Theatre Royal, Launceston Tasmania, Monday 27 July 1874

Theatre Royal Launceston 1870s prob Joshua Artis theatre-royal-launceston-l-hist-soc-feb-2010

Theatre Royal, Launceston, from Weekly Courier, 19 August 1905, p. 22

Joshua Artis elbows his way through the milling bodies to stake his place in the centre of the pit. Expertly he balances his beer without spilling a drop, winking at the ladies in their fancy frocks and ribbing the fellas he meets down the taverns.[1]

Cheers and applause greet the impresario, Mr William Andrews, as he introduces his leading lady, the comely Miss Nellie Montague, for the two-act serio-comedy Milky White.[2] Soon chattering rises as the audience starts to shuffle and cough. The witticisms bellowed from the middle of the pit draw more laughter than the lame lines on stage, rushed by the performers in eagerness to leave.

The next acts fare no better. Nervously the comic impresario keeps his eye on the half-empty dress circle and upper boxes where the respectable spectators are beginning to leave their seats. After Mr Bird finishes his turn as the cowboy Dick Dugs, William Andrews directs him to the manager to insist he ejects the old ruffian who is leading the braying pit.

The comedian tenses as Mr Spiller takes to the stage to recite Le Fanu’s Ballad of Shamus O’Brien on the crushing of the Irish Rebellion.

Jist afther the war, in the year ’98,

As soon as the boys were all scattered and bate,

’Twas the custom, whenever a pisant was got,

To hang him by thrail—barrin’ sich as was shot.

There was trial by jury goin’ on by daylight,

And the martial-law hangin’ the lavins by night.[3]

Declaiming the tale of injustice in his stagey Irish brogue, Mr Spiller can feel his audience turning into the peasant crowd. As Shamus O’Brien is brought by cart to be hung, a riot of discord breaks out in the pit. The actor abandons his verse, leaving the theatregoers unsure if the hero will live or die. Apologising to the ladies and gentlemen in the galleries, Mr Spiller holds forth against the larrikins in the pit who have made him ashamed to be born in Tasmania, before he is booed off the stage.

Joshua Artis, who has been leading the jeers, whoops to see Miss Nellie Montague return to the stage. As she begins to croon one of their favourite numbers, the audience join in singing Come Back to Erin, Mavoureen, Mavoureen. Hoarse from shouting, the old convict feels the lump in his throat that swells whenever he hears the ballad.

Over the green sea, Mavourneen, Mavourneen,

Long shone the white sail that bore thee away,

Riding the white waves that fair summer mornin’,

Just like a Mayflower afloat on the bay.

Oh! but my heart sank when clouds came between us.

Like a grey curtain the rain falling down,

Hid from my sad eyes the path o’er the ocean.

Far, far away where my Colleen had flown.[4]

The final comic sketch, Box and Cox, has only just begun when Mr Bird reaches the heckler-in-chief and taps Joshua Artis on the shoulder.[5] He has heard the short, rough man shouting the most obscene remarks at the stage and says he would give him over to the constable, if one were at hand. To cheers from his companions, Artis bellows across the auditorium that he has paid his shilling and means to have a shillings-worth!


The performers took revenge by prosecuting their loudest critic for using obscenities in a public place. In a letter to the local press, William Andrews, Comedian, reassured theatregoers he was determined to prevent any repetition of the disgraceful conduct of a few rowdies and larrikins, by making an example of the most prominent. [6] A week after the night’s entertainment, Joshua Artis was fined £3 at the Police Court, and costs of 9s 6d. Since he could not pay, or would not, he spent a month treading the wheel in the House of Correction. In the rush to condemn the ruffian, Launceston’s establishment appears to have forgotten the fisherman had been commended, only three weeks before, for rescuing a young man stranded offshore in a storm.[7]

Aged forty-six and married with a three-year-old son, Joshua Artis cut an unusual figure for a larrikin, the Australian label for unruly and menacing youths. Originally used in February 1870 in the Melbourne Age to describe the youngsters belonging to the ‘rowdy class’, larrikins were soon discovered throughout Australia.[8] Their appearance in Tasmania was first noted in November at the birthday festivities for the Prince of Wales in Hobart’s pleasure grounds, with the sickening spectacle of drunken hobble-de-hoys driving the quadrille-dancers from the turf.[9]

Larrikin football

Illustration by Tom Durkin in The Bulletin, 24 April 1897, p. 16. State Library of New South Wales, TN86 (a5893008)

In vandalizing ornamental pillars around St Andrew’s Church at Christmas 1870, larrikins had apparently made their way to Launceston, Tasmania’s second largest port, on the Tamar River in the north of the island.[10] By the time Joshua Artis was fingered for rabble-rousing, the town’s press had covered hundreds of instances of larrikinism both locally and across Australia’s urban areas.

