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George Selth Coppin, Comic Actor & Entrepreneur (1819-1906)

Australia, Coppins Balloon, Obverse

Image: Australia, Coppins Balloon, Obverse

Source: Museum Victoria

George Selth Coppin was born on 8 April 1819 in Sussex, England. His mother was a member of a group of strolling players, and Coppin grew up in the world of itinerant theatre. He first appeared on stage as an infant, and attended village schools between his theatre engagements and learning to play the violin. By the age of seven he was performing in an act with his sister, and soon showed a flair for comic acting. At 16 he became his own master, and for the next seven years held a variety of jobs in provincial theatres. In 1842 he met an actress in Dublin, and they decided to migrate to Australia - a toss of the coin ruled out America as the other option.

On arriving in Sydney, Coppin arranged a season at the Royal Victoria Theatre, and used his profit to buy a hotel.  He then lost money and left for Hobart. There he was given sufficient managerial control of the Royal Victoria to poach most of its players and take them to Launceston. The company then moved to Melbourne, where Coppin swiftly took over his rival, the Melbourne Co. Futher theatrical successes saw him buy racehorses and a hotel licence. As a hotelier he arranged banquets and functions for patrons who shared his own interests: Freemasons, business people, and mining and racing identities. He imported luxuries including the first shipment of ice, live turtles, deer for venison. Tragically, Maria died suddenly after a brief illness, aged 38.

In 1850 Coppin returned to manage theatre. In 1851 the exodus to the gold mines and collapse of copper mine shares left him insolvent. He hastily acertained that the best way of making money was to entertain miners on spending sprees in Geelong. Within two years he was solvent and on his way back to England. Here he hired a tragedian, G.V. Brooke, and purchased a prefabricated iron theatre, which opened in Melbourne as the Olympic Theatre and was soon nicknamed the 'Iron Pot'. He competed against, then bought, the Theatre Royal, then bought a theme park in Richmond, named Cremorne Gardens. He and his partner Brooke also owned Astley's Ampitheatre (later Princess Theatre) and four hotels. In August 1855 he married Harriet Hilsden, then made a hasty trip to England where he purchased two balloons and hired two aeronauts and in 1858 staged Australia's first balloon ascent from Coppin Gardens.

In the same year Coppin decided to enter politics. He was elected to Richmond Municipal Council, then represented the South-western Provinence in the Legislative Council. The pressure of public office broke up his partnership, and the assets were divided. His wife Harriet died after their third child was born, and less than two years later Coppin married her daughter from a previous marriage, then about 20 years old. Their first child was born the following year.

Coppin secured passage of the Real Property Act 1862 and campaigned for the introduction of the Post Office savings bank before he resigned from parliament in 1863.  In the face of business difficulties he returned to the stage, touring south eastern Australia and southern New Zealand. His success allowed Coppin to again repay his creditors in full. In late 1864 he toured America, then retured to Australia for further successful tours. He became particularly involved in the Masonic Lodge, and helped establish the Victorian Humane Society and the St John Ambulance in Melbourne, as well as engaging in various philanthropic activities including homes for the aged.

Coppin later renewed his political activities, being elected to the House of Assembly in 1874-77 and 1883-88 and returning to the Legislative Council in 1889-95. Coppin became a director of the Commercial Bank of Australia. After his final retirement from the stage at age 62 he maintained business interests in a copyright agency and in the theatre.

Coppin died in March, 1906, and was survived by his second wife and nine children.

References:
Australian Dictionary of Biography website http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/adbonline.htm
Grand Lodge of Antient, Free and Accepted Masons of South Australia and Northern Territory website http://www.freemasonrysaust.org.au/coppin.html, accessed 10/10/2003.

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