Sunday, February 27, 2011

William Henry “Zulu” Thompson (1841-1887): diorama showman

 Zulu Warriors, late 19th century, postcard, from Wikipedia.

Before motion pictures, there were lantern shows. But, for something with a bit more pizzazz (and prizes, just can’t forget the prizes) there were the mechanical diorama shows. These are best described by this site (complete with helpful image):

“The moving panorama, or diorama, consisted of a series of paintings on canvas which were then joined together to form one very long canvas sheet that was wound onto a vertical roller. From this roller the canvas was moved across the stage and wound up on a similar roller on the other side. The canvas could be illuminated from behind, from the front, or by a combination of both, using oil or gas lamps.”

One of the well known practitioners in the 1880s of the theatrical art of pulling ‘em in, making them watch art roll across a stage, then get prizes, was William Henry “Zulu” Thompson. He came by the sobriquet a little later in his career, but it seems he started out from America to the Australian colonies as a lecturer on the just-past American Civil War, around 1865. Lecturing, though, didn’t seem to grab the audience. It probably didn’t help that by the end of the 1860s, he wasn’t the only one at it on the circuit. Even high ranking officers (or so they said) of the American military made their way to Australasian shores to tell the colonials all about their war.

So, he decided to go one better, and went in for a mechanical diorama of his subject of choice. And there were prizes.

Since the great civil war between the Northern and Southern States of America, and which resulted in the abolition of slavery throughout the dominions of the great republic, we have had in Hobart Town several dioramic exhibitions of the leading incidents of the fearful struggle; but we remember none that was more largely patronised than was that of Thompson's Diorama of the battles which took place in the Southern States, presented last night for the first time at the Town Hall.

The hall, in every part, was crowded to excess, and when the curtain unveiled the first picture, a bird's eye view of New Orleans, a favourable impression of the ability of the artist was at once created, only to be enhanced as the more thrilling incidents of the war were unfolded, The scene representing the march of General Stewart's body of irregular cavalry on Richmond to oppose General McLellan's well-known attack upon that city at the head of a Federal detachment, afforded a graphic idea of the smartness of the cavalry, which the lecturer (Mr. Thompson, who, by the way, discharged his duties very efficiently), said had been described by the English press as " the finest body of regular cavalry in the world." Another equally effective picture was that representing the engagement of the 69th New York regiment under General Thomas Francis Meagher who, after a gallant resistance, retreated before Pittsburg, with a loss of 1,400 out of 1,000 men.

The battle between the famous Confederate cruiser the Alabama, and the Hattrass, off Galveston, was more than a picture, it was an excellent piece of mechanism, and the way in which the whole affair was worked proved highly interesting, particularly to the junior portion of the audience. The funeral procession of the great southern commander General Stonewall Jackson, whose death sealed the fate of the Confederate army, is a very elaborate piece of mechanism, the movements of the soldiery forming the cortege being regulated with wonderful precision, and drawing forth warm expressions of approval. In fact, the whole diorama proved a success; and though the music in some respects was not up to the mark, still it added much to the enjoyment of the evening.

At the close of the diorama Mr. Thompson proceeded to present the prizes to the holders of tickets, in accordance with the announcements in the show-bills. These consisted of some really valuable and, at the same time, useful articles, including tea and coffee service (4 pieces), two presentation cups, two sovereigns, large liqueur frames, two cruet stands, a couