Page 1: Biography
Actor, theatre owner, entertainer
Actor, singer, entertainer
This biography, written by Peter Downes, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
George Buckingham, one of the pioneers of theatre in Auckland, came to New Zealand from Australia late in 1843 on the City of Sydney, accompanied by his wife and three children. Like many other entertainers who travelled the colonies at this time, little is known of his life aside from his work. It is believed he was born in England, possibly around 1810, and there is a strong probability that he was a freed convict. His career as an actor began in Sydney in 1832. He married Anne Jessop there on 21 July 1834.
Soon after his arrival in Auckland, beginning on 26 December 1843, George Buckingham and a small company of professionals presented a season of popular plays at the Royal Hotel in Queen Street. These were the first theatrical performances of any consequence to be given in Auckland. Newspaper reports reveal that, while the audiences were disappointingly small, the acting by the company and its leading man was of a high standard and was greatly appreciated. Buckingham, believing that the venue of a public house might be a deterrent to would-be playgoers, quickly solicited support from some leading merchants, hired some carpenters and in the surprisingly short time of 33 days built the settlement its first theatre, the Fitzroy, which was opened on 12 February 1844.
The plays presented were all early nineteenth century comedies and melodramas which had proved popular in Australia. Although they were well received in Auckland, audience numbers did not increase. It was obvious by November that the venture could not continue, so George Buckingham reluctantly closed his theatre and became a coffee-house manager. He continued to serve as Noble Grand of the Oddfellows' Fountain of Friendship Lodge, a position which he had held since 20 February 1844.
Apart from a brief period in 1848 it was to be nine years before the Buckingham name appeared again before the Auckland public. George and Anne Buckingham produced eleven children between 1835 and 1860, and by November 1853 four of the older offspring, George junior, Rosetta, Walter and Conrad, were showing sufficient promise as singers, musicians and actors for them to appear on the concert platform with their father. The regular concerts of the Buckingham Family entertainers soon became a familiar part of the Auckland theatre scene, and they made at least one tour to Australia.
George Buckingham senior returned to acting in late 1855 to partner the highly esteemed actress Mrs W. H. Foley for a few months in her Auckland début season, but after a violent disagreement over money the couple parted company. The next few years were spent touring with the family group around the inland towns of New South Wales and Victoria. In 1861 the Buckingham Family entertainers turned up in Sydney, but without either mother or father. Anne Buckingham had died in Campbelltown, New South Wales, on 20 April 1861, probably outliving her husband. How and where George Buckingham died is not known.
The star of the small family troupe was now Rosetta Buckingham. Born in 1843 or 1844, she was in her late teens by this time and had developed into an accomplished performer with a very pleasing singing voice. Although still supported on stage by her brothers, she was attracting large audiences in her own right. One undesirable character whom she attracted was the notorious Captain William Henry (Bully) Hayes. In September 1862 he induced the family to accompany him from Sydney to Dunedin and thence to the Otago goldfields.
In the prosperous canvas towns which had sprung up, Rosa Buckingham (as she was now calling herself) and her brothers were great favourites with the miners. In early 1863 they opened their own hotel, the Provincial, in the Arrow River township and while they performed there the grog and the money flowed freely. This was increasingly irritating to Bully Hayes, who opened his own hotel and theatre, the Prince of Wales, immediately opposite the Provincial. He took away much of the Buckinghams' trade, but worse, he enticed away their star attraction, Rosa. Ignoring the fact that he already had a wife living in San Francisco, he persuaded Rosa to call herself Mrs Hayes. There is no proof that any form of marriage ceremony actually took place. The problem was compounded by the fact that Rosa was several months pregnant.
The Buckingham brothers attempted everything possible to humiliate and discredit their sister's seducer. It is said that they achieved success by spreading a rumour that Bully Hayes had lost an ear many years earlier in a brawl which had developed after he had been found cheating at cards. They offered a reward of £5 to anyone who could prove whether the captain really did have only one ear. Before long a courageous barber cut the captain's hair much shorter than usual and revealed that the story was indeed true. The whole incident was then written into an uproarious comedy called 'The barbarous barber, or the lather and the shave', and acted out in the Buckinghams' hotel with resounding success. Hayes immediately became a laughing stock and threatened revenge, to little effect since less than two months later strong gales severely damaged both hotels.
Rosa and her de facto husband went to live in Riverton, where their baby daughter Adalaida Eudora was born on 11 July 1863. There seems to have been a reconciliation, for the following year they travelled to Newcastle, New South Wales, with Rosa's brother George Buckingham. Hayes purchased a small brigantine, the Black Diamond, at Newcastle, and planned to return to Nelson, collect the other members of the Buckingham Family entertainers and then depart for China.
Instead of sailing directly to Nelson, Hayes went first to Croisilles Harbour. While the brig was being loaded with firewood, on 19 August 1864, he borrowed a five ton sailing yacht and with Rosa, George, the baby, and a 15-year-old nursemaid, Mary Cowley, set out across the bay to visit a nearby farm. About a mile and a half from the shore they were hit by a sudden squall and the boat capsized. With the exception of Hayes himself, who somehow managed to struggle ashore, everyone was drowned.