A single item, sitting on a library shelf, can be the thread of a story that weaves through locations and generations. This one is a ‘musical score’ – the sheets of music notes used for a performance – owned by a notable (but little known) Tasmanian woman.
Sitting within the State Library collection is a musical score for The Toreador, dating from 1926. The Toreador, or How Sammy Gigg Won the Bullfight is a comic opera about a bull-fighter competing for the hand of a wealthy widow (The Brisbane Courier, 2/12/1929). The piece was performed several times in Tasmania under the direction of Australia’s first female conductor, Lucy Charlotte Benson, nee Westbrook. This item was brought to our attention by Anne Blythe-Cooper, as part of last year’s 91 Stories exhibition in the Allport gallery. We have now digitised this item in its entirety.
Lucy was born to a prominent Hobart family in 1860, in which music was highly valued (Tasmanian Archives: RGD33/1/7 no 3244). She was an accompanist, singer, choral director, teacher, and producer. She composed several popular works, most of which are now lost. Intensely driven and passionate about her craft, Lucy made costumes, painted sets, transcribed orchestral parts, and arranged choral works. She was related to Dame Nellie Melba and moved in influential circles.
Lucy went on to become Australia’s first woman to wield a conductor’s baton in front of an orchestra – she was referred to as the “lady conductor”. The Toreador score is a fascinating memento of her career, and her personality.
Lucy’s musical life
Lucy received musical training and recognition for her talent early in her life. By the age of 10, she would travel between three separate church congregations each Sunday to play the organ, and she later added a 4th (The Mercury, 18/1/1928). She first performed in the theatre in 1879 as a 19-year-old in the role of Josephine in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, HMS Pinafore, when the show was only 18 months old, and new to Hobart audiences (Tribune, 24/10/1879). Lucy’s aunt, Emily Dobson (who was the subject of our previous blog), also starred in this production, along with the man Lucy would marry two years later, William Benson (Tasmanian Archives: RGD37/1/40 no 207).
Marrying a man who shared her interest in amateur theatre cannot have hurt Lucy’s musical ambitions. The couple were part of the Bellerive Social Institute, which regularly hosted musical events (often directed by Lucy) (Blythe-Cooper, 2022, p.11). Early on in their marriage, William and Lucy would occasionally perform together, but at one of Lucy’s concerts in 1898 it was noted that William was appearing on the stage after a break of 16 years (The Mercury, 2/11/1898). The couple had six children, and Lucy continued her musical endeavours throughout her pregnancies and her children’s early lives. The children were automatic recruits for Lucy’s musicals, choirs and orchestras, with most of them being involved in performances throughout their lives. Her third son, Charles, pursued a professional singing career in London (The Mercury, 14/9/1932, 9/10/1932).
Lucy travelled with her choirs to compete in eisteddfods throughout Tasmania and the mainland, and brought great credit to the “baby state” of Tasmania (The Ballarat Star, 16/9/1904, 19/10/1904, The Examiner 25/10/1904, The Mercury, 27/01/1904). The choir had to raise funds to travel interstate, and Lucy overcame critics who apparently claimed that she could not raise the money, and that the choir would not do enough credit to the state to make it worthwhile. Coming away from a Bathurst choral competition with a gold medal was a splendid vindication (Tasmanian News, 20/1/1904). In 1905 her choir won the Commonwealth championship at the Ballarat competitions and were welcomed back to Hobart with a grand reception at Town Hall (The Mercury, 30/10/1905).
Lucy went on to produce and direct most of the Gilbert & Sullivan musicals, as well as serious opera – in all, she produced somewhere between 30 or 40 shows (Blythe-Cooper, 2022). Her musicals and touring company contributed to the cultural social life of the community.
Lucy had enormous energy for both performance and organisation, which she often combined. In many of her productions she played roles both on and off the stage.
Lucy presented The Toreador on three occasions: 1911, 1921 and 1926. The 1926 score we have in our archives includes photographs and notes about other productions. It includes costume lists, cast measurements, shopping lists (a reminder to purchase tinfoil) and assorted scripts for skits. Many of these belonged to band leader, Don Wilson, who was Lucy’s grandson and donated the score to the State Library of Tasmania collection. Don, aged 13, took the role of Senor Torayros in this 1926 production of The Toreador, performed at the Theatre Royal in Hobart (The Mercury, 15/11/1926). He also played in the orchestra under his grandmother’s baton. It is truly a snapshot in time, transporting us back to the world Lucy was living in.
The Bensons and their extended family were central to the musical life of Tasmania throughout Lucy’s lifetime. The three productions of The Toreador are a good example of this. The 1911 and 1921 productions of The Toreador both featured the Benson’s second son, Gerald, in the leading role of Sammy Gigg. Their first son, Dare, was also in the 1911 show. Daughters Beryl and Youla took on parts in 1921, with Beryl’s husband as the stage-manager. Beryl returned to her part in 1926. Practically all of Lucy’s concerts and productions involved at least one of her family.
“Concert in aid of…”
Many of the musical events that Lucy organised were raising money for a cause. In some cases the funds were directed towards the performing space or future productions, but in others they were more directly philanthropic. As with many ladies of her social class, most notably Lucy’s aunt Emily Dobson, Lucy was involved in raising money for charity. In 1889, Lucy established the Band of Mercy, an animal rights organisation that attempted to have a water fountain constructed in Bellerive for beasts of burden, but this was ultimately rejected (The Mercury, 28/5/1890). Lucy also regularly held concerts and ‘soiree musicale’ in aid of the Blind Society (Tasmanian News, 7/12/1899). One review of such a benefit concert was particularly complimentary of Lucy’s efforts:
That talented daughter of Tasmania, Mrs Benson…whatever she may take in hand will prove most enjoyable. That lady is thorough in all she undertakes, whether it be in those delightful soubrette characters with which she was wont to delight audiences some years ago, in operas. For example, ”Little Buttercup,” as a vocalist there is the same underlying principle, that what is worth doing should be done well. All with whom she has to work are infected with her enthusiasm, and this unquestionably is the secret of the success of all the entertainments she has set before the public. Last night was no exception. Indeed, it must be ranked among the greatest triumphs Mrs Benson has achieved. Working, as she and her coadjutors were, in a good cause—the raising of funds to purchase furniture for the Institution for Blind, Deaf, and Dumb they threw themselves with great vigor into it, and with the most happy results.Tasmanian News, 4/8/1898
Lucy lived a long life and moved with the times, embracing new technology such as radio. From 1927 she directed musical performances for radio on 7ZL (The Mercury, 19/09/1927).
Lucy continued to perform until her death in 1943. Her influence on Tasmania’s musical culture can still be felt today – she lobbied for a full-time orchestra in Tasmania, and some of her students went on to teach subsequent generations of performers.
More broadly, Lucy Benson had a profound influence on the musical culture of Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a ‘leading amateur’, she paved a way for today’s female conductors to pick up a baton, and her legacy endures in those whose talent she nurtured.
Thanks to Anne Blythe-Cooper for her contributions to this story. For more on Lucy Benson’s life, you can access Anne’s book, Leading Amateurs at Libraries Tasmania.
Blythe-Cooper, Anne, Leading Amateurs : musical entrepreneur, Lucy Charlotte Benson (1860-1943), Margate 2022
Large, Diana, ‘Benson, Lucy Charlotte (1860–1943)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/benson-lucy-charlotte-5215/text8779, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 March 2022