Vol.14 No. 2, 1993, Fall/ Automne



Thomas Pope Besnard (T.P.B.) appeared from nowhere as the driving force behind the Lyceum Theatre and the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Toronto between 1846 and 1852; he then disappeared completely from the scene. The mystery man of nineteenth century Ontario theatre history, T.P.B. has occasioned much romantic speculation over the years. This paper removes the mystery, and details Besnard's prosaic life.

Thomas Pope Besnard (T.P.B.) est apparu de nulle part pour dynamiser le Lyceum Theatre et le Royal Lyceum Theatre àToronto de 1846 à1852; il est ensuite enti èrement disparu. Mystérieux personnage de l'histoire du théâtre ontarien du dix-neuvième siècle, T.P.B. a provoqu é de nombreuses spéculations au fil des ans. Cet essai apporte quelque lumiére sur la vie tout à fait prosaïque de Besnard.

In 1891 Sarah Anne Curzon's column in The Dominion Illustrated quoted a reference she had found to a mid-nineteenth century actor named Besnard1 . The reference, an opening address written by a Mr. De Fonblanque and spoken at the Lyceum Theatre, Toronto, 26 January 1847, read in part as follows:

I hear Besnard's impatient-I am certain
That's his brogue swearing at me through the curtain.
And if to some of us some error's fall,
Wait for Besnard-he'll make amends for all.

Curzon knew nothing of Thomas Pope Besnard, and asked in her column if any of her readers could supply information on him, because the "genius of appreciation waits to put the name thus enshrined upon her list, where it is not given to every actor's name to share." Although her request for information yielded some remembrances of the man (mostly inaccurate)2 it was hardly sufficient to appreciate Besnard in any meaningful historical sense. Far from being "enshrined," he has instead remained the mystery man of nineteenth century Ontario theatre.

Thomas Pope Besnard was a prominent figure from 1846 to 1852, producing, managing, and acting in plays throughout the region around Toronto, and especially at that city's Lyceum and Royal Lyceum Theatres. Murray Edwards credits his work with linking theatre in Toronto more closely with theatre in New York and London.3 And yet, after 1852, references to Besnard disappear completely. Most actors and managers of his time period passed a considerable part of their careers in the United States of America, and the search of early American theatre historians such as Wemys, Brown, Odell, Ireland, Phelps, and Clapp often provides interesting, if not always accurate, information on those who also performed in Canada. These sources, however, make no mention of Besnard.

Despite his importance to the theatre in Ontario, Thomas Pope Besnard appears to have left no impression upon nineteenth century theatre elsewhere. Why was this so? This essay will examine the life of Besnard from cradle to grave. What we will witness is his slow and steady descent through the British class structure, and a parallel and strongly connected movement from "amateur" to "professional." His life also mirrors the maturation of theatre in the British colonies from the first half of the century, when the theatre was dominated by amateur gentlemen whose performances reflected a good rhetorical education, some free time, and the love of theatre as a pastime, to the second half of the century, when commercial interests replaced the romantic and new forces demanded that the worth and dignity of the performance, and not social connections, be the requirement for success.


The ancestor of the Besnard family, which established itself in Cork, Ireland, in the early eighteenth century, was Pierre Besnard, a lawyer and a Huguenot who had fled from Paris to Holland after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes 4 in 1685 . There he took up the trade of sail manufacturing. His eldest son, Pierre (Peter), emigrated to Ireland where he and his offspring established a linen factory and a sailcloth factory that, according to Charles Smith, was "the largest in the Kingdom."5 In 1815, the bulk of the Besnard fortune, including the factories, was inherited by the eldest son, Peter Besnard, the father of Thomas Pope Besnard. Peter's three brothers had previously been 6 established in professional careers in Cork . In the last half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century, the Besnard family was one of the most powerful and influential families in the city of Cork7 , and it is to this family that Thomas Pope Besnard was born in 1808.

The family held sway over all aspects of social life in Cork, including the amateur stage. Uncle Robert Besnard, a physician and a highly gifted actor, represented some of the leading characters on the Cork boards for public charities. With his brother John in the role of the Doge of Venice, his greatest triumph came in the part of Shylock. Although Uncle John acted in various productions, his greatest contributions were to the musical scene. When not acting, he assisted theatrical productions by playing his violin in the orchestra and gained renown for his singing, particularly classical music and the songs in Shakespeare's plays. In addition to performances on the amateur stage for charities, the Besnards had a strong tradition of family theatricals and it is most likely that T.P.B. performed in those staged by his cousin Julius John Besnard.8

For the established families of England, Ireland, or the Colonies, the amateur theatre provided a respectable social meeting place where gentlemen gathered to provide amusement for themselves, their families, and their friends. There was no aspiration toward the professional stage, and any profits realized from their theatrical productions went to local charities. Thus, when Thomas Pope Besnard began appearing with the Amateurs of Hamilton and Toronto in 1846, he was continuing a family tradition, followed earlier in Cork and in Australia.


Soon after T.P.B.'s father inherited the sail making factory, the family fortunes declined. Sailcloth had been in great demand during the Napoleonic War, but the trade collapsed in 1815 when government contracts ceased. As Peter Besnard struggled to maintain the financial viability of the family firm, his children set about finding new sources of income. John Besnard, T.P.B.'s eldest brother, was appointed to the post of Australian Emigration Officer, and began recruiting settlers for Australia. T.P.B. in the meantime had begun the study of medicine, but gave it up. The downturn in the family fortune perhaps made it impossible for him to complete these studies, but, more likely, the tales of his brothers and cousins who had already emigrated to Australia to re-establish the Besnard fortunes inspired T.P.B. to do the same.9

On 6 November 1832 at the age of 24, Thomas Pope Besnard sailed on board the William from Liverpool bound for Sydney, Australia. His early years in Australia are documented in an emigration booklet written by him and entitled A Voice From the Bush in Australia.10 His letters home to family were edited and published by his brother to encourage emigration to Australia. From these letters and various notices in the newspapers of the day, we discover that initially success accompanied the various Besnards in Australia throughout the 1830s.