Young rowdies, of course, were not new to the continent. The term larrikin derived from several sources, including the English cant—or criminal slang— word leary, meaning ‘sharp, savvy, not easily duped, or fly’, and the phrase leary kinchin for a ‘knowing lad’.[11] This lingo had arrived with the convicts and was elaborated by the youngsters themselves as well as by the commentators who condemned them.

Launceston Larrikin Telegraph 17 Nov 1882 p1

Telegraph, Launceston, 17 November 1882, p. 1

The sensational press coverage of Australia’s wayward youths in the 1870s harked back to anxious debates in Britain over juvenile offenders and street arabs in the early Victorian decades.[12] But while those earlier responses generated some compassion for children who were portrayed as victims of parental neglect, orphanage, and an indifferent society, larrikinism was met with hardening attitudes towards errant youths, employed in hustling or unskilled work—if they had any—and their purported delinquency. In this overheated commentary, Australian newspapers were steeped in new transnational ideas about youth crime, gang culture, and degeneracy that adopted an increasingly racist tone.[13]


Filthy in his person and his talk, bordering on the idiotic in his absence of ideas, a very coward in his nature, fulminated one local newspaper, the Launceston larrikin was a pest and vermin which, if the strong arm of the law fail, must be put down by means sharper, shorter, and more decisive. Townsfolk should be at liberty, the Launceston Examiner declared, to take their riding whips and canes to those ruffians who marched up and down the centre of the road, howling obscene songs.[14] Gone was any sense of the playful childishness that Charles Dickens detected in the artful dodgers of early Victorian London.

It is no surprise then, that larrikins were seen to threaten the theatre where they were frequently found, lowering the tone of respectable variety with catcalling and drunken singing. Rude boys and impudent girls were a disgusting spectacle precisely because they intruded into polite public spaces—the pleasure gardens, theatre royals, and even temperance halls—rather than lurking from view in the low dives and penny gaffs that had been the traditional haunts of the unrespectable poor. In their showy style, swaggering in fancy silk scarves and mincing in garish frocks, with their cabbage-tree hats jauntily cocked, they were getting above themselves.[15] They needed to be put in their place, as did Joshua Artis.


If, before he was transported, Joshua Artis—and other rowdy lads like him—had frequented the theatres of Great Yarmouth, the local press appears not to have commented on their presence or behaviour. But Joshua was in the habit of playing to the gallery and to the crowd. Artful they had called young Artis.

In May 1839, when Joshua first stood before the magistrates, his case was singled out by the Bury and Norwich Post as a colourful example of the truly alarming number of juvenile thieves in Yarmouth between ten and sixteen years old. Aged thirteen, he was remanded for stealing a watch, though he was released after three days. He was only ten years old, the lad said, and that he had pawned his brother’s timepiece because he could earn no money and had to find his own clothes and pay his master so much a week. It was another fib. Joshua had no elder brother and, when he was arrested three weeks later for stealing from the Lugger Ann, he was not apprenticed but gathering sticks to sell.[16]

According to the arresting officer, young Artis was well known as a notorious thief. The police, it seems, were minded to deal with such miscreants informally, by issuing stern warnings, a night in the lock-up—or cage—and perhaps a cuff around the ears, before sending them to the magistrates after repeated wrongdoings. Imprisonment made some more brazen. When remanded in separate cells, Joshua and his mates were admonished for climbing up the barred windows to talk with each other. They would rather be in the Gaol than be in the Cage! they taunted the Governor, for which he stopped their next allowance of cheese.[17]

An artful and deceitful boy, concluded the prison teacher. Four months after his first imprisonment, Sarah Martin had reported him to the Prison Inspector as one of the young Liberated Prisoners she hoped had been reclaimed. He was going on well, she believed, and apprenticed to a ropemaker. But back in prison a year later, the boy was cocky, flaring in temper when she chastised him for injuring a Testament.[18]

