Thomas Smith Bellair has long been known to us as the publican of Wagga’s Commercial Hotel (which is now Romano’s). Little did we dream that Thomas had lived a long, and hectic, theatrical life before he set foot in Wagga in 1885.
Supposedly born in Wellington, Shropshire in 1825, Thomas was performing at the Sunderland Theatre Royal in Newcastle (UK) in 1848 and on 31 October 1853 he performed the role of Cassio in Othello in the Marylebone Theatre in the West End of London.
In 1855, Thomas and a fellow actor (Mr Robins) were invited to Sydney to join the company of JG Griffith at the Royal Victoria Theatre. His first colonial appearance was as Philip in Luke the Labourer. The newspaper reports were kind to Thomas after his first performance, saying he was successful in pleasing the audience and would no doubt become a favourite.
In October 1857, Thomas and his wife (Ann Eliza Brew Newton), who was also an actor, travelled to Auckland, New Zealand, where they started a professional theatrical company with Mr and Mrs William Hill. They took up the lease of the Theatre Royal where they planned to present “legitimate drama…, operatic and melo-dramatic spectacles, and pieces of a lighter cast.”
The vagaries of theatre life meant that by February 1859, the Bellairs were back in Australia, this time in Melbourne at GV Brooke’s Theatre Royal. Brooke was one of the most famous actors in Australia in the mid-1800’s, so Thomas was certainly not having to start from the bottom. Of Thomas’ first performance as Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice, one critic said that he had a good stage figure and possessed a “fair apprehension of histrionic requirements” but that his voice left something to be desired.
Towards the end of 1859, Thomas was in partnership with George Coppin, leasing the Olympic Theatre (also known as “The Iron Pot”) where they became known as an comedy company. The Comedy Theatre Company is now where the Olympic was located.
Between 1860 and 1870, Thomas was based in Ballarat, where he took up the licence for “Bellair’s Rainbow Hotel,” in Sturt Street, conveniently located opposite (or adjoining) the town’s own Theatre Royal which Thomas and his new partner, William Hoskins, also owned for about a year.
During this time, he was also travelling around with various theatrical companies throughout Victoria, at times going as far as Adelaide and Goulburn, and once to Calcutta, India.
Thomas also married again, his wife Ann, who had performed alongside him for so many years, having died in February 1861. Thomas and Rachel Proud were married in December that year at Buninyong and they proceeded to have over ten children.
In the 1870’s, the Bellairs sold the Rainbow Hotel to Mr Lester. They moved back to Melbourne where Thomas took over the Pastoral Hotel in Newmarket and was elected to the Essendon and Flemington Municipal Council, spending three years as Mayor.
In 1885, the Bellairs moved for the last time and took up the licence of the Commercial Hotel in Wagga, where they remained long after Thomas’ death in 1893.
But Thomas still didn’t leave his theatrical world behind him; he was a founding member of the amateur Garrick Dramatic Club soon after his arrival in town. The Club’s initial performance took place at the Freemasons’ Hall, where they presented Won at Last. The club members and cast were all locals, and Thomas, with his theatrical experience behind him, presided over them as Stage Manager.
The Garrick Club didn’t last long, however. In June 1886, a report appeared in the Sydney Mail that the club was dormant, apparently due to the lack of local women of willing, or allowed, to appear on stage.
Thomas died in May 1893, having lived a very interesting life. His wife followed him just a few years later but the Bellair family continued to run the Commercial Hotel until 1917.