On 23 March 1833, the day after he arrived in Australia, Thomas Pope Besnard

proceeded to Paramatta, and waited upon the Governor. On presenting my letters, his Excellency gave me a kind reception, and desired me to leave my address at the Government House in Sydney, which I have just done, with the full hope and confidence that I shall not be overlooked or forgotten. (Besnard, 10)

As the brother of the Irish Emigration Officer, he was not forgotten, and on 16 June T.P.B. was appointed Assistant Postmaster at a salary of .03 per annum.11 Although he accepted the posting, T.P.B. had recognized that "sheep farming is the mode by which fortune may be most easily realized." (Besnard, 12) In April 1833, the Governor appointed him Magistrate's Clerk and Post Master for Goulburn Plains, a position "more suited to my views than that to which I was at first nominated," (Besnard, 20) and a location that would permit him to begin sheep farming.

Although attending Balls at Government House (Besnard, 15) and active generally in the social life of the community, there is no concrete evidence that T.P.B. participated in the theatre or music scene of Sydney at this time; but, because of his family's tradition, his involvement with the gentlemen amateurs seems likely.12 In his first letter home he requested that his family send him any recently published music, because "a new song here may sometimes get a man supper."13 The family not only sent him the music he requested, but they also sent his Irish bag-pipes with which he hoped "some fine evening to astonish, if not delight, the 'boys' with some of our wild native airs." (Besnard, 19) Entertaining his associates always played an important role in Besnard's life.

During his tenure as Magistrate's Clerk at Goulburn Plains, T.P.B. made a small successful venture into sheep raising. Within a year after his appointment to Goulburn Plains, and two years after arriving in Australia, he had resigned his governmental post and

purchased 1,000 ewe-sheep, and 20 head of cattle, a team of bullocks and a dray, with all the provisions and necessaries for a year's consumption; and tomorrow, with my government-servants, I purpose to start for the bush, as far as 320 miles into the country. (Besnard, 18)

His plan was simple. He would "squat" on land outside the limits of the colony for seven years, suffer through the lack of amenities, and, with the aid of convict labour, emerge with his fortune. During the 1830s, well-behaved convicts were often assigned to a private settler as farm labourers. Female convicts were usually employed as house servants. The ten convicts assigned to T.P.B. to help in his farming operation included Mary Daly, a convict transported to Australia from Ireland in 1831.14 In 1836, one year after establishing his sheep farm at Douglas (named for his family home outside Cork) in the area of Yass, he was able to sell 1,000 head of sheep and still keep over 1,000 lambs. That same year he took on 2,000 additional head on thirds from another farmer and had 50 acres of crops under cultivation. Two years later, on 15 July 1838, T.P.B. purchased 1750 acres of land and applied for an additional 2050 acres on 27 July.15 Initially Besnard, the sheep farmer, prospered and by 1838 his brothers Nicholas and Julius had joined him and had secured additional grazing rights at Douglas near Yass.16 The Besnard family fortunes were improving, but that of T.P.B. had peaked.

Already he had assumed his own family obligations. On 24 April 1837 T.P.B. became the father of Isabel Georgina [Ellen] Pope Besnard, born to Mary [Marian] Henrietta L'Estrange Daly.17 The couple were married a year later at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Chapel, Sydney, on 17 September 1839.18 Besnard soon had abandoned his plan of "seven years of exertion and privation" as the path to a fortune in favour of living the moment to its fullest and gambling on the success of race horses that he had acquired.

Fortune favours the bold, but not the reckless. Eleven years after arriving in Australia and nine years after setting forth to establish his fortune as a squatter, on 13 March 1843, T.P.B. with his wife and child boarded the barque Sir Edward Paget bound for Singapore,19 and from thence most likely home to Ireland in the hope of receiving some financial relief.

Canada West

If this was Besnard's reason for returning home to Cork, his reception fell short of that accorded the prodigal son. By marrying a woman outside his social world in a Roman Catholic ceremony, T.P.B. undoubtedly alienated his family. In addition, although his early letters home indicated that his excursion to Australia had met with financial success, he would have returned home with little money. His stay in Singapore or Ireland, if that is indeed where he went, was short lived since by 1846 he was already living in Toronto. 20

Upon emigrating to Australia, T.P.B. had financial resources, letters of introduction, siblings, and a family name that could open doors of opportunity for him. In Toronto, he lacked those resources; but he enjoyed the stereotyped attraction "of the rollicking, charming, irresponsible Irishman."21 Besnard probably sought out the company of those equal to him with regard to education and interests. He found such in the Toronto Amateur Theatrical Society who willingly welcomed him for his musical and acting abilities. As T.P.B. realized early in Australia, a song "may sometimes get a man supper," and the song that he used early in his career in Toronto was his own "The City of Toronto" which brought him initial success with the Amateurs and the town. Given Toronto's large Irish population, with little effort T.P.B. became a leading performer and draw among the amateurs of the day. George Skerrett recognized his appeal with the Toronto audience and asked Besnard to perform with his professional company in the summer of 1846 in an attempt to salvage the season's lack of financial success in Toronto. After this brief foray into the ranks of professional theatre, T.P.B. continued to assume more prominence with the Amateur Theatrical Society of Toronto throughout the fall of 1846 until December, when he succeeded Thomas F. Lennox as stage manager of the amateur company which performed at Toronto Lyceum Theatre. With virtually no professional experience and with no financial investment, T.P.B. assumed control of the theatrical scene in Toronto. The Toronto theatrical community readily accepted an educated amateur with social graces as a professional manager.