Idle and Artful, wrote the Gaoler. He repeatedly warned the lad about his conduct and for misbehaving in Chapel, before sending him to solitary for laughing indecently during Sunday service and inciting other prisoners to talk. Undeterred, the boy was sent to solitary again for chattering during the Reverend Pellow’s sermon. He was locked up for nothing, he protested, and received an extra day’s confinement for singing his defiance.[19]

During nine imprisonments at Great Yarmouth, Joshua Artis was punished seventeen times for throwing potatoes into the yard, a cooking pan over the wall, his cap onto the roof, water over a prisoner, and for blaspheming, answering back, guffawing disrespectfully, and so on. All these infractions involved acting up, heckling his gaolers, or drawing an audience by shouting and raucous singing—just as, more than three decades later, he would mock the actors and excite the theatregoers in Launceston. Only once was he caught fighting a cellmate, after the boys were banged up for asking shopkeepers to change a shilling and then scarpering without handing over the coin—a common juvenile prank.[20]

In the cheekiness of his prison conduct and pettiness of his offences—usually in the company of other boys—Joshua was typical of Yarmouth’s youthful miscreants. But in some respects his experience was less ordinary. Among the convict lads transported to Van Diemen’s Land, only a third lived at home with both parents, as did Joshua whose father was a cutler and razor-grinder.[21] Unlike many young offenders, none of Joshua’s family would get in trouble with the law. Sarah Martin was probably right when she cautiously observed that his parents could not be blamed for his behaviour.[22]

But Joshua stands out most from former juvenile offenders—whether or not they were transported—by continuing to run into trouble with the law, not only during his penal servitude—as was common—but also for the remainder of his life.


Disorderly wrote the evangelical surgeon on Joshua Artis when he reported the moral and physical welfare of convicts aboard the Theresa as the ship docked at Hobart in July 1845. In Van Diemen’s Land Joshua was repeatedly punished for being absent from leave, receiving twenty-five lashes on one occasion and on another, when found drunk, being sentenced to twelve months hard labour, to be served in chains at Hobart’s Prison Barracks.[23]

Three months after receiving his certificate of freedom in 1852, Joshua was found guilty of stealing a chest containing 50lbs of tea and was sentenced to another period of convict transportation, to be spent in Van Diemen’s Land, as were most of those re-transported for petty crimes. Still under sentence, Joshua was admonished for working a gamble table. After receiving his Ticket of Leave in 1856 he was sentenced to hard labour for having cards in his possession, and later fined £2 for resisting a police officer.[24]

Within fifteen months of his second Conditional Pardon, Joshua had made his way to Launceston where he was reluctantly discharged by the Police Magistrate who advised him to quit town after an unsuccessful prosecution for robbing £8 worth of jewelry from a hawker. Thirteen years later Joshua would be charged with stealing from the same man.[25] In all likelihood, these incidents were the result of drunken feuds between two men who were sometime associates and rivals in wheeling and dealing. Three other charges involved similar circumstances and drinking.[26]

1900 launceston

Alfred Coleman Bonner, ‘Launceston from Trevallyn’, 12 March 1890. TAHO Launceston, LPIC 21, NTCC Album 6, No 171, courtesy Launceston Historical Society

But mostly it was his trade as a fisherman and hawker that landed Joshua in trouble. Newspaper searches reveal seven occasions when he was fined or imprisoned for selling undersize flounders—perhaps a few of many such prosecutions, the last just three months before he died, aged seventy-one, in 1899.[27]

Most of the lads who began thieving in Yarmouth in their early teens—even those who were transported—left off offending once they married and started a family. At the least, they were seldom prosecuted. The records of Joshua’s habitual misdemeanours seem to suggest a feckless husband and father, with fines and imprisonments interspersed between the births of ten children—the first born before he married Margaret Smith, almost twenty years his junior.[28] A drunk. An old lag and larrikin. No better than the young idle louts who loafed about Launceston. But notices of his death show his wife and children thought otherwise, and blow apart the Victorian sterotype of the brutish rough.[29]

