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To mark 100 years since the first live stage broadcast in Australia, we revisit an article by PETER BURGIS published in On Stage back in 2006. With updates by Peter and new picture research and audio links by Rob Morrison.

‘Wireless enthusiasm is on the wane in Britain and America, and quite a number of small manufacturers are closing down,’ announced Mr. G. Watson, electrical engineer, in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald on 10 November 1923, following his return to Australia on the good ship Mongolia, after an overseas business trip.

A week earlier, a new Australian company called Broadcasters (Sydney) Ltd, advertised the start of the first local radio service from their studio in the Smith’s Weekly Building, Phillip Street, Sydney.

Broadcasters boasted ‘bedtime stories for the children, talks on housekeeping hints and Parisian fashion for ladies, racing and business reports for men, jazz evenings for young folk.’ Best of all it promised that ‘listeners-in’ would hear the Dungowan Jazz Orchestra and live performances from the Tivoli Theatre.

Radio 2SB (later 2BL) planned to be on air from 10am to 10pm, six days a week, available free to city, suburb and country. Set down for 15 November, this historic first Australian broadcast was delayed until 23 November 1923.

big broadcast 01aGladys Moncrieff in A Southern Maid, with Mione Stewart (left) and Nellie Payne (right). Photographer unknown. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

A bounder in the wings

Broadcasters (Sydney) Ltd had competition in the form of Farmer & Company, major merchants occupying large premises fronting Pitt, Market and George Streets (now Myer), with studios in the Roof Garden atop their imposing building. A newspaper advertisement (The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 1923) heralded the arrival of Farmer’s Wireless Broadcasting Service, due to start radiating test transmissions from 5 December under the banner 2FC.

Program highlights were to include weather predictions, race results, stockyard market reports, quotations from the Sydney Stock Exchange and updates on latest fashion decrees from Paris, London and New York (Farmer’s sold heaps of clothing and haberdashery).

Most importantly, there would be entertainments from the theatre circuits of J.C.Williamson Ltd and J.& N.Tait.

In the first week of 1924 it was reported that ‘experiments had been conducted from the stage of Sydney’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, involving the placement of microphones which collected the sound and conveyed it to an amplifying panel which “stepped-up” the volume before carrying the sound by landline to Farmer’s wireless studio in Pitt Street, whence it was conveyed by another special land line to the big station 2FC at Willoughby (inner North Shore), from whence it was radiated by wireless’ (The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 January 1924).

On Saturday afternoon (5 January 1924) a complete matinée of A Southern Maid was transmitted experimentally, with every word being heard quite clearly. Laughter followed each joke was also heard as was the shrill call of ‘Ice cream blocks and chocolates’ during the interval.
Without speeches and formalities, Farmer’s 2FC officially opened on the evening of Wednesday, 9 January, when a complete evening performance of A Southern Maid was broadcast from the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre.

big broadcast 02A tense moment at the Cafe del Santiago as Sebastian (Robert Chisholm) and Francesco Del Fuego (Claude Flemming) confront Sir Willoughby Rawdon (Howett Worster) with daggers drawn, while Doloes (Glady Moncrieff) looks on apprehensively. (Chisholm subsequently took over the role of Rawdon for the Sydney season.)

The event was a great success, with listeners ‘enjoying the clear sound of voices and orchestra, often accompanied by the rustling of programs in the front stalls and the subdued hum of the audience during interval’.

The presentation started with a general call from the 2FC announcer, followed by a peal of chimes rung on tubular bells, to allow listeners to tune their station reception accurately. After the chimes the announcer gave an introductory talk about A Southern Maid, timed to conclude as the theatre overture commenced. At the end of the show 2FC closed for the night, staff turned off the lights and went home—an exacting task well done.

The Maid

A Southern Maid (the local press often called it ‘The...’) was an English musical play, sometimes called a stage musical, or a musical comedy, or an operetta. The book was by Dion Clayton Calthrop, most of the music was composed by Harold Fraser-Simson, with lyrics by Harry Graham, Douglas Furber and Adrian Ross.

The show first tried out in Manchester on Christmas Eve, 1917, and had its London début on 15 May 1920 at Daly’s Theatre, where it ran for 306 performances. The Daly’s cast included José Collins, Ernest Bertram, Gwendoline Brogden, Mark Lester, Dorothy Monkman, Lionel Victor, Bertram Wallis, William Spray and Australia’s Claude Flemming (playing Sir Willoughby Rawdon).