In September 1847, the lease on the Toronto Lyceum expired and the building came under the control of the Board of Education. Thomas Pope Besnard remained manager of the Amateurs, but they had no place to perform. The profits of Benefit nights in his honour had provided Besnard with a meagre income to support his family. Without a theatre, Benefit nights could not be staged, and, thus, in January 1848, T.P.B. spent three days in Toronto's jail for his unpaid debts. Thereupon he moved his allegiance from the Toronto amateurs to Hamilton where he worked for a small income and Benefits with the Hamilton amateurs.22

With his wife expecting the birth of their second daughter, Ellen Agnes, T.P.B. sought out additional sources of income. He became a professional performer in earnest with the production of his original concoction entitled An Hour in Ould Ireland, a piece that he would perform in both North America and Australia. Although probably inspired by Samuel Lover's Evenings with the Irish, which had been performed in New York in 1846 and Toronto in 1847, in format it was more similar to Malone Raymond's An Hour in Ireland which also had been produced in the 1840s and had toured successfully in Europe and America. T.P.B.'s script, like Lover's and Raymond's, consisted of a combination of anecdotes, stories, and music. After auditioning his piece in St. Catharines, Niagara, Port Hope, and Coburg, T.P.B. debuted it in Toronto at the Old City Hall on 30 May 1848. Although the year had begun with a jail term for non-payment of debts, the future seemed brighter. Later in the summer of 1848, John Ritchie announced the construction of a new theatre for Toronto, the Royal Lyceum. Over the next four years, T.P.B. and the Royal Lyceum became synonymous. For the Royal Lyceum's first dramatic performance on 16 January 1849, Besnard, supported by the Hamilton Amateurs, presented two comedies, Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady and His Last Legs, and a farce, The Two Gregories. Additional performances on 18, 20, 23 January and 13 February suggest that the venture was financially successful.

At the time of the opening of the Royal Lyceum, Toronto's population was approaching 25,000; but the lower classes tended to frequent the 152 taverns and 206 beer shops (Guillet, 456) which dotted the city in 1850 rather than the theatre. Both the Apollo Saloon and Concert Room on King Street 23 and the Shakespearean Saloon (Toronto, Daily Patriot, 15 March 1851) offered music, recitations, and comic skits for the amusement of their clientele and the enhancement of their liquors. Presumably other saloons offered similar music hall attractions, and perhaps casual employment for Thomas Pope Besnard.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the vogue of the saloon, the song-and-supper room, and the pleasure garden had reached their height. The most famous of these, the Eagle Tavern in London and the pleasure gardens of Cremorne by the Thames at Chelsea, produced "vaudevilles" consisting of song, dance, humour, and acrobatics, and were imitated by similar operations throughout the British possessions. In fact, the Toronto Lyceum Theatre had been created in 1845 on this pattern as its description in the British Colonist indicates:

Our old townsman, Mr. James Mirfield, of the Shakespeare's Head Inn, has leased from the Corporation a large building adjacent to Government House, with the view of constructing a Theatre, the want of which has been much felt in Toronto. Attached thereto will be a commodious circus, together with a saloon and refectory.... Mr. Mirfield's exertions will in future be directed to satisfying both our mental and corporeal appetites: and we are sure, from his known act, successfully. (Toronto, British Colonist, 21 October 1845)

Although legitimate performers were reluctant to accept engagements at such saloon bars, they did cross over because of the financial rewards. Sam Cowell was one of the first major performers to work both the legitimate and vaudeville stage (or as it became known the Music Hall stage), simply because he could earn more money in the saloons.24Through his contact with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hill (aunt and uncle to Emilie and Sam Cowell), it seems logical that T.P.B., a recognized talent in Toronto's musical and dramatic circles, would be aware of Cowell's career; through his conact with James Mirfield, the owner of both the Toronto Lyceum, once managed by Besnard, and the Shakespeare Head Tavern, T.P.B. may have been offered employment in the saloons of Toronto and Canada West. His Hour in Ould Ireland would be ideally suited to such venues.

During the first year of the Royal Lyceum's operation, T.P.B. performed a revision of his one man show, now entitled Sprigs of Shillelagh, throughout Canada West, while Henry Heywood, the lessee of the Royal Lyceum, found it difficult to make the theatre a viable proposition. In October 1849, Heywood relinquished his lease back to John Ritchie who in turn assigned it to Thomas Pope Besnard. On 12 December 1849, T.P.B. announced his intention of executing certain alterations in the Royal Lyceum: "the Pit will be boarded over, and the interior of the House converted into an elegant room for Balls, Assemblies, Musical Societies, Concerts, Public Meetings, &c."

Although he never executed these plans, T.P.B.'s announcement suggests that his venture into theatre management was perhaps doomed to failure from the beginning. Although his education and family background had made of him an excellent performer, he lacked the knowledge and expertise to manage it as a viable theatrical venture-hence his desire to alter it so that, as lessee, he might rent the space to other groups and not only to theatre companies. Lacking experience and contacts in the professional theatre scene, Besnard was not able to develop a professional resident company or to bring in a regular series of touring companies during his three years as lessee of the Royal Lyceum. The productions he mounted in the space tended to be amateur productions, or those of resident professionals-such as Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hill and their daughter Rosalie-augmented by amateur performers, or those of irregular touring professionals augmented by the resident professionals and amateurs. Although blessed with local contacts, Besnard was not part of the newly emerging professional theatrical touring scene in North America.

A second reason for Besnard's failure at the Royal Lyceum arises from the first. Since he could not earn a regular salary as lessee of the Royal Lyceum, he was forced to earn his living by touring and working in the saloons of Canada West to support his wife and two daughters. For a portion of 1851 he toured with the Heron family and Sir William Don. Although no information on T.P.B.'s earnings from his chosen profession remains extant, a record of Sir William Don's earnings for this period does exist in evidence presented to Sir J. Eardley Wilmot, Justice of the Bristol County Court. Under oath, Sir William estimated the receipts from his profession of comedian: in 1850, £500; 1851, £8OO; 1852, £l,000; 1853, £l,300; 1854, £l,500; 1855, £l,400; 1856, £1,000; and 1857, £l,000-for a total of £8,500. His expenses for the same period were listed as follows: servants' wages, £400; household expenses, including medicines, etc., £1,800; travelling expenses, £3,200; gratuities in his profession, £800; theatrical books and MSS, £8OO; printing, advertising, &c. £1,600; telegraphic messages and correspondence, £120-for a total of £8,720.25 Undoubtedly, despite his role as manager,26T.P.B. was likely less lavish in his expenditures, and provincial tours would enable him to support his family (although not perhaps in a manner equivalent to his lifestyle in Ireland or Australia).

