George Coppin’s Biographical Omission
President, Carlton Football Club
The biographies of George Selth Coppin (1819–1906) - “father of the Australian theatre” - fail to mention he was also President of Carlton Football Club for seven years. I look into what appears to be a curious biographical omission.
Click on this link to a Trove list: George Coppin’s Biographical Omission - President, Carlton Football Club to see resources for this article, including online links, sources and newspaper reports. It’s footnotes but much more.
Remembering Dad, who despite later (although not sole heartedly) following the Swans in Sydney (as did I), originally followed Carlton (as did I). He told me his father and his father’s father and … you know … all followed the Blues. I have no doubt they did, though my great-great-grandfather was born in Norwood, Adelaide, and his cousin played for the Red Legs, so I’d say they would’ve been his first team. Anyway, I reckon if Dad was still alive he’d be pretty pleased I wrote a little something about Carlton’s history. DC.
Father of the Australian Theatre
(Image left: "Mr George Coppin, the Australian comedian and manager" by Samuel Calvert. National Library of Australia nla.obj-135978055)
George Coppin is best known as a comic actor, theatre company owner, entrepreneur and some time publican for several decades from the 1840s. From English stages, in Australia he strode across Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Geelong and Launceston and also toured the United States. So if the man known as the “father of the Australian theatre” was also President of Carlton Football Club for seven years you would think that this was something generally well-known.
However the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) entry for George Selth Coppin (1819–1906) doesn’t mention the Carlton connection.
Why not? This question, at least, is quite an easy one to answer – ADB appears largely reliant on Alec Bagot’s biography “Coppin the great : father of the Australian theatre”. But that begs the question, why did Bagot – who had excellent access to family papers and Coppin’s daughter Lucy – not mention the Carlton presidency? It seems a curious omission and I’ll seek to explain it.
My primary research of colonial artist Samuel Thomas Gill (1818–1880) sometimes takes me on tangents, this one being to his contemporary George Coppin. Dutton (1981) suggested Gill and Coppin were friends. But although Coppin was the subject in 1849 of the very first of Gill’s humorous “Heads of the People”, and the two men shared a strong interest in horses, I can find no direct evidence of the friendship.
(Image right: "Acting Purveyor General" (George Selth Coppin) from "Heads of the People" by S.T. Gill, State Library of South Australia B 46875/1).
But back to Coppin. Although his biographer showed no interest in the Carlton connection, the football historians do.
The Carlton Football Club history site – Blueseum – notes Coppin’s presidential role. At time of writing Blueseum lists George Coppin as President in “1866?, 1867, 1868, 1869, 1870, 1871, 1872” and has James Linacre as a more likely president in 1866. I’ll investigate 1866 and more.
While exploring the biographical omission, we’ll also see the connection between Coppin and one of Carlton’s pioneer and famous players, Frank Hillsden.
Coppin and Hillsden
The Coppin and Hillsden connection is about as strong as you can get.
George Coppin married Mrs Harriet Hillsden and then, after her decease, married her daughter Lucy Hillsden.
George Coppin’s second wife was Mrs. Harriet Bray Hillsden. Harriet, a widow, was the sister-in-law of G.V. Brooke, the well-known actor who was under engagement to Coppin. While in Sydney in 1855 Mrs Brooke asked Coppin to help Harriet and the family. Coppin visited them and found Harriet “existing in direst poverty, trying to eke out a living for herself and four children, two girls and two boys”. The eldest Lucy, 14, “helped look after her sister, Harriet, and younger brothers Charles and Frank.” (Bagot 185-186)
Harriet died in 1859. Then in 1861 Coppin married Lucy Hillsden, Harriet’s eldest. “There were many headshakings as to the propriety of the match and forebodings of the outcome, but neither of the parties was perturbed” (Bagot 233).
This made Lucy’s brothers and Harriet’s sons – Frank and Charles – at the same time Coppin’s step-sons and his brothers-in-law.
Both Hillsden brothers were pioneer players and committee members for Carlton Football Club. But Frank was a star player.