The St John’s Friendly Society noticed Joshua’s passing in the Launceston Examiner, inviting its members to attend the funeral of our late brother, J. Artis. The Friendly Society was a temperance organization with its Hall on Patterson Street, near where the Artis family resided.[30] Had Joshua belatedly taken the pledge or had he simply paid his dues into its funeral fund, as all responsible family men were urged? Only one of his children—his eldest son William—was ever prosecuted who, like his father, was surely viewed as a larrikin when he was fined for jostling passersby on a main thoroughfare.[31]

A year later, Joshua’s family were still grieving his loss and, in loving remembrance of our dear father, sent two poems to the Daily Telegraph. The lines conformed to the sentimental genre of mourning verse found in the family notice columns of newspapers. But the words were their own—as online searches confirm—and came from the heart.[32]

Joshua Artis In Memoriam

Daily Telegraph, Launceston, 3 April 1900, p. 1

When Margaret and her daughters laid out their father they will have seen, for the last time, the tattoos he wore when entering the colony as a convict in 1845. On one arm, was a policeman or gaoler with a truncheon in one hand and cuffs in the other. Above his elbow was a crucifixion next to his initials, J.A. Two anchors were etched below his left elbow, and several blue marks will have shown faintly on the back of his hands and fingers.


Faith and Hope—and a lifetime of giving the finger to the Law.

Launceston Police 876

Launceston Police, 1876. Tasmania Archives LINC

[1] The following story is based on these reports: Weekly Examiner, Launceston, 1 August 1874, p. 17; Cornwall Advertiser, Launceston, 4 August 1874, p. 2; Launceston Examiner, p. 3; Cornwall Chronicle, Launceston, 5 August 1874, p. 2; Weekly Examiner, Launceston, 8 August 1874, p. 16. Australian newspapers used in this story were searched via Trove, the Australian National Library database for digital newspapers. I have been unable to find information about the theatre company—and its performers—which toured Tasmania but the Theatre Royal, housed in a building belonging to the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows, and its repertoire are described by the Australian Variety Theatre Archive: Popular Culture Entertainment: 1850-1930 website,

[2] Milky White by Henry Thornton Craven was first performed in Liverpool, England, in 1864. See J.P. Wearing, The London Stage 1900-1909: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014) entry 02.194.

[3] Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Shamus O’Brien first appeared in the Dublin University Magazine, July 1850, vol. xxxli, no. ccxi, pp. 109-12. For a digital copy and brief history, see

[4] For a songsheet and transcription of this traditional song, see National Library of Scotland,

[5] Box and Cox, a one act farce by John Maddison Morden, first played at the London Lyceum Theatre in 1847. The Launceston Theatre Royal may have been performing the comic opera version with music by Arthur Sullivan composed in 1864. See

[6] Letter to the editor, from William Andrews, Comedian, entitled ‘Rowdyism at the Theatre Royal’, Cornwall Chronicle, Launceston, 31 July 1874, p. 3 and Tasmanian, Launceston, 1 August 1874, p. 13

[7] Cornwall Chronicle, Launceston, 15 May 1874, p. 4

[8] Melbourne Age, 7 February 1870, cited by Melissa Bellanta, Larrikins: A History, chapter one. This fascinating book is the best introduction to what soon became known as larrikinism.

[9] Tasmanian Times, Hobart, 10 November 1870, p. 2.

[10] Cornwall Chronicle, Launceston, 26 December 1870, p. 2. Larrikinism here was clearly a new name for an old ritual. ‘Mobs’ of fifty to sixty larrikins breaking windows on Christmas Eve 1874, drew furious letters in the local press; see Mercury, Hobart, 28 December 1874, p. 2.

[11] Citing Bellanta, Larrikins, chapter one.

[12] See Heather Shore, Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth Century London (London: Boydell, 1999)

[13] See, for example, ‘The Larrikin Larkin’, a virulently racist verse, Telegraph, Launceston, 17 November 1882, p. 1. For transnational approaches, see Heather Ellis, Juvenile Delinquency and the Limits of Western Influence, 1850-2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[14] Launceston Examiner, 22 June 1871, p. 2.

[15] See Bellanta, Larrikins, for the theatre and larrikin style.

[16] 8 May 1839, Bury and Norwich Post, p. 3; Gaol Register, 24 May 1839, Norfolk Record Office.

[17] Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 6 July 1841.