Unfortunately, such tours also confronted him with the temptation of drink.27 Walter Shanly, the noted engineer, recalled Besnard's visit to Brockville to put on a show at the opening of a new hotel:

I ... helped Besnard to empty several (what he calls) "buckets" of punch lastnight, or rather this morning, as I certainly heard the clock strike two. Indeed for the last few nights my occupation has been much of the same kind....He is an agreeable companion and knows everybody.28

That drink had become a problem for T.P.B. was evident when he "appeared 'blind drunk' in one of his favourite plays, The Irish Tutor" on 5 May 1851. (Shortt, 76) Drinking may not have caused Besnard's failure to develop the Royal Lyceum to its potential, but it could not have assisted his efforts.

As a man of some intelligence, T.P.B. must have realized the extent of his limitations at the Royal Lyceum when John Nickinson brought a small company to Toronto for a short season from 12 April to 19 May 1852. Nickinson and his daughter Charlotte had appeared earlier in Toronto under Besnard's management, but on this occasion he brought a small, hand picked, wellrehearsed company, and chose plays with a popular appeal. As Shortt notes of this season, "In contrast to Nickinson's energetic professional competence, Besnard's bumbling amateurism was glaringly apparent, and with the end of the Nickinson engagement Besnard disappeared forever from the Toronto theatrical scene." (Shortt, 82) By the end of Nickinson's short stay before leaving for Quebec, everyone,29 including himself, must have realized the need to replace the popular T.P.B. with a professional theatre manager. That is exactly what happened when Nickinson returned with his company in the winter of 1853.30

Return to Australia

The last Toronto reference to Thomas Pope Besnard appears in an advertisement of 19 May 1852 where he is listed as co-manager of the Royal Lyceum with John Nickinson. He then apparently slipped from the scene into oblivion. After leaving Toronto, Besnard probably worked in saloons and hotels in Canada West and upstate New York until he could amass sufficient funds to pay his family's fare to Australia. Once the money was assembled, "T.P. Besnard 47 Years old / Mrs. Besnard 36 years old / Isabel 16 years old / Nelly [Ellen] 4 years old',31 sailed from New York once again on board the Sea Ranger and arrived in Melbourne on 9 November 1853.

Once there, T.P.B. and his family took up residence on Fitzroy Street. The proximity to the Royal Arch Concert Room, Royal Arch Hotel, at the corner of Gore and Gertrude Street, affords a suspicion that Besnard might have been employed there as a performer. The Royal Arch Concert Room specialized in Irish entertainment and seems a likely venue for Besnard's talents. The fact that the star performer at the Royal Arch, a Mr. Murphy, assisted T.P.B. in his only recorded performance in Melbourne 32 adds credence to this assumption. On 31 August 1855, an evening's entertainment entitled in the papers as Lights and Shades of Irish Life, or T.P. Besnard at Home, or An Hour in Ould Ireland was performed at the Mechanic's Institute and prompted this review in The Argus:

"A Night With Ould Ireland."-Last night T.P. Besnard entertained a respectable audience in the Mechanics' Institute with a national entertainment, consisting of recitations, songs and anecdotes, illustrative of Irish customs, peculiarities, and eccentricities. The stories were not all new, but they were effectively told, and, from the good acceptance they met with, we supposed that the promise of "An Hour in Ould Ireland" had brought to Mr. Besnard's reception a large muster of his compatriots.... Mr. Besnard sang "The Widow Malone" with considerable comic effect, and was loudly encored; after which he sang a song full of local allusions, which was equally well received. Altogether the entertainment was a very pleasing one, and such of our readers as would spend an Hour in Ould Ireland would do so very agreeably in the society of Mr. Besnard and his associates.33

Most likely, this was a special evening to aid T.P.B. financially. His wife, Marian, had died that year on 16 May, and T.P.B. married Mary Neville soon after the performance.34

A year later, in September 1856, T.P.B. with his new wife and two children moved to the gold mining region of Bendigo where, as he had in Toronto, he performed in various Concert Halls in the region and managed the local amateurs. For a Benefit performance at the Criterion Theatre on 31 October 1856 in aid of his family obligations, a second review is recorded. The editor of The Courier of Mines and Bendigo Daily Mail wrote that he was "agreeably surprised at the dramatic power of Mr. Besnard;" since he was primarily known as a music hall performer.

Beyond these brief reviews in Melbourne and Bendigo little notice of Besnard the actor appears in the Australian newspapers. This does not mean, however, his presence is ignored by the press. Indeed considerable coverage details his relationship with another performer in the region, Charles R. Thatcher, "the well known comic singer at the Shamrock Concert Hall." 35

Their story begins at the public dining table of the Criterion Hotel. The press of the day noted that conflicting evidence was heard at the Court of Petty Sessions, but the outline of the story is this. Thatcher, probably the best known performer in the region, had agreed to perform at the Benefit for Besnard scheduled for 31 October. The performance was being discussed at the public dining table in the Criterion Hotel where a Mrs. Howard, according to Thatcher, stated "that it was very strange that a theatrical man, who was always running down theatrical people, should ask for a benefit." Thatcher apparently followed a snide comment on Besnard with further disrespectful comments on his daughter Isabel. Besnard, who at the age of forty-eight is described by Thatcher's biographer as "an ageing actor," (Anderson, 70) sought out Thatcher (aged twenty-five) whom he found at the Criterion Hotel resting on a sofa. Besnard came armed with a whip, and asked of Thatcher, "Did you state that it would be better for my daughter, who was a loafer, to go and put her hands in the wash tub, and make her own living?" Thatcher replied, "No. What I said was this-That your daughter was in the habit of abusing the profession, and the time might come when she would have to put her arms into the wash tub and work for her own living." Besnard smacked his whip around the singer's legs and ankles, and later defended his action on the grounds that it was the duty of a father to chastise any man who would speak disrespectfully of a young lady.

Charles Thatcher was unable to perform that evening at the Shamrock Concert-room, and Besnard was taken into custody and charged with assault. Although the Bench found the conduct of Mr. Thatcher in discussing a lady's character in a public dining room reprehensible, they also found an assault had been committed, and fined Besnard £5. Supporters of Besnard immediately took up a collection to pay the fine.