In the 1865 season Frank Hillsden was regularly in the Carlton squad as well as once in the Royal Park squad. In 1866 he played predominantly for Carlton but also for Melbourne. Mark Pennings, in his “Origins of Australian Football”, says “it was not unusual for players to turn out for two or three clubs during the season.” (Pennings 37). But the Hillsden’s were definitely Carlton Football Club players. Frank Hillsden played for Carlton 1865-1872 and brother Charlie Hillsden 1867-1869. (Pennings)
This all suggests the possibility that Coppin’s first presidency at Carlton in 1866 was actually a by-product of Frank’s playing.
Early Carlton Presidents
Newspaper reports help resolve some of the confusion over Carlton’s early presidents.
In May 1864, just as the football season was starting, Coppin left Melbourne for America and he didn’t return until January 1866. Carlton Football Club began in his absence.
Some recalled a Carlton club in existence in 1861, but the present club was formed in July 1864. There is however no record that it played any games in that season. It has been claimed that Carlton’s first AGM recorded the results of the 1864 season, but these results actually refer to the 1865 season. It thus appears that Carlton was formed in 1864 but did not play until 1865. It is also likely that Carlton and Royal Park were virtually interchangeable at this time for every player in Royal Park’s 1864 team turned out for Carlton in 1865. (Pennings 35)
Carlton’s 1865 annual general meeting – its first according to Pennings – failed to elect a president.
A meeting of the Carlton Football Club, was held at the University Hotel, last Wednesday, for the purpose of electing office bearers for the season, and adopting a code of rules for the guidance of the club. Mr Waugh occupied the chair. The secretary was requested to communicate with James Linacre, Esq., asking him to accept the office of president of the club. Mr John Walls was duly elected vice-president; and the following gentlemen the committee, namely: — Messrs Waugh, McLean, McHarg, Richardson, Bowen, Byrne, McFarland and Adamson; Mr B. James, secretary. After some consideration it was resolved to adopt the Melbourne Club rules.
Leader (Melbourne, Vic.) 20 May 1865: 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article197036298
Did James Linacre accept the club’s invitation? The end of season general meeting suggests the possibility that he may not have, as McFarland chaired that meeting.
A meeting of the Carlton football club was held at the Rifle Brigade Hotel, Lygon-street, last evening, for the purpose of receiving the committee’s report for the past season, and for disposing of other business in connection with the club. Mr McFarland occupied the chair.
The Age (Melbourne, Vic.) 16 September 1865: 5. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article155039220
It is possible Linacre had accepted the presidency and McFarland had just chaired this meeting in his absence, but I find no direct newspaper evidence for Linacre’s acceptance.
On 17 January 1866 George Coppin returned from overseas and Melbourne marked his return with a celebratory banquet. On 13 March at Carlton’s annual general meeting, George Coppin was elected president. “It was also arranged that a uniform cap of white and blue should be worn by the players.”
Immediately Coppin in his enthusiasm arranged a pre-season trophy – one which would be vied for by young Frank Hillsden.
CARLTON CLUB.— The following letter from the president has been sent to us for publication:—
“Melbourne, 9th April, 1866. — Gentlemen, — In presenting ‘the president’s ball’ to the Carlton club, I desire, if it meets with your approval, that the president and vice-president should each appoint a captain to contest for the possession of the ball in practice games by members of the club, that the holder of the ball be entitled to the first choice in the selection of sides and shall have the kick off. An account of practice play to be made at the termination of the season, and the side winning the greatest number of games shall hold the ball to present to the elected officer for the following year. Mr. Frank Hillsden will act as the ‘president’s captain’ for the present season. With the hope that the ‘president’s ball’ may be considered worth your acceptance, and that it may stimulate play and give an additional interest to your practice games,
yours respectfully, GEORGE COPPIN, president.”
Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle (Melbourne, Vic.) 14 April 1866: 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article199057077
The pre-season scratch match began on 5 May.
