William  Charles BAXTER

(Dartford, 1859-1936)  


National Film & Sound Archive

William Charles Baxter imported a moving picture machine, an R.W. Paul Theatrographe, into Australia in 1896. Born in Dartford, England in 1859 he was a son of millwright William Claxon Baxter (1823-1871) and Elizabeth Donne (1821-1871). In 1879 William married Harriet ‘Hartie’ Tebay (1855-1935) the daughter of a master coachbuilder in London. Baxter arrived in Australia in 1881 leaving Harriet and their two children at home before they too, arrived in Melbourne to start a new life. They had 12 children in total, 10 of them in Australia. William survived his beloved Hartie by a little over a year and died at home in South Yarra and is buried in Brighton Cemetery, Australia.


Almost immediately upon his arrival in Australia, in March 1881, Baxter was involved in fairground novelties, the most exciting of which was about to arrive. It did so around 10 days later in the bow of the S. S. Bowdon the same ship which his business partner, the recent widower Charles Frederick Seal (1827-1911) and his children and arrived on a year earlier. Seal, a farmer and Baxter a millwright, had both come from Dartford, Kent and they brought a “first” for Australia: Seal and Baxter’s Steam Circus and it was a success from the start.

Described as “a dazzling and shewy affair”, the feature was the merry-go-round. Powered by a small horizontal steam engine the music, painted horses and mirrors fascinated paying customers. Between 1881 and 1885 Seal and Baxter toured the eastern states of Australia setting up at fairs, fund raisers, picnics or other public gatherings usually enjoying great success. Quite often they would donate a substantial amount of their takings to a local worthy cause. However, perhaps it was the constant travel, or a disagreement, or family issues as Seal had a new wife and baby, but in March 1883 Baxter advertised for a new half share partner during a season in Bendigo but got no takers. In June 1884 Seal and Baxter put the circus up for auction but the winning bidder, Fred Raby, did not go through with the purchase. Finally, Seal and Baxter legally dissolved their partnership and from April 1885 Seal returned to his life as a farmer and Baxter became the sole owner and operator of Baxter’s Steam Circus.

tynewear baxter02
Tyne & Wear Archives www.flickr.com/photos/twm_news/sets/72157627692102509/ National Film & Sound Archive of Australia, TN 1128661, [W.C. Baxter : Documentation] : [Assorted Papers]. Loose Letterhead

Operating from his premises on Pine Street, South Yarra, later to be renamed Simmons Street, Baxter, as W. Baxter Amusement Proprietor & Novelty Importer, employed a range of tradesmen to rebrand his new enterprise. Nonetheless, all good things must pass and in 1890 Baxter sold the steam circus as he shifted focus to the importing and hiring of sideshow novelties. With his cousin, Fred William Baxter, they continued to hire out and tour, spending much time in Glenelg and other South Australian seaside resorts. Eventually, Fred settled permanently in Glenelg with his family becoming synonymous with summer holiday fun.

In the first half of 1896, probably between April and July, William Baxter travelled to London. While there he witnessed R.W. Paul’s Theatrographe. As an importer of fairground novelties Baxter was a contemporary of Robert W. Paul another fairground novelty manufacturer and importer. At the time Baxter was in EnglandPaul was presenting his adaption of Edison’s kinetoscope, the R.W. Paul “Theatrographe”.  Baxter recognised its exploitation value for Australia and no doubt expected some level of exclusivity. If these were his thoughts he was on the money and he paid £134 to Paul to ship one to him in Australia.

Although the date of arrival in Australia of Baxter’s Theatrographe is hazy, Australia was having its first sensational screenings at Harry Rickards’ Opera House in Melbourne when American prestidigitator married couple Carl Hertz and Mlle d’Alton surprised an unwitting late night audience on Monday August 17 with a “Cinematographe” in fact a Paul’s Theatrographe. It was quite common in these first months of the moving image in Australia for any projecting machine to be called “Cinematographe”. The word, although intended to be used exclusively by the frères Lumière, quickly became a generic term for any projecting machine.  When Hertz closed on September 17 and moved to Rickards’ Sydney venue, The Tivoli, it would be 7 days before a replacement was announced for the Opera House and 9 days before it would be presented. In that time Baxter hired well-known theatrical electrical engineer Stephen Bond (1855-1915) to get the machine operable and to experiment with the films. On Saturday September 26 Rickards presents the next generation, the 2nd edition “Cinematographe”, with a range of favourite and new films. The machine was Baxter’s newly arrived Theatrographe and he was publicly recognised as the owner/operator who had recently returned from the “inventor’s laboratory”. Over the next few months Baxter made some decisions and connections based on his success at the Opera House where he was earning £20 a week. On October 15, Baxter ordered another machine from Paul with which he, his cousin Frederick William Baxter and theatrical manager A.L. Cunard partnered. Baxter sold his first Theatrographe to Rickards for £250, and added together with his weekly earnings this was more than twice what he had originally paid for it. Baxter left the touring up to Fred and Cunard as he was in negotiation with St Kilda Council for the lease of reclaimed land on the Upper Esplanade. Baxter wanted to establish a riding gallery and a Camera Obscura but was encountering resistance by the police who saw it as a magnet for larrikin types. But by December 23, 1896 Baxter’s “English Riding Gallery and Camera Obscura” was operational and showing “living moving pictures”.

