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Story: Small, Joe

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Small, Joe


Goldminer, entertainer, songwriter

This biography, written by Robert H. B. Hoskins, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Joe Small was born probably in England in 1830 or 1831; the identity of his parents is not known. The Small family emigrated to Australia in 1836 and settled in Sydney. Joe Small seems not to have married and the date and place of his death are unknown. He was liked for his genial personality, even if his temper was somewhat mercurial.

Small began his career about 1846 as a clerk in a Sydney merchant's office, where he soon became noted for his bookkeeping. In 1852 he left for Victoria to become a goldminer, and also worked as a farmhand. He later recounted these experiences in a diary of his goldfield adventures. It was at Beechworth that Small temporarily joined the New Orleans Minstrels and after the success of his first song, 'The unfortunate man', he became an extremely successful professional balladist.

In New Zealand Small made the acquaintance of Charles Robert Thatcher, with whom he struck up a warm friendship; they toured together from December 1863 to November 1865 and from June 1869 to May 1870. In his concert appearances with Thatcher, Small gained a great reputation, especially for his 'Irish' character-songs and sketches; he was admired for his pleasant bass voice. Small's presentation of his best-known song, 'The unfortunate man', is described in the New Zealand Herald of 5 April 1864: 'we have never seen anything that could surpass Mr. Small in this song, and certain it is we never saw anything more comic. …Mr. Small on first appearing on the platform in his singular costume and rouged face…was received with applause and on the conclusion of the song, he was again vociferously called for and overwhelmed with a perfect hurricane of plaudits.'

During the 1860s Small also worked with various travelling companies, mainly specialising in acrobatics; he also sang and occasionally acted 'bit' parts in touring theatre productions. Small travelled widely as a balladist; leaving in May 1870, he visited America, India, China and Japan. He returned to New Zealand in June 1872, working with Professor Haselmayer, a magician. Besides his 'characteristic comicalities' in the costume of the unfortunate man, Small offered a recitation in verse of 'the most important events' that had befallen him on his travels.

Small's The New Zealand and Australian songster, to which were added extracts from his diary on the Australian goldfields, was published at Christchurch in March 1866, and contained 13 songs. Although Small's songs were less topical and witty than those of Thatcher, his narrative skill, his identification with the underdog, the comic blunderings of his 'Irish' heroes and the use of traditional Irish tunes ensured their success. Failure is the keynote to Small's songs, but a rebellious attitude is also present; Small's heroes are willing workers, who find no pleasure in deception and no content in being disliked. The reason they give for leaving Australasia is love of Home, but to the reader it appears that they leave because colonial life exposes a meanness of spirit which finally defeats them.

How to cite this page:

Robert H. B. Hoskins. 'Small, Joe', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1s14/small-joe (accessed 11 December 2023)