Carlton Club.—The opening match of the season took place on Saturday last, in the Princess Park, between sides chosen by the president and vice-president, and after a very well contested game victory was declared in favour of the latter, they having obtained two goals, which were splendidly kicked by J. E. Clarke. The play of Hillsden, Guy, T. Gorman, W. Gorman, McFarland, O’Brien, Barfoot, and Lock, for their respective sides, was also exceedingly good. Mr. George Coppin, the president of the club, was on the ground, and opened the proceedings by kicking off the ball. The match will be continued to-day at half-past two p.m.
Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle (Melbourne, Vic.) 12 May 1866: 4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article199059375
The game continued the following Saturday when the president’s side scored two goals.
This seems to be the only report of Coppin’s active football involvement.
For Carlton and Hillsden even better was to come in the season proper.
The best game of the year  was played between Melbourne and Carlton on June 30, and was officiated by two goal umpires and a central field umpire. Neither side let up from go to whoa and produced an intense and exciting game… Frank Hillsden and Harry Guy were excellent for Carlton… A new rivalry was born and this was the first football game that truly captured the public’s imagination. Indeed, it can be argued that this game was a major turning point in football’s transition from leisurely pastime for a sporting clique towards a major spectator sport. Carlton also gained newfound respect in the football community and thereafter grew from strength to strength. (Pennings 42-43)
Carlton was ascendant and Coppin was elected president in each of the ensuing years 1867 to 1872. However he never presided at annual general meetings, these being chaired almost exclusively by vice-president John Walls. In 1874 Coppin was made one of three club patrons and was re-elected as a patron in 1875, 1876 and 1877.
In 1877 Coppin was the subject of Punch’s satire:
A very interesting match was played upon the South Melbourne ground between twenty-two gouty players from different clubs and twenty-two sufferers from sciatica. Mr. George Coppin was captain of the gouty team, and Mr. Ben Rolls of the enemy. It was a preliminary condition that no crutches were to be used; but as both sides remained stationary after taking their places for nearly half-an-hour, it soon became evident that if a goal was to be kicked, means of locomotion must be afforded to the players. Eighty-eight crutches were accordingly brought on the ground and distributed in equal numbers between the two teams and the game commenced with great spirit...
Melbourne Punch (Vic.) 6 September 1877: 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article174552204
That year – 1877 – was Coppin’s final known involvement with Carlton.
In 1878 he was elected vice-president of Richmond Football Club. However, but that club seems not to have been active the following year and Coppin’s major football involvement ended.
One wonders whether there was some rift between Coppin and Carlton in 1877-78 to cause his departure from the club.
Now back to the question of the biography.
Not a Cradle to Grave Biography
What did Alec Bagot’s biography say about this time? The answer is: very little.
Alec Bagot’s book has 49 chapters and 340 pages of text. Chapter 47 begins on page 317 with Coppin’s January 1866 return to Melbourne at the age of 46. Coppin died in 1906 at the age of 86. So 93% of the book relates to 53% of Coppin’s life. It’s a meaningless statistic except to somewhat quantify the observation that Bagot’s focus is clearly on Coppin’s early and theatrical life.
Bagot admitted he did not “pretend to cover all phases of George Coppin’s life, otherwise various citations would read like a catalogue. He was founder of the St. John Ambulance Association in Australia, the Gordon Institute for boys with its accompanying ‘Excelsior band’, libraries, free dispensaries, and a Grand Lodge of Freemasons in Victoria, he himself being elected, after several times declining, as the first Grand Master.” (Bagot 330)
Bagot’s main source was Miss Lucy Coppin (1873-1960) and much family material. Perhaps this is where the omission began.
Coppin’s public profile made him a popular candidate for his many roles as president / chair also of the Licensed Victuallers’ Society, Old Colonists’ Association, Victorian Humane Society, Richmond Municipal Council, Richmond Cricket Club and the Dramatic and Musical Association. Bagot mentions all these interests.
Coppin was also a member of Victoria’s Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council. Bagot mentions these too.
But not the football.
CITE THIS: David Coombe, 2020, George Coppin’s Biographical Omission: President, Carlton Football Club, accessed dd mmm yyyy, <http://coombe.id.au/research/George_Coppin_Biographical_Omission.htm>
Original: 25 March 2020.