Local press coverage indicates most people supported Besnard's actions; 36 that support inspired someone to write the following poem which appeared in The Courier of Mines and Bendigo Daily Mail on 6 November 1855:

The Gentleman That Sings.
Tom Moore declares there's no such thing in this bleak world of ours,
As a path where one can always bask in sunshine and in flowers;
T'would seem so when a vulgar whip occasionally sings
On the very empty pate of a gentleman that sings.
The scene is Oriental. On an Ottoman is reclining;
Protected by a dose of salts, and some most abject whining!
The man who dared assail the weak, trembles before a whip;
And unblushingly declares that he-is what? Afraid to strip.
He will not shape, he will not fight, he shows a whole white plume,
Until he gets an Irish hint, a kick, to leave the room;
He hawks the bruises at the Camp, until the Court House rings
With laughter at the whipping, of a gentleman who sings.
I do not advocate assaults; but he who slander vends-
Must expect a little touching up, e'en from his dearer friends;
Tho' it is not quite in order when a nasty whip thong rings,
And twines around the shoulders of a gentleman that sings.

Thatcher's lack of action in his own defence created the popular impression that he was a coward. Obviously angered by this depiction in the press, Thatcher took his revenge on the evening of 4 November at the Shamrock Concert-room. Besnard had been drinking for some time when Thatcher approached him from behind and delivered a blow to the ear which knocked him to the ground. A series of blows and kicks, one of which knocked out a tooth, followed while Besnard lay on the floor. Unable to defend himself, Besnard suffered severely by the assault from a man half his age; Dr. Wulkow, the attending physician, administered thirteen leeches to T.P.B.'s kidney area and allowed him to give testimony at Thatcher's trial only after he had been confined to bed for six days. Judge McLachlan summed up his belief: "I cannot divest my mind of the impression that Mr. Thatcher has been brooding over this affair, and nursing the motion of the last assault, which he appears to have been determined to follow up," and then pronounced sentence that Thatcher "be imprisoned in Her Majesty's gaol at Sandhurst for a period of forty-eight hours."

During his short imprisonment, the belligerent Thatcher turned his own mind to poetry. Apologizing to the "gentlemen whose names are introduced ... in consideration of the honour of being mentioned in a production that is intended to be immortal," he proceeded to give voice to his lack of regret in The Bendigo Advertiser, 13 November 1855:

Caged in M'LACHLAN'S famed hotel,
He paces up and down the yard-
Views his unfurnished little cell,
And thinks his sentence precious hard.
Thinks he, I shall be glad to go
The very moment I am clear.
Mac's used me ill; by jingo! no-
He could have been far more severe.
Although my fate perhaps is hard,
He might have forced me, by the powers,
To undergo for two long hours
The Irish singing of Besnard.
In that case then it would be dreary;
'T would sew me up, he said;
Of "Two hours in Ireland" I'd be weary,
And wish myself in bed.

What then can we learn from these incidents? T.P.B. probably believed that by returning to Australia, he could assume a position of authority in the theatrical scene similar to the one he held in Toronto in the 1840s, but the theatrical scene in Australia had developed rapidly during the ten years he was absent. The discovery of gold not only brought an influx of prospectors from California, but also professional entertainers. As a performer in Australia, Besnard was tolerated and permitted to perform on the fringes with the Amateurs and in Saloons, but he never became part of the established theatrical scene. The Besnard family was accustomed to deference, and T.P.B.'s autocratic manner, combined with his habit of "always running down theatrical people," alienated him from the professional performers of the day. Unwilling to permit himself to join an established company as an actor of Irish parts and to submit himself to the rules and discipline of the manager, Besnard chose to become a music hall performer which resulted in ever increasing frustration and reliance upon the bottle.

With the Thatcher incident, Besnard again fades from the Australian newspaper notice for the next ten years. Isabel, his daughter, was not forced to put her hands in the wash tub, but made a fortunate marriage in 1860 to Dr. John Dunbar Tweeddale, who practised in the region.37 The couple undertook to raise T.P.B.'s younger daughter, Ellen, who made an even better marriage into local gentry.38 Ellen married Charles Myles Officer, the eldest son of Sir Robert Officer, Bart., a surgeon and Speaker of the Tasmania House of Assembly, on 28 November 1876 at St. Peter's Church, Melbourne.

Perhaps to permit his daughters to establish their own lives, or perhaps embarrassed by his current state of finances and position in society, T.P.B. left the Melbourne area to relocate in and around Sydney. It is at Sydney that his second wife dies in 1864'39 and it is there that he marries his third wife, Susan Cousins. Their marriage record reads as follows: "Thomas Pope Besnard (54 yrs. old) of Lachlan River near Fort Bourke m. Susan Cousins (25 yrs. old) of Paddington (Sydney) [formerly of County of Tyrone, Ireland] on 17 May 1866." Susan Cousins, who received assisted passage to Australia, had arrived on the Ocean Empress in 1862. She was actually 28 years old at the time of the marriage, and worked as a seamstress in Sydney.40 Similar discrepancies are attached to T.P.B.'s record. Fort Bourke on the river Darling is some five hundred miles from the Lachlan River. Besnard may have embellished truth to win a much younger bride-his age at this time was 58 not 54 as reported on the certificate--or years of alcohol abuse may have clouded his mind, or indeed the beating he had suffered at the hands of Thatcher ten years earlier may have permanently affected his mind. Nieces and nephews, children of his brother John, were resettling in the Bourke area at the time of his marriage. T.P.B. may very well have been living with them or under their care at the time.

Two months later the new husband was arrested for fraud on 25 July 1866. T.P.B.'s press notice in the Sydney Morning Herald of 6 September 1866 appeared with those of the Metropolitan Court of General Quarter Sessions:

Thomas Pope Besnard who pleaded guilty yesterday to a charge of obtaining goods and money under false pretences from Frances Augustus Blake, was brought up for sentence this morning. Sentence.-Twelve months labour in Paramatta gaol.