ridinggallery 1896baxter
Riding Gallery on the Esplanade, St Kilda, Victoria, Australia. McAlpine Bros Photo Artists. Taken c1895-1900.
Courtesy State Library of Victoria http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/86076
Advertisement acknowledging Baxter. The Age (Melbourne), 24 October, 1896

A.L. Cunard, born Archimedes Socrates Cicero Litherland (1844-1905), better known in Australia as Archie Litherland Cunard, had arrived in Australia with master illusionist Harry Kellar in the 1880s. Cunard had worked with Kellar for some time and it was then that Litherland, a lithographic printer by trade, assumed the stage name Cunard. Known in Australia by various combinations of his names Cunard continued performing as an illusionist but diversified his career as a theatrical manager. Throughout 1896 he, with his second wife opera singer Helen Gordon, and their two daughters Nellie and Alice had a regular gig featuring illusions, music, singing and dancing at Kreitmayer’s Waxworks on Bourke Street.

Touring with the Theatrographe began in December 1896 on a 13 week contract. Fred Baxter was the projectionist and business manager while the Cunards performed and presented the moving images. Their first show was in Bairnsdale, a town in regional eastern Victoria on 29 December 1896 and they completed their tour in Muswellbrook, NSW in 29 June 1897. Baxter and the Cunards then returned to Melbourne claiming their tour had had limited success. One of the reasons for this may have been the fact that there were concurrently many touring companies each with their own projection outfit. In July 1897 they gave their last show together in the Prahran Town Hall on Chapel Street. Baxter’s records show that a tour of Melbourne suburbs was undertaken, although not by the Cunards as they had were soon the leave for America.


National Film & Sound Archive of Australia, TN 1128661, [W.C. Baxter : Documentation] : [Assorted Papers]. Ledger

William Charles Baxter’s cash book and ledger show he was a man of means and property. He was generous with it regularly donating to charities where he toured, made regular payments to a host of worthy charities and invested in the local film industry.  Not necessarily an exhibitor himself, Baxter generally hired the projector out. Nor was he a filmmaker but bankrolled two men with that purpose. The first was Stephen Bond, mentioned above, who manufactured his own projector and screened his own films in 1899. But Baxter’s biggest impact on a local film industry was with engineer Ernest Jardine Thwaites (1873 -1933). Baxter funded the experiments of Thwaites and his partner photographer Robert William Harvie (1868 -1922) with film production and then purchased copies of the resulting films – several Melbourne street scenes and more significantly a horse race, the 1897 Caulfield Cup, filmed and screened the same day and estimated to be the first in the world to do so. Thwaites and Harvey also filmed the Derby and Melbourne Cup day that same year.

However, Baxter focused on his lucrative sideshow enterprises keeping the moving picture machines as part of his hiring inventory. He updated in 1903 when he purchased a Gaumont projector, had his Theatrographe modified by Bond and sourced films locally from two different Melbourne suppliers, George Radcliffe and Alex Gunn. Between 1904 and 1905 Baxter purchased films from Johnson & Gibson and from Bond again in 1909. His ledger shows that he bought other unspecified brands of cinematographs and batches of second hand films the last mention of this being in October 1920 when he had Bond, presumably one of the sons, repair a Biograph. Other than that, and his shares in the exhibition, distribution and production company Amalgamated Pictures Baxter was first and foremost a sideshow novelty exploiteer.



