Collingwood Notables Database
c. 1843 - 1899
Playwright, actor, stage director, law clerk, author
Irish-born John Finnamore arrived in Australia in 1860 as a young man of 17 and quickly established himself in the theatre world, both as an actor and the first person to write and publish an original tragedy in Victoria. Apart from a brief interlude in Colac in the late 1870s, he resided in Collingwood and district for much of his life, marrying at St Philip’s Church in Hoddle Street in 1865. His descendants by the name of Arrowsmith continued to live in Collingwood into the middle of the twentieth century.
John was the son of a Dublin superintendent of police. Although his uncle Thomas and his older brother had migrated in 1852 and were farming at Tylden, John’s bent was decidely metropolitan and histrionic. By 1863 he was employed in the practice of city solicitor James McKean in Collins Street (the firm exists still under the name of McKean Park) but was also an active member of the Amateur Benevolent Comedian (ABC) Club with which he performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in 1862, playing the part of Corporal Foss (‘a smooth performance, although occasionally rather too demonstrative’) in The Poor Gentleman: A Comedy in Five Acts . Among many other parts he made a favourable impression as Iago in Shakespeare's Othello at the Princess’s Theatre.
In 1865 he published his first dramatic play, Francesca Vasari. Theatrical entertainments of all kinds from high drama to farce were popular in Victoria, but as pointed out in a largely favourable review of the publication, the local cultural cringe meant ‘that there was a settled conviction in the Victorian mind that whatever is Victorian is of necessity inferior, and that it ought not to enter into competition with that which is European’. One of the most entertaining as well as the lengthiest reviews was published in Sydney Punch in 1865. Mr Punch writes rather tongue-in-cheek of how true to life and probable the plot elements are. He also suggests that gentlemen might like to commit to memory some of the speeches in order to use them to woo fair young ladies.
The play was finally performed in April 1867 at the Theatre Royal. The display advertisement for the event carefully listed a number of distinguished patrons who had been invited to attend, including James Smith and James Neild, both of whom were dramatic critics reviewing for various local newspapers. The central character was played by a professional actress while other parts were allocated to amateurs, including John in the part of Philip Berenger. The following day The Age featured a review which pointed out the good judgment of the author in altering and pruning the original text to improve its suitability for the stage, and concluded:
The applause of the audience was frequent and hearty, the author also being loudly called for at the termination of the piece, which may be considered to have established its claim as deserving of presentation by a regular dramatic company.
John did not restrict his writings to drama but also turned his talents to drier legal matters. In 1871 he published two law books, one on publicans’ law and the other grandly entitled A Handy Book of Insolvency Law : comprising the Insolvency Statute, 1871, the Rules of the Supreme Court and the Court of Insolvency and the schedules of fees and forms in force and framed under the statute … with introductory remarks and a copious index.
In 1875 he published his second five act tragedy, Carpio. Still involved in the law, he moved to Colac in 1878, where he promptly became a member of the Colac Histrionic Club, as stage director and actor. It was 1880 and John was again residing in Collingwood when Carpio first appeared on stage at the Victoria Theatre in Emerald Hill. The Record and Emerald Hill and Sandridge Advertiser reported:
Thursday next has been set apart for what is termed "a grand Australian literary event", viz, the production, for the first time on any stage of Mr. Finnamore's colonial tragedy, Carpio, which caused such a furore amongst literary circles when published in pamphlet form a few years back. The tragedy ... under the patronage of a number of distinguished colonial citizens, who are desirous of showing their appreciation of Mr. Finnamore's high literary abilities in the direction of the poetic drama.
John Dewhurst’s Amateur Theatre Company acquired the rights to this play, first performing in England at the Prince’s Theatre Bradford on 24 May, 1886 to much acclaim, with a mention that it was written by a ‘Gentleman in the Antipodes’. But there was no financial reward for John in British presentations and another vehicle for John’s writing was agitating for improvements to copyright law, so that Australian publications would be protected in other countries.
Even Finnamore’s private life was not lacking in drama. He moved house so requently it is hard to keep track of him. In 1865, at St Philip’s Anglican Church in Hoddle Street Abbotsford, he married Sarah Vize from Limerick, who had already given birth to his child the previous year. Before long he had taken up with the much younger Sarah Frances Evans from Cork who gave birth to three babies between 1867 and 1870. Mother, aged only 21, and baby died three months after this third birth. Left with two infants and a day job to manage, he seems to have relied on the domestic support of female relations including Sarah’s sister Jane Evans with whom he lived in Perry Street Collingwood in the 1880s until her death in 1884, and Eliza Finnamore, widow of his uncle Wilbert and who died in 1887. His wife and first daughter eventually moved to Sydney.
Among John’s theatrical acquaintances were noted Shakespearean actor and actress William and Henrietta Arrowsmith, known on stage by the surname Ryan, who also lived in the local district. His daughter Ada married their son Frederick Arrowsmith, who practised the more prosaic but less economically precarious trade of tinsmith.
In 1899 John, suffering from tuberculosis, was living with Ada and Frederick in Islington Street Collingwood, where he died. His extended family lineage would stretch for many generations in Collingwood, and three Arrowsmith great grandsons’ signed up in Collingwood in 1941 for action in World War II. Two of them were imprisoned in Changi but all returned home to Collingwood.
John’s grandson Bob Arrowsmith (Ada’s son) started as a saddler and harness maker, but moved with the century to selling sporting goods at his shop at 223 Johnston Street. A Collingwood Football Club supporter, in 1950 he sold the shop to Gordon Carlyon, Secretary of the Club, who co-managed it with Bob Rose, Captain/Coach of the Club. Bob Arrowsmith stayed on for some months to show Rose the ropes.
If the name of John Finnamore is no longer one that resounds among the annals of Australian literature, it was a name to be reckoned with in nineteenth century Melbourne thearical circles and, given that tragedy was seen as the highest form of literature, continued to be referenced into the twentieth century in studies of Australian literature as among the most ambitious efforts of local dramatic literature.
Ada Finnamore around 1887
|Date of Marriage
|Rosamund Vize 1864
|Sarah Frances Evans
|Ada Frances Evans (aka Finnamore) 19 July 1867-1912; John Oscar Evans (aka Finnamore) 1869-1935; Isabella Jane Evans (aka Finnamore) 1870-1870.
|Status of Building
|290 Napier Street
|112 Perry Street
|Hoddle Street between Gipps and Langridge Street
|119 Islington Street
|12 November 1899
|Melbourne General Cemetery
Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle; Sydney Punch; Bendigo Advertiser; The Australasian; Melbourne Punch; The Age; Leader; The Ballarat Star; Ovens and Murry Advertiser; Portland Guardian; South Australian Register; The Lorgnette; The Argus; The Colac Herald; Weekly Times; The Australasian; Geelong Advertiser; Kilmore Free Press; The Record and Emerald Hill and Sandridge Advertiser; Fitzroy City Press; Sydney Morning Herald; The Daily Mail (Brisbane).
Trove list ‘John Finnamore’ https://trove.nla.gov.au/list/145000
Strevens, Bob Rose: a dignified life
Information from family descendants.
Photographs courtesy family descendant. Accessible on Ancestry.com.au