Maggie Oliver was a colonial era comic actress, born Maggie Walsh in Sydney in 1844. She began her career at an amateur theatre haunt, ‘The Old Rag Store’ in Queen’s Place at the age of 15 and by the 1860s had joined the Redfern Dramatic Society.
Oliver became known for her comic ability and Irish characters. One of her best known was that of Paddy Miles in the play, The Limerick Boy, which involved, as did many of her roles, male impersonation. As well as appearing at various theatres in Sydney, she toured the goldfields as well as rural New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania.
Her marriage to John King in 1869 ended when she obtained a divorce in 1877, citing his extreme violence against her. Their only child died before the divorce.
She was the most popular Australian actress of these latter days — the darling alike of dress circle, stalls, pit, and gallery. Who does not remember her joyous laugh on the stage? and let me here remark that it is not everyone who can laugh or cry to order.’ Only the true artist who ‘feels’, a character can do so; one who can pass naturally from grave to gay and make the pulse of an auditor beat quicker, and such a one was Maggie Oliver. Her laugh was an inspiration, and it was infectious. It did not seem forced; the transition to tears came naturally from a heart ‘always’ open to melting, charity.’ That was the great secret of her success. She entered for the time being into the joys and sorrows of the part she was playing, and her whole soul was in it. Evening News Supplement, 21 March 1896, p1
Oliver died of dropsy (cirrhosis of the liver) at Sydney Hospital on 29 May 1892, aged just 48. The Evening News remembered her as an ‘actress of the people’ and her ‘vivacity, her undoubted talent’ in the ‘domain of burlesque’.
She was buried at Waverley Cemetery, ‘the peaceful cemetery by the Pacific’, with her funeral attended by around 200 mourners. Another ceremony unveiling a marble memorial headstone carved into a cross was held a few months later in September. The inscription on the pedestal quotes Shakespeare’s Henry VI: ‘Why what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust? And live we how we can, yet die we must’.
This coming Saturday, the Friends of Waverley Cemetery Volunteers are holding one of their regular walking tours of the picturesque cemetery in Bronte, with the proceeds from the tours going toward memorial restoration work. Book tickets for this tour.
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This post was written by Nicole Cama and Linda Brainwood and published at the Dictionary of Sydney.