[18] ‘J.A.’ in Sarah Martin’s table, ‘A Glance at Some Persons who Seemed after their Imprisonment to have been Reclaimed or Improved’, in Parliamentary Papers, Inspectors of Prisons of Great Britain II, Northern and Eastern District, Fifth Report, Cmnd. 258 (1840), pp. 128-29; Sarah Martin, Prison Register, 1842, no. 108.

[19] Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 3 February 1842 and 4 Nov 1842.

[20] Gaol Register, 15 Dec 1841; Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 22 Dec 1841.

[21] At the 1841 Census the Artis family lived on South Street, Great Yarmouth:  Class: HO107; Piece: 794; Book: 2; Civil Parish: Great Yarmouth; County: Norfolk; Enumeration District: 4; Folio: 9; Page: 11; Line: 21; GSU roll: 438872. In 1851, Joshua’s younger brother William was working as a cutler, like his father: Class: HO107; Piece: 1806; Folio: 774; Page: 27; GSU roll: 207457-207458. Accessed via

[22] Sarah Martin, Prison Register, 1842, no. 108, Great Yarmouth Museum Services.

[23] Joshua Artis, 15826, per Theresa, 1845, Conduct Record CON33/1/67. See also Indent CON14/1/29, and Description List CON18/1/44.

[24] Tried at Hobart Quarter Sessions, 29 November 1852; Conduct Record CON37/1/, p. 2308, Indent CON16/1/, p. 282, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office (TAHO).

[25] Launceston Examiner, 4 September 1858, p. 3; ditto 26 September 1871, p. 4.

[26] Idle and Disorderly, 3 months hard labour, 22 October 1866, Tasmania Reports Of Crime, 1866 and 1867, p. 9, via; Drunk and Disorderly, fined 5 shillings, Cornwall Advertiser, Launceston, 25 July 1871, p. 2; Stealing a £1 note, 3 months hard labour, Launceston Examiner, 8 June 1880, p. 3.

[27] Tasmanian, Launceston, 19 August 1871, p. 4; Launceston Examiner, 19 August 1871, p. 5; Launceston Examiner, 23 December 1873, p. 1; Launceston Examiner, 21 January 1880, p. 3; Tasmanian, Launceston, 30 September 1897, p. 3; Launceston Examiner, 3 February 1898, p. 4; Launceston Examiner, 2 January 1899 p 5.

[28] For marriage and birth registrations for the Artis family, see LINC Tasmania Name Indexes, (TAHO)

[29] See Trev Lynn Broughton and Helen Rogers (eds), Gender and Fatherhood in the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007).

[30] Launceston Examiner, 6 April 1899, p. 1. See photograph, Temperance Hall and St John’s Friendly Society Chambers, York Street, Launceston, Launceston Archives, LINC

[31] Daily Telegraph, Launceston, 23 September 1890, p. 2. He was also fined for selling undersize bloaters, like his father (Launceston Examiner, 13 February 1894, p. 6), being drunk and disorderly, Examiner, Launceston, 5 June 1907, p. 4) and refusing to pay maintenance to his abandoned wife and children (ditto, 15 June 1907, p. 6).

[32] Daily Telegraph, Launceston, 3 April 1900, p. 1.

7 thoughts on “Artful

  1. Amazing, my son found this article, it is about my husband’s mother’s grandfather. Very interesting.

  2. Pingback: Think of the Children! Exploring Juvenile Delinquency in 19th century England – Prison Voices

  3. Thank you for sharing. Nellie Montague is my 2nd great grandmother.
    Would you know where I would be able to find more information about her, her husband Harry Herbert Willats (Music Hall Artist/Manager) and their Son Harry Willats aka Dick Montague? Also if there are any photos of Nellie. I have photos of Harry Herbert Willats and Dick Montague (Harry R T Willats) ?

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  6. Joshua’s wife was the sister of my great grandmother Clara Smith. I have not seen this article before and I loved every word of it.

    • Thank you so much Sharon. That is a lovely comment and I am so glad you enjoyed Joshua’s story. I loved doing the research and writing it. I don’t suppose you know of any photographs of Joshua and/or is family? If you are interested I have a jpeg of a plate that commemorates the marriage of one of his ancestors if you would like me to send to you. it is very jolly! Helen x

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