In 1893, male hearts were fluttering from Auckland to Dundin over the Gaiety Girls, a burlesque performance which had been touring Australasia from 1888, and creating reaction wherever they went.
Letty Lind says there is not a word of truth in the story about the Gaiety girls encouraging foolish young Australians to ruin themselves by giving them diamonds, flowers, suppers, and all the rest of it. Both principals and chorus were phenomenally staid and quiet in Australia, especially in Sydney. "I think," declared the young lady, "you will find all the diamond presents made to any of the company in Australia consisted of some photographic views of Melbourne some one gave Miss Farren." The fair Letty declined either to deny or affirm her rumoured engagement to a wealthy Australian squatter.
The Advertiser (Adelaide) 8 August 1889
The florists blessed the Gaiety Company while they were here. Trade in bouquets of choice flowers received an enormous impetus. A local dude, in all the glory of evening dress suit and dazzling shirt front, threw the charming Alice Leamar a bouquet on the last night of the company's appearance in Auckland. The little lady picked it up, removing and pocketing the little note attached with all the nonchalance in life. The Gaiety girls are pretty well accustomed to that sort of thing by this time. Take it quite as a matter of course. But they do say that if some of the billets given to the sirens in question while they were in Auckland were to be published, there would be a pretty how-dy’e-do in upper crustian circles !
Observer 6 May 1893
The Last of the Gaiety Company.
The Gaiety Company went away in the Rotomahana shortly after 5 o'clock last evening … The whole outer tee of the wharf was thronged with a densely packed mass of gaily-attired humanity— very many hundreds in number, large proportion of these were Civil Servants, law clerks, bank clerks, merchants, the pulpit, and the press. By a singular coincidence some hundreds of these had pressing business with the Minister for Lands or the Ell Commissioners, which necessitated their coming down to see them immediately before their departure. By an equally singular coincidence only a very, very small, proportion of these hundreds went down avowedly " to see the girls off." It therefore could not have been taken as a reflection upon any of them when a hoarse voiced Gaiety super, who was politely requested to "take a cough lozenge," called for " three cheers for the mushroom dudes of Wellington." It was another singular feature of a singular affair that the hundreds who had come to see the Minister for Lands searched diligently for him amid the crowd of laughing Gaiety girls on the lower deck, and never thought of looking for him where he stood out like a Grand Turk against the sky-line on the upper deck, gazing down on the moving scene below, and pondering upon the possible effect of Woman Suffrage on the male voter of the young and impressionable order, also of the more mature variety with leas hirsute adornment, should a Gaiety girl elect to oppose him for the Waihomo seat. At last the steamer moved off, amid cheers and chaff and laughter, and then all the gentlemen — hairy and hairless — connected with the Government of the country who had been so singularly desirous of seeing the Minister for Lands, and be singularly unfortunate in their determined efforts to do so, moved sadly and dejectedly away.
Evening Post 16 May 1863
In Dunedin, however, one man proved immune to the charms displayed on the stage. Samuel Lister (c.1832-1913) was at the time editor of the Otago Workman, Dunedin's version in many ways of the Observer in Auckland, as it printed reviews, chat, and sporting news. In an 1893 satirical column in the paper, however, an anonymous columnist named "The Chiseller" landed his boss in hot water, when he "described the London Gaiety Burlesque Company's show as immoral and claimed that the performers were paid so badly they were forced to resort to prostitution", according to Lister's biography in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.
The reaction was swift and -- well, yes, quite dramatic.
Shortly after ten o’clock (Monday, 5 June 1893), … several members of the Gaiety Company were seen wending their way in a southerly direction, and as the female choristers among the number were seen to be carrying horsewhips, and were observed to be engaged in an excited conversation, it was readily surmised that something unusual had occasioned the gathering. Inquiries showed that the ladies of the Gaiety Company, having had their characters grossly assailed in the columns of the “Workman”, published on Saturday last, had held an indignation meeting, at which five of their number were deputed to vindicate the honour of their companions. And as the choice fell on the most Amazon-looking of the crowd it will be at once believed that they constituted a formidable quintette. The ubiquitous reporter was, of course, in evidence, a member of [the Dunedin Star’s] staff getting scent of what was going on. The advance guard comprised some of the male principals and the business representative of Messrs Williamson and Musgrove.
On entering the “Workman” office, the latter inquired of the publisher whether he had seen the paragraph to which exception was taken, and Mr Lister, presumably not knowing who his “surprise party” comprised, replied that he had, and that he supposed it must be true or it would not have found a place in the paper. The spokesman of the party then asked for a more satisfactory explanation, and being told that none was forthcoming, said that the paper would have to answer to those who had been grossly maligned.
The signal was given in orthadox dramatic fashion, and the five ladies de ballet trooped into the office, but not in so graceful a manner as in stage performances, for they at once began to ply their horsewhips most vigorously about the head and shoulders of their presumed libeller. The typos and apprentices engaged in the establishment rushed to their chief’s rescue, and a melee ensued, but the intruders were compelled to retreat to the road line, and the office door was slammed in their faces.
The door was quickly broken open, the windows were all smashed, and a scene of disorder followed such as is depicted as taking place at Donnybrook Fair. The hero of “Enniscorthy” was there inveighing against the impropriety of vilifying the characters of unprotected girls, but his observations were cut short by a blow on the eye from one of the printers. There too was the faithful hunchback – the trusted Quasimodo – prepared to shed the last drop of his blood in defence of Claude Frollo’s assailant. The fun at this time had become fast and furious, and a burly hotelkeeper living in the vicinity, fearing the destruction of the newspaper plant, took his stand in the doorway, and entreating the wreckers to go no further, demanded an explanation of their conduct. With tearful eye, one of the chorus girls said that she had been spoken of in most disparaging terms by the editor of the paper, and asked whether her questioner would not seek to avenge a similar slight if it had been put on one of his female relations. The force of the query was admitted, and the hotelkeeper then desisted from further interference.
The females now took possession of the editor’s sanctum, and threw the materials in it about broadcast, the men played havoc with the composing room, and the free fight between the members of the theatrical profession and those employed in the newspaper office continued. One of the office employees, thinking discretion the better part of valour, sought to retire quietly by the back door; but in the yard he was met by a couple of the stage hands, and had his face smeared with a composition very like black-lead. When he showed himself among the crowd he might have been taken for a Christy minstrel corner-man or Othello.
After seemingly avenging themselves for the insult passed concerning them, the visitors proceeded to take their departure, at which moment Constable Higgins, from South Dunedin, arrived on the scene, and at Mr Lister’s request arrested four or five men for damaging his property and for assault.
Auckland Evening Star 12 June 1893
In the subsequent court hearing, Lister dropped all charges, after "an amicable settlemement" had been made.
The Bench gave their consent to both applications, and the curtain was rung down on the second act of this unrehearsed little comedy, the professional folk leaving the court surrounded by their friends, after thanking the police for their courtesy during the brief period of their official acquaintance.