The Flying Cosgroves – grave tales

On the wall of the tourist information office and museum in Coolgardie, there is a large panorama showing the town as it was in the 1890’s. There towards the front, is the premises of Cosgrove and Mitchell. This was Tom Cosgrove’s auctioneering business.

Tom Cosgrove’s Memorial in the Kalgoorlie Cemetery

He later moved to premises in Bayley Street. His brother, William Irving Cosgrove, already had a stock and share broking business and auctioneer mart in Bayley Street near where it joins Ford Street, next to the Mutual Stores.
These building were burnt down in the great Coolgardie fire of 1897. Today a historical marker with a photograph of the building marked W I Cosgrove, stock and station agent, is all that remains of Wills business.
Both brothers also had business in Kalgoorlie in the 1890’s. They auctioned cattle, camels, horses and just about anything anyone cared to give them. Disillusioned diggers always brought their equipment to be auctioned before they left for home.

One character, know as Arizona Bill even brought an antique silver pistol – he was supposed to be using it in a duel against Captain Bennet, but decided to cash in the pistol and drink the proceeds instead. Will Cosgrove made money, returned to Sydney and shrewdly invested in property in the Eastern Suburbs, but Tom never returned. He dropped dead from a heart attack on Dec 23rd 1902 at a pub near Broad Arrow. His death certificate says that he died at Credo, which is a station near Broad Arrow. There was a coroners inquest held at Broad Arrow on the 29th December, the verdict was ‘Sudden death due to heart attack’.

Tom claimed to have walked from Perth to the Eastern Goldfields in the 1890’s. Whether or not it was true, his family never knew. After all, he was Irish and they’re not ones to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

On Christmas Day a funeral procession marched from the horse bazaar in Hannan Street to the cemetery where Tom was buried by Father Thomas Robinson. His decorative headstone, not far from the main entrance to the Kalgoorlie Cemetery, is lavish with Irish shamrocks and bears the inscription,

‘The ways of men are narrow, the gates of heaven, divinely wide’.

Tom’s son, John Cosgrove, was one of Australia’s well know actors in the last century. He also had connections in the Goldfields. He spent two years here as a theatre manager, producing everything from tear jerking melodramas like ‘East Lynne’ to comedy and Shakespeare. Sometimes he wrote his own shows and they did well because successful  miners were looking for a good time and they had money to spend. In Kalgoorlie the only theatre John could obtain was an open air section of the Tivoli wine saloon in Dugan Street. It was in an appalling condition but the publican was keen to see it in use, as it would bring in customers. So he offered John a five year lease for only a shilling a week. John set to work and installed electric lights, enlarged the stage and put up a canvas roof. Unfortunately the roof wasn’t water tight and some patrons, in their beautiful evening clothes, got drenched if it rained.

Tivoli Gardens and Theatre, Dugan Street, Kalgoorlie

Tivoli Gardens and Theatre, Dugan Street, Kalgoorlie

As well as staging his own shows, John rented his theatre out to companies like J C Williamson. According to legend, he cunningly fixed a pipeline from his dressing room to the brewery close by. Visiting stars like, Tyrone Power and Edith

John Cosgrove

Crane, could not believe it when they saw that John had a tap in his dressing room that ran beer.  Once John was amazed when an ex priest called Slattery whom he had known in Melbourne, turned up in the Goldfields to lecture on religion He immediately gave a lecture himself on the immorality of the man.

A group of hefty miners in the audience, mostly Irish Catholic, organised a riot, wielding hurley sticks (a popular game then) and literally pulled the hall apart. Slattery was run out of town and John had a riot to quell at the end of the show. John Cosgrove made a great deal of money but then lost most of it again, being too fond of drinking and gambling. He ran up so many debts he decided to leave West Australia secretly. His way of leaving was unusual to say the least. He persuaded a butcher to wrap him up to look like a side of beef then had a friend hoist him up over the side of a ship bound for Sydney.

Of his time in the Goldfields John later wrote, ‘they were rough days, but full of exitement, it was a mans life, and I enjoyed it’.

Back in the East, John Cosgrove made a name for himself as a producer and actor in some of Australia’s earliest silent films. The most famous of these were ‘Silks and Saddles’ and ‘Sunshine Sally’ which have been re done from nitrate and copies are now in the Canberra Film and Sound Archives. John died of a heart attack in 1925.

He was remembered in the ‘Bulletin’ on Aug 20th as a ‘stout and cheerful presence, familiar to theatre goers from Kalgoorlie to Cooktown …. a prince of green-room jesters and a very good actor withal’.

Great Grandaughter of Tom Cosgrove, Jenny Rudd O’Neill, has completed nine years of research on her Cosgrove ancestors and she has published a book – The Flying Cosgroves.

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My name is Moya Sharp, I live in Kalgoorlie Western Australia and have worked most of my adult life in the history/museum industry. I have been passionate about history for as long as I can remember and in particular the history of my adopted home the Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia. Through my website I am committed to providing as many records and photographs free to any one who is interested in the family and local history of the region.

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