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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wyatt, Joseph (1788–1860)

by H. L. Oppenheim

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Joseph Wyatt (1788-1860), theatre lessee and owner, settled in Sydney in the early days and made his money as a haberdasher at 16 Pitt Street. In October 1833 he sold his Cheap Wholesale and Retail Warehouse and invested in property. His first theatrical venture began in April 1835 when he was one of the six lessees who took over Barnett Levey's Theatre Royal. In May 1836 when Levey resumed nominal ownership Wyatt became the sole lessee, paying him the total amount of £30 a week, which previously had been paid by the group of six lessees. Two months later it became known that Wyatt had begun planning his own larger theatre; he was given the assurance that the governor 'will be very glad to see a more commodious theatre erected in Sydney'. Yet when the Victoria Theatre opened in March 1838 its size, a capacity of 2000, proved rather a disadvantage: Sydney's audience potential was too small to allow the building up of a proper repertoire; there was need for constant change of programme which led to badly rehearsed and shoddily produced performances. When opening the Victoria Theatre Wyatt had purchased the lease of the old Theatre Royal from Levey's widow and in years to come he fought every attempt which threatened his monopoly of the theatre in Sydney.

In March 1841 Wyatt sailed for England to bring out performers for the Victoria Theatre. During his absence the management was in the hands of William Knight, a hotel owner, who might also have been one of the six lessees of the Theatre Royal and who until December 1845 was part-owner of the Victoria. After Knight left Wyatt shared the management with Frederick Gibson, his brother-in-law.

The first group of actors engaged by Wyatt in England came to Sydney in October 1842; the others arrived with him in January 1843. By this time the Sydney actors who had played the decisive part in the young Australian theatre protested against this influx of newcomers and the direct result was the emergence of Joseph Simmons's City Theatre. Of the new engagements the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 1843, wrote: 'Mr Wyatt certainly made a most unfortunate selection of performers. Of the twelve brought out by him from England there is not one equal in ability to the leading members, male or female, of the old company'.

In 1854 Wyatt sold the Victoria, and in March 1855 opened the Prince of Wales Theatre in Castlereagh Street, Sydney. The building cost was above £30,000 but was sold for £10,000 five years later. Joseph Wyatt died on 20 July 1860, and was buried at St Stephen's cemetery, Newtown. It may be said that his purely commercial approach has left its mark on Australian theatre to this day.

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Citation details

H. L. Oppenheim, 'Wyatt, Joseph (1788–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 7 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

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