In Australian Performers—Australian Performances (1987) Peter Pinne gives the following summary of the plot: ‘The story is set in South America, about a young Englishman who inherits a plantation and falls in love with a Spanish beauty, to the rage of the Vendetta chief, who has sworn to kill him for oppressive measures alleged to have been practised by his father’.

A Manchester press critic wrote: ‘A Southern Maid is a better piece than The Maid of the Mountains. She is a gorgeous creature, but as full of contradictions as the most provoking of her sex. She lures one into the belief that her end is to be as dramatic as Carmen’s—and suddenly decides to live “happily ever after”; she revels in a wealth of music which is strangely reminiscent; she has scenes and situations which, if one did not see last week, one saw the week before, and will probably see the week after next. And yet, while one realises that all this has been done before, it is impossible to do else but succumb to the wonderful glamour of the maid herself.’

He was talking of José Collins, whereas a few years later, Australian critics would be heaping accolades on our own Southern Maid, Gladys Moncrieff.

big broadcast 07aCast list from Sydney season, 1923/24

J.C.Williamson’s premiered A Southern Maid at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne on 27 January 1923. It opened at Her Majesty’s in Sydney on 27 October 1923, with a cast including Gladys Moncrieff, Robert Chisholm, Arthur Stigant, Fred Coape, William Perryman, Clarice Hardwicke, John Forde and Reginald Purdell. Andrew MacCunn was musical director and Oscar Asche was producer; he had also produced the original London production.


There were no facilities in Australia in 1924 to allow the recording of a stage show. However, Gladys Moncrieff did record two songs from A Southern Maid for the Vocalion label around 4 September 1924, during her first visit to London.The titles were ‘Love’s Cigarette’ and ‘Dark Grows The Sky’. Many copies were sold in Australia.

Claude Flemming, one of our most distinguished actor-singers, recorded only three song titles during a 50 year career, and they were all from A Southern Maid. They were ‘I Want The Sun And The Moon,’ ‘The Call Of The Sea’ and ‘Here’s To Those We Love’. The recording session took place at London’s Columbia studios on about 3 July 1920.

These discs were deleted from Columbia’s catalogue in 1924 and remain hard to find. The good news is that these five acoustically recorded 78s allow us, with a little imagination, to re-create some of the atmosphere of the historic 2FC broadcast.

big broadcast 08bCast of A Southern Maid, Melbourne, 1923. Photo by Talma, Melbourne. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Public reaction

At the time the 2FC broadcast took place (9 January 1924) there were only a few hundred listeners with licences. By the end of June 1924 only 1400 licences had been taken out across Australia. It seemed likely that the listening audience on 9 January would not have filled Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Despite the small audience, however, press reports from land and sea were complimentary. One ship’s captain advised that he sat glued to his seat listening to the Her Majesty’s show while operating a trading vessel some 2800 miles from Sydney.

Equally enthused was the skipper of Karoola, moored at a Fremantle wharf. A glowing report also came from Mr. E.P.Simpson, owner of the racing yacht Mistral II, who listened to the broadcast in his ‘cosy cabin’, while anchored at La Perouse. He told The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 February that, ‘The clearness with which the voices are thrown into the cabin (by a speaker) is absolutely uncanny; it fires one’s imagination, and prompts one to be less sceptical with regard to problems that now seem to be ridiculous—just as ridiculous as the present feats accomplished by wireless would have appeared thirty years ago.’

Warming to his subject, the yachtsman added, ‘Man is really a wonderful animal, constantly probing the secrets of the universe and of those that so far have been discovered, wireless results seem to me to be the most fascinating and astonishing.’

Pass me the rum!

Not everyone was happy with the arrival of radio, however. The Sydney Morning Herald for 19 December 1924 carried a piece headlined ‘Too Much Wireless—Teacher’s Warning… Speaking at the annual prize distribution of St Aloysius’ College, the Rev. L. Murphy (Prefect of Studies) said that he wished to warn parents against the abuse of the radio by their boys. We are not blind to its advantages,’ he said, ‘but we have noticed a serious deterioration in the work of the boys who have wireless installations. The tendency is for these boys to leave the classrooms at the earliest possible moment, and to give no thought to their studies while away from school.’

The Rev. Murphy made no mention if any of these young hooligans had been found with photos of Gladys Moncrieff in their lockers.

