Waterland and Reading’s Serenaders, opening at the Royal Olympic Theatre, Launceston on Monday the 12th of September, and at the Longford, Blenheim Hotel on the 24th of September 1850, were he was billed as “the original bone & banjo player of the whole of the colonies”.(sic)

As well as appearing on the stage Troy Knight also placed advertisements for lessons on the American banjo. The advertisements placed in late September,1850 were the first indication of any local inhabitants being taught the American banjo. Unfortunately when a concert was put forward to allow his pupils public approbation he was not supported by these “gentlemen amateurs” as they were apparently smitten with stage fright.

The banjo subsequently gained a measure of acceptance in Australia and became an integral part of minstrel performances, as well as becoming an accompaniment to other entertainment. Latter years were to see the formation of banjo clubs, publications, etc, much in the same way as the Bluegrass Society.





Once again acknowledgement goes to the staff of the State & Mitchell Libraries.