The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA)
The Age (Melbourne, Vic)
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic)
Armidale Chronicle (Armidale, NSW)
Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser (Armidale, NSW)
Australian Star (Sydney, NSW)
Bairnsdale Advertiser and Tambo and Omeo Chronicle (Bairnsdale, Vic)
The Ballarat Star (Ballarat, Vic)
The Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW)
Bendigo Advertiser (Bendigo, Vic)
Bunyip (Gawler, SA)
Border Watch (Mount Gambier, SA)
Brisbane Courier (Brisbane, Qld)
Burra Record (Burra, SA)
Camperdown Chronicle (Camperdown, Vic)
The Champion (Melbourne, Vic)
Cootamundra Herald (Cootamundra, NSW)
Cowra Free Press (Cowra, NSW)
Critic (Adelaide, SA)
Daily Commercial News and Shipping List (Sydney, NSW)
Darling Downs Gazette (Qld)
Euroa Advertiser (Euroa, Vic)
Evening Journal (Adelaide, NSW)
Express and Telegraph (Adelaide, SA)
Geelong Advertiser (Geelong, Vic)
Glen Innes Examiner and General Advertiser (Glen Innes, NSW)
The Hampshire Advertiser County Newspaper (Hampshire, England)
The Horsham Times (Horsham, Vic)
Kapunda Herald (Kapunda, SA)
Kilmore Free Press (Kilmore, Vic)
Launceston Examiner (Launceston, Tas)
Leader (Melbourne, Vic)
Lorgnette (Melbourne, Vic)
Maitland Daily Mercury (Maitland, NSW)
Melbourne Punch (Melbourne, Vic)
The Mercury (Hobart, Tas)
Mornington Standard (Mornington, Vic)
Narrabri Age (Narrabri, NSW)
Narracoorte Herald (Narracoorte)
Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (Newcastle, NSW)
North Eastern Ensign (Benalla, Vic)
Ovens and Murray Advertiser (Beechworth, Vic)
Prahran Chronicle (Prahran, Vic)
Pictorial Australian (Adelaide, SA)
Referee (Sydney, NSW)
Singleton Argus (Singleton, NSW)
The South Australian Advertiser (Adelaide, SA)
South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA)
Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW)
Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW)
Table Talk (Melbourne, Vic)
Tamworth Observer (Tamworth, NSW)
The Tasmanian (Launceston, Tas)
Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld)
Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs General Advertiser (Toowoomba, Qld)
Traralgon Record (Traralgon, Vic)
Wagga Wagga Advertiser (Wagga Wagga, NSW)
The Warwick Argus (Warwick, Qld)
Warwick Examiner (Warwick, Qld)
Warragul Guardian (Warragul, Vic)
West Australian (Perth, WA)

Other Resources

Australian Electoral Rolls
Births, Death Marriages Victoria http://www.bdm.vic.gov.au/
Sands and McDougall’s Melbourne and Suburban Directory.
National Archives of Australia: Patent Records: A13128, 5191 and A4618, 8028 Specification for registration of patent by William Charles Baxter and Frank Baxter titled – Improvements in and connected with cycle-round-abouts etc.; A1337, 7469 Application for registration of a design by William Charles Baxter for an amusement device – Class 1.
National Film & Sound Archive of Australia:
New South Wales Government Gazette
Public Record Office of Victoria: Relating to Baxter’s dealings with St Kilda Council re the Riding Gallery: VPRS 5357/P0000/3727 Land Selection and Correspondence Files G5621 1896-1905; VPRS 5357/P0000/3723 Land Selection and Correspondence Files G325 1902-1902; VPRS 5357/P0000/3912 Land Selection and Correspondence Files G13530, 1907
State Library of Victoria: Victorian Government Gazette
Stonnington History Centre http://www.stonnington.vic.gov.au/Discover/History/Search-the-catalogue
Various genealogical tools and websites: United Kingdom Census Records, United Kingdom Birth, Death and Marriage Registers 



Bourke Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Harry Rickards’ Opera House


Bairnsdale, Victoria, Australia

Payne’s Theatre Hall


Traralgon, Victoria, Australia

Traralgon Mechanics’ Institute


Warragal, Victoria, Australia

Warragal Public Hall


Kilmore, Victoria, Australia

Kilmore Oddfellows’ Hall


Euroa, Victoria, Australia

Euroa Public Hall


Wangaratta, Victoria, Australia

Theatre Royal


Benalla, Victoria, Australia

Benalla Shire Hall


Beechworth, Victoria, Australia

Beechworth Oddfellows’ Hall


Wagga Wagga, NSW, Australia

Wagga Wagga Oddfellows’ Hall


Cootamundra, NSW, Australia

Cootamundra Assembly Hall


Tamworth, NSW, Australia

Olympic Hall


Armidale, NSW, Australia

Armidale Town Hall


Warwick, Qld, Australia

Warwick Town Hall


Brisbane, Qld, Australia

Theatre Royal


Toowoomba, Qld, Australia

Toowoomba Assembly Rooms


Warwick, Qld, Australia

Warwick Town Hall


Glen Innes, NSW, Australia

Glen Innes Town Hall


Armidale, NSW, Australia

Armidale Town Hall


Hillgrove. NSW, Australia



Tamworth, NSW, Australia

Oddfellows’ Hall


Gunnedah, NSW, Australia



Narrabri, NSW, Australia

Narrabri Town Hall


Moree, NSW, Australia



Boggabri, NSW, Australia



Muswellbrook, NSW, Australia

Muswellbrook School of Arts


Singleton, NSW, Australia

Mechanics Institute


Prahran, Vic, Australia

Prahran Town Hall