The J. C. Williamson
Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company

Reported by Robert Morrison

After negotiating with W. S. Gilbert for the exclusive Australasian performing rights to H.M.S. Pinafore in 1879, the American-born actor-manager, J. C. Williamson, (and the theatrical firm that he founded — J. C. Williamson Ltd.), secured the rights to stage all subsequent professional productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas in Australia and New Zealand, through a sub-licensing agreement with the respective D'Oyly Cartes, until the expiry of copyright at the end of 1961. J.C.W. Ltd. also sent G. & S. touring companies to South Africa between 1913 and 1933 and to India and the East in 1922-3, headed (on this occasion) by C. H. Workman. (It was on the return voyage to Australia from this tour that Workman died at the early age of 49.)

Williamson died in 1913, but his company — at one time the largest theatrical firm in the world — continued to operate under various managing directors, including the Tait brothers. In addition to staging Gilbert and Sullivan, J. C. Williamson Ltd., also produced seasons of operetta, musical comedy, straight plays, pantomimes and occasional musical revues, grand opera, ballet seasons, (nd concert tours by visiting celebrity singers and musicians, at the many theatres that it owned or leased throughout Australia and New Zealand up until 1976, when the company regrettably wound-up.

(J. C. Williamson Ltd.'s activities also extended to London's West End where it produced seasons of the musicals High Jinks, (in 1916), and Mr. Cinders, together with the revue Coo-ee! and the plays Little Accident and Coquette, in 1929.)

Initially the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were staged by Williamson amongst the repertoire of his Royal Comic Opera Companies, where they shared the bill with seasons of Offenbach, Cellier, Lecocq, Planquette, et al. Although repertory seasons solely devoted to G. & S. had been staged at individual theatres throughout Australia from around 1885, it was just prior to the first World War that Williamson's commenced a series of regular large scale revivals by specially organised G. & S. companies that toured the operas throughout both Australia and New Zealand. The first such tour began in July, 1914 and played until July, 1915. Further J. C. W. G. & S. Opera Co. tours followed between 1920–22; 1926–28; 1931–33; 1935–37; 1940–45; 1949–51; 1956–57, with a final tour by the company (after the expiry of copyright), in 1962–63.

Unlike the D'Oyly Carte, the J. C. Williamson G. & S. Opera Co. was not in continuous operation but was organised specifically to tour the operas for a duration of two or more years, (depending on how popular the season was with audiences), after which it was disbanded. The G. & S. company would then be reformed, after a variable interval of years, for another tour in response to perceived audience demand. (During the dark years of the Depression in the early 1930s, the popularity of J.C.W.'s G. & S. company, in fact, helped to keep the firm financially afloat when a number of their musical comedy productions lost money.)

J. C. Williamson's also sent G. & S. touring companies to South Africa between 1913 and 1933 and to India and the East in 1922-3, headed, (on this occasion), by C. H. Workman. (It was on the return voyage to Australia from this tour that Workman died at the age of 49.)

Since the early 1880s there had existed close co-operation between J. C. Williamson's and the D'Oyly Carte to the extent that many Savoyards, (either former members of the D'OC or those who were between contracts), were engaged for Australasian G. & S. tours on the recommendation of the respective D'Oyly Cartes. Savoyards who toured Australia and New Zealand over the years included Frank Thornton, Alice Barnett, Leonora Braham, Charles Ryley, Courtice Pounds, Charles Kenningham, Wallace Brownlow, Henry Bracy, C. H. Workman, Fredrick Hobbs, James Hay, Ivan Menzies, Leo Darnton, Dorothy Gill, Gregory Stroud, Evelyn Gardiner, Winifred Lawson, Richard Watson, Viola Wilson, John Dean, Marjorie Eyre, Leslie Rands, Richard Walker, Helen Roberts, Grahame Clifford, Eric Thornton and Terence O'Donoghue.