Happy ending

How should we remember this unique occasion? In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of a city, bush and sea fold clustered around the new-fangled wireless, wide-eyed, bushy tailed and all ears.

My dream includes the skipper of the schooner at La Perouse, the grazier from the Braidwood backblocks, the master mariner in Fremantle, a sundowner in remote Nyngan, and the ship’s captain ploughing through the Tasman Sea. Each tuned in to Our Glad and company, as musical history was made on the stage of Sydney’s Her Majesty’s Theatre on the evening of Wednesday, 9 January 1924.


With its broadcast of A Southern Maid Sydney’s 2FC scooped Melbourne’s new 3LO by nine months with a first live stage presentation. Live broadcasts of The Merry Widow and Sybil followed. 3LO came on air on 13 October 1924 with a blockbuster: Melba’s farewell performance of La Bohème, from the stage of His Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne.

2FC followed up this historic broadcast with another stage musical broadcast the following month when on 12 February 1924 they broadcast several acts of Sybil from Sydney’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. The cast included Gladys Moncrieff and Claude Flemming. Press reports of a clear transmission came in from afar as Gosford and New Zealand.

Claude Flemming (1884-1952) had a long and distinguished stage career with success on Broadway and the West End. His personality and distinct voice are preserved on a number of film clips which are available on Youtube. Check Cross Roads from 1931. Claude can also be heard narrating on a 1931 colour educational movie short entitled Peasants Paradise (‘Romantic Journeys’) on Youtube, a venture into German history and culture. His Australian stage appearances include Collits’ Inn (1933-1934) with Gladys Moncrieff and Annie Get Your Gun (1947-1950) with Evie Hayes.

It should be noted that A Southern Maid included additional music by Ivor Novello and George Clutsam. Clutsam was an Australian, having been born in Sydney in 1866. He was arguably the first Australian born composer to gain international recognition.

For further information on the history of Australian broadcasting and its pioneer actors, actresses, musicians, writers and producers I recommend the Australian Old Time Radio website.

Prepared with help from, and thanks to, Frank Van Straten.


A Southern Maid

         (with Daly’s Theatre Orchestra conducted by Merlin Morgan)

(The original 1920 London cast recordings released on Columbia records have been reissued on CD by Dominic Combe, who may be This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for further information.)

         (with The Aeolian Orchestra)


         (with The Aeolian Orchestra)


The opening scenes of this newsreel show Gladys Moncrieff and Claude Flemming in their costumes for A Southern Maid in various “Spanish” locations around Sydney.


PETER BURGIS: born Parkes, NSW,  1936. Performing arts historian,  author, and sound archivist, concentrating on activities of Australians on record prior to 1960.  Employed at the Centre for Advancement of Teaching,  Macquarie University, 1972-1974; founder and director of the National Library of Australia’s sound archive, 1974-1984 and the National Film & Sound Archive, 1984-1989.  Recipient of inaugural ARIA Jack Davey Pater Award for professional  excellence in the broadcasting arts and science  (1984). Founding chairman of Australian Country Music Foundation & Museum, Tamworth, 1989-1993. Starting in 1970 has conducted over 150 oral history interviews with Australian musicians, entertainers and composers. Vice-president of the International Association of Sound Archives, 1981-1987 and chairman of the Australian branch, 1979-1984. Has produced or contributed to over 500 sound recordings of reissues of historic Australian sounds. Co-author of “Peter Dawson (The World’s Most Popular Baritone)”, Currency Press, 2001, and “Tex Morton: From Australian Yodeler to International Showman”, The University of Tennessee Press,  2023. Currently preparing a discography of Australians who recorded in the acoustic period.

PREVIOUS ARTICLES published in On Stage: include:

  • “Thanks For The Memory” (2GB Musical Comedy Theatre,  8/1 & 8/2)
  • “Welcome ‘Mr. C’ ”  (Finlay Currie in Australia,  13/2)
  • “Voices of the Past: Kathleen Lafla” ,  9/4)
  • “The Fabulous Friedmans” (Jake Friedman)  9/3
  • “Bless ‘Em All” (Fred Godfrey)   9/3
  • “Starring John Barrymore, Gregory Peck, and Roland Hogue”   11/3
  • “Probing the Proboscis” (Nosey tunes)   7/3
  • “I’ve Been Everywhere (Or Have I)”    6/2