Unfortunately the custom of photographing prisoners did not begin until 1868, and no photograph of T.P.B. at the time of his imprisonment exists; however, written descriptions were kept for the purpose of identification. "The Paramatta. Gaol Description Book, 1866" supplies the following information on T.P.B.:

he stood 5' 10 1/2", was of stout build with a sallow complexion, iron grey hair, blue eyes. His distinguishing features included a large ulcer mark on his right shin and the second joint of his second finger left hand was disfigured. He gave his occupation as a clerk and gave no indication that he had spent time in Canada after arriving in Australia in 1833. "The Darlington Gaol Entry Book, 1866" provides the additional information that he was held there between his arrest on 25 July and his transfer to Paramatta Gaol on 14 September. He was subsequently recommitted there just prior to his release from Darlington Gaol at the discharge of his sentence on 3 September 1867.

During his year of imprisonment, Besnard had time to reflect upon his life with a sober mind, and to write. His legacy is a set of letters to his bride and a partially completed manuscript entitled "A Bouquet of Flowers-Gathered in the Sun and Shade, by A Wanderer in Many Lands," and dedicated to "A Love and Faithful Friend." The work, intended for publication, resembles An Hour in Ould Ireland in format. Beginning with Polonius's advice to his son Laertes on leaving home-"The friend thou hast, and his adoption tried, grapple him to thy Soul with hooks of steel; but do not dull thy palm with entertainment of each new-hatched, unfledg'd comrade," the "Bouquet of Flowers" consists of poetry, recitations, and songs that reflect T.P.B.'s life and give the audience "a glance, and a hurried one too, at some of the leading features which distinguish my countrymen." One piece, in particular, reveals the wandering Irishman's love of his daughter:

When next you write my daughter dear, my first born Isabel,
Oh! pray tell her-she'll believe you-that I am strong and well;
That from the loving Fountain pure, on humble bended knee,
In "Faith and Hope" I freely drink-and not to weep for me.

Before leaving prison, T.P.B. had sent his manuscript to "an old friend in the Country-and should it please God-that I live-he will get them to Sydney on my release from here." He intended to have the work published, and to use the profits to support his wife. Unfortunately no publisher was forthcoming. Sarah Cousins had established a new family during his incarceration, but she kept the correspondence, poetry, and selections from his manuscript sent to her from prison; treasured in a small box throughout her lifetime, they then passed to her children and are currently in the possession of her great grand-daughter Mrs. Pam Pupo.

Besnard himself left Sydney soon after his release. His prison record made continued life in Sydney impossible. Unable to return south to Melbourne, where he would be an embarrassment to his daughters and brothers, he wandered north again to the mining regions of Inverell, connected to Bourke by the Darling river system and some forty miles from relatives at Glen Innes.41 His final appearance in the Melbourne papers was in the obituary column on 23 April 1878: "Besnard-on the 14th inst. at Inverell, N.S.W., Thomas Pope Besnard, esq. formerly of Douglas, N.S.W., at 72."42 He lies buried in an unmarked grave.43 His death certificate describes "Percy Bennard" as an Irish-born school teacher aged 75 who died at Inverell on 14 April 1878 from Chronic Dropsy. Living under an assumed name, T.P.B. passed from this world alone and virtually forgotten.

One tendency of theatre history is to see performers only in terms of dates, roles, and critical comments. Their human side is forgotten. Similarly we see "Sir Lucious O'Trigger," or "Tom Moore," or "Morgan Rattler" on stage and not the person behind the role. Our knowledge of Thomas Pope Besnard has been extremely limited. We knew the roles and dates of his performances in Toronto, but nothing of the man behind the roles. As an actor T.P.B. enjoyed a brief career of some importance in the Toronto theatrical scene-but, taken as a whole, it would be difficult to defend it as worthy of the enshrinement Curzon wished.

Of the conclusions that might be drawn about the theatrical culture of Besnard, perhaps two stand out. First, training was not paramount to a career on the stage. A widely read person with an outgoing personality could achieve a certain measure of success as an actor; however, family theatricals and natural talent were no preparation for the day-to-day business of running a theatre. Second, the development of the theatre in Canada appears to have lagged some twenty years behind that in Australia at the mid-point of the nineteenth century. The wealth that lured name performers to California during that gold rush also drew such stars as Laura Keene, Edwin Booth, Kemble Mason, John Drew, and Gustavus Vaughan Brooke across the Pacific to the gold rush in Australia. At that time Toronto saw few companies of Nickinson's ability, and virtually never saw the best-known touring performers. An actor like T.P.B. could cut a wide swathe across the Toronto stage. In Australia the competition was too strong. Better prepared performers came to Australia because of the gold boom, and in their company Besnard soon dropped to the bottom.

Besnard's life reflects the excesses of his era. His frontier quest for wealth at the end of an ever-retreating rainbow over the seas, his fatal attraction to heavy drinking, and his relentless defence of "gentleman's honour" were the inheritance of a childhood passed during the fretful end of the eighteenth century in the Napoleonic Wars. He was ill-equipped as a "gentleman" to succeed in the individualistic world of the frontier dominions. Physically destroyed by the beating delivered by Thatcher in 1856, T.P.B. dwindled to his own fretful end at Inverell in 1878. If he does not merit the shrine Curzon envisioned, he deserves at least a quiet moment of reflection during the excesses of our own age.


1 Montreal, The Dominion Illustrated, 14 February 1891. The address had been originally printed in New York, The Albion, 20 February 1847, and subsequently reprinted in Laurence Hutton, ed., Opening addresses (New York, 1887), 100-103. Curzon had made her copy from a reprint in The Evening News and did not know the author's name.
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2 Two letters were subsequently published detailing aspects of Besnard's life, but unfortunately they contain numerous factual errors. The first was published in the 7 March issue of The Dominion Illustrated and contained the following details on Besnard:

"T.P.B." . . . was an Irish gentleman of good family and, I think, an officer in one of Her Majesty's regiments.... There must surely be many people there who remember him. He was at that time (1847) recently from the West India Islands, where, I believe, he returned, as the climate of Upper Canada severely taxed the health of his wife and daughter.

The second less-known response to Curzon's request for information on T.P.B. exists in the form of a letter from S.S.P. to the editor of The Standard of Regina, Saskatchewan (15 March 1891):

I have observed also the letter of "R" who partly reveals the identity of T.P.B., but who is mistaken in saying that he returned to the West Indies. I knew him very well, as he used to come up from Toronto to Hamilton to play in the old Amateur Theatrical Co'y's building ... Besnard used to play "Rob Roy" with Mrs. T. Baker as "Ellen."
I was present at the theatre in Hamilton when T.P. Besnard was presented with a painting of himself (by Harris) on the eve of his departure to Australia. He was in Melbourne in the fall of 1848 running a hotel known as the Canada House.

The painting attributed to Harris was in fact by J.B. Harrison, set designer with the Hamilton theatre. From the city directories of Melbourne, we learn that T.P.B. never managed a hotel in Melbourne, and that no pub or hotel named Canada House ever existed in Melbourne during the nineteenth century
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3 Murray D. Edwards, A Stage In Our Past (Toronto, 1967), 24.
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4 T.E. Evans, "Notes of the Besnard Family," Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, XXXIX (1934), 92-99. I am also indebted to Mrs. Pam Pupo, Mrs. Leonore Clarke Frost, and Miss J. Phillips for information of the Besnard family in Australia, but in particular I am indebted to Mrs. Dorothy Simpson, a descendent of Nicholas Besnard (T.P.B.'s brother), who has compiled information that augments and corrects Evans' notes.
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5 Charles Smith, "Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork." 1750. Edited by R. Day and W.A. Coppinger (Cork, 1893). By 1810, W. West, in "A Directory and Picture of Cork and its Environs," (1810) would write that the business "had increased one half since the period at which Smith wrote. Upwards of 1,000 hands are now employed in these extensive concerns belonging to Messrs. Julius Besnard and Sons, who have also, at a short distance, an extensive Rope walk." Both are quoted in Grace Lawless Lee, The Huguenot Settlements in Ireland, (London, 1936), 53.
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6 Julius Caesar Besnard, the second son, became a Solicitor and entered into a partnership with Thomas Pope (the namesake and uncle by marriage of T.P.B.); John Besnard, the third son, became the manager of the Savings Bank, Cork, a Justice of the Peace, and an Alderman of the City; and Robert Besnard, the fourth son, became a physician.
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7 The family would exercise an almost dynastic hold on the positions of Sheriff and Mayor during the early nineteenth century. Peter Besnard (T.P.B.'s father) was Sheriff of Cork in 1804 and Mayor in 1835; John Besnard (his uncle) was Sheriff of Cork in 1810 and Mayor in 1835; Thomas Pope (T.P.B.'s uncle and namesake) was Sheriff of Cork in 1799 and Mayor in 1828); Julius Besnard (brother of T.P.B.) was Sheriff of Cork in 1822 and the last Protestant Mayor of Cork in 1839; and Sarah Pope Besnard (sister of T.P.B.) was married to Bartholomew Gibbings who was Sheriff of Cork in 1812 and Mayor in 1823. The family members also held other civic positions such as alderman and justice of peace
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8 T.E. Evans writes that Julius John Besnard, eldest son of John Besnard, and he "both had a taste for theatricals, which were our great enjoyment, and having received lessons from Mr. Bloornsfield Spalding, an eminent professor of elocution who visited Cork when we were schoolboys, we frequently at social evening parties displayed our histrionic accomplishments for the entertainment or amusement of the company." Evans also notes that Robert Besnard's theatrical talents became evident "when a boy at private theatricals." Evans, 99.
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9 It is difficult to state with certainty which of the Besnards first made their way to Australia since the newspapers of the day often only mention the surname. In addition to T.P.B.'s brothers who emigrated to Australia before and after him, I suspect another branch of the family was also active in the region. T.E. Evans fails to mention Nicholas Besnard as partner in the sail cloth business with Julius, T.P.B.'s grandfather. Nicholas had three sons and they, or their offspring, could be some of the Besnards mentioned in the newspaper accounts.
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10 Thomas Pope Besnard. A Voice From the Bush in Australia: Shewing Its Present State, Advantages, and Capabilities, In A Series Of Letters From An Irish Settler and Others In New South Wales. With Appendices, Containing Statistical Evidences, Information for Emigrants, The Course of Husbandry Suited To The Country, and Other Observations On That Important And Prosperous Colony. Dublin, 1839.
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11 Besnard, 11. See also "R. Bourkes' Despatch," The Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Ref. A1212.
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12 As in Canada, the newspapers of the day did not mention by name the performers in the various amateur entertainments in Sydney.
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13 Besnard, 11. He again requests that music be sent to him in a letter dated 20 March 1835.
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14 The Irish Transportation Records provide no details about the crime committed by the female convict Mary Daly. "Many records of the transportation of Irish convicts to Australia were destroyed by fire and bombings in 1922, particularly for the period prior to 1836." "NSW Transportation Records,"
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15 Mitchell Library, Land Record No. 38389.
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16 Sydney, Australian, 29 May 1838. Supplement. Another brother, Robert Langford Besnard, was already in Yass, having been appointed Clerk of Petty Sessions of the Bench Magistrate two years earlier. Sydney, Australian, 9 February 1836.
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17 The child's original baptismal record registered at St. James Roman Catholic Church, Sydney, see "NSW Registry Record," #73, vol. 149 and #307, vol. 23, lists her name as Isabel Ellen Pope. The child, however, is known during her life as Isabel Georgina Besnard. Perhaps Ellen Pope Besnard, T.P.B.'s mother, objected to having an illegitimate, and Catholic, child named after her. Similarly, although the same registration notes that the mother's first name as Mary, all subsequent records refer to her as Marian. Since all Australian certificates were copied at least four times prior to their final registration, the Mary may be a simple clerical error. It is also possible that the Besnards wished to remove all traces of Mary Daly from the family tree. Her tombstone is carved "Marian Henrietta L'Estrange Thomas Pope Besnard."
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18 "Thomas Pope Besnard (of Foxlow) [no religion stated] in. Marian Henrietta L'Estrange Daly (of FoxIow) [Roman Catholic] on 17 September 1839 at St. Joseph's Chapel, Sydney ... .. NSW Marriage Records," #153, vol. 130, and #488, vol. 90. Prisoners had to apply for permission to marry while still under the terms of their transportation order. It is possible that the couple would have married earlier had permission been granted, or they decided to wait until Mary Daly was free from the constrictions of law.
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19 The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 1843, announcement that "Mr., Mrs. and Miss Besnard" had cleared Sydney Harbour presumably describes the date of T.P.B.'s departure from Sydney. Another notice in the Morning Herald, 8 April 1844, noted "Sailed for England Mr. Besnard."
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20 It is possible that the family came directly to North America from Australia by way of Singapore. Unfortunately, his name appears on none of the indexed Passenger List of ships arriving in Canada or the United States of America yet published.
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21 Mary Shortt, "From Douglas to The Black Crook: A History of Toronto Theatre 1809-1874," M.A. thesis, University of Toronto, 50.
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22 The Hamilton Amateur Theatrical Society also presented him with a portrait of himself in his favourite character of King O'Neill on 28 April 1848.
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23 For a description of the Apollo Saloon and Concert Room see Guillet, Trading Post, 456.
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24 See M. Willson Disher, The Cowells in America Being The Diary of Mrs. Sam Cowell during Her Husband's Concert Tour In The Years 1860-1861 (London, 1934). Part of the tour was spent in Canada, where Emilie Cowell's uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hill, had made their home and had performed with Thomas Pope Besnard.
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25 A member of the 5th dragoon guards between 1842 and 1845, Sir William Henry Don retired deeply in debt. He was forced to sell his family estate for 85,000, all of which went to creditors. He next entered upon a theatrical career in England to earn a living. He spent nearly five years between 1850 and 1854 in Canada and the United States. After returning to England, and after all his affairs were settled, he was still in debt 7,000.
During his time in North America, Sir William Don received interest from trusts valued at I0,000 and 16,000. The court in 1857 heard that, after the trustees had payed outstanding judgements and claims in Scotland, there would be 13,000 left to pay the 1,400 liabilities entered in the form of bills and acceptance or for money lent by his creditors in Bristol since returning from America.
He and Besnard lacked the knowledge of the professional theatre to become successful. Only after Sir William Don married a professional actress would his career meet with success. In 1861, he travelled to Australia where he performed until his death on 19 March 1862. There is no evidence that he and T.P.B. ever met in Australia.
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26 T.P.B.'s additional expenses included the arrest of Sir William Don in Kingston for breach of contract.
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27 According to Emilie Cowell, drink posed no danger for her husband; her disgust was excited rather by the "pretty waiter girls." Disher, x1.
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28 Frank Walker, Daylight Through the Mountains (Toronto, 1957), 122, as quoted in Shortt, 70.
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29 In the fall of 1851, Joseph Lee and J.D. Humphreys had announced their attention to build a rival music hall in opposition to Besnard's theatre during the winter of 1851-52, but their plans failed. Toronto, Patriot, 18 September and 30 October 1851.
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30 Nickinson began a season at the Utica Museum in September 1852, but it was a financial failure. With the Royal Lyceum dark since his last visit, Nickinson decided to return there in 1853 and to make Toronto the base of his operations beginning after Easter.
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31 "Passenger List of the Sea Ranger," unpublished. Although his age was recorded as 47, T.P.B. was probably 45 at this time.
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32 Melbourne, The Argus, 29 August 1855 and I September 1855, and Melbourne, The Age, 1 September 1855.
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33 Melbourne, The Argus, 1 September 1855. The performance was also reviewed in Melbourne, The Age, 1 September 1855, which stated that "Mr. T.P. Besnard was 'at home' last night at the Mechanic's Institute, to a tolerably numerous audience, whom he succeeded in interesting and amusing by a series of Irish melodies, linked together by anecdotes and eulogy."
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34 Marian Besnard and Isabel Georgina Tweeddale, her granddaughter, are buried in the Church of England Cemetery, Melbourne. T.P.B. and Mary Neville were married in Melbourne in 1855. [Victoria Registry Record, 02373.]
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35 A biography of Charles Robert Thatcher was written by Hugh Anderson and is entitled The Colonial Minstrel (Melbourne, 1965). For a brief synopsis of his life see the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 5: 1851-1890 R-Z (Melbourne, 1976),259-60.
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36 In response to a letter favourable to Besnard, C.M., the editor of The Courier of Mines and Bendigo Daily Mail was moved to write the following: "We cannot agree.... Mr. Besnard had great provocation it is true-provocation sufficient to have made some men act in a much more furious manner than he did; but it is impossible that any magistrate can countenance an assault of the kind, under any circumstance whatever."
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37 Victoria Registry Record, 3269.
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38 Officer's business sense was highly valued and he served as a director on several business concerns. The financial strain of acquiring the freehold of Mount Talbot and losses from drought in his West Darling Holdings, however, forced him to declare bankruptcy on 25 June 1897. At the time of his death, he was survived by his wife Ellen, four children from his first marriage, and seven of the eight children born to Ellen and himself. See Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 5: 1851-1890 K-Q (Melbourne, 1974), 357-358.
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39 NSW Registry Record, 02803.
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40 "Index to Assisted Immigrants Arriving Sydney, 1860-79," Reel 2139.
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41 T.P.B.'s nieces and nephews apparently had settled in the region as well as Bourke. In the 1880s, Vere Dawson Besnard was appointed Clerk of Petty Sessions and Mining Registrar at Glen Innes. He also served as Clerk of Petty Sessions, Bourke.
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42 Confusion results from the various published accounts of T.P.B.'s age. Since his older brother, John, was born 24 June 1806 at Cork, the date of 1808, in "The Paramatta Gaol Description Book, 1868," appears most likely to be correct. Thus, Besnard was seventy at the time of his death.
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43 The grave yard at Inverell was not established until the 1880s. Prior to that time interment took place in church yards or on private property. The historical society of Inverell has completed an inventory of the known sites in the area, and a typed list of the known tombstones is held by the local library. Since T.P.B.'s death notice appeared so quickly in the Melbourne paper, it seems likely that the Vere Besnard branch of the family at Glen Innes notified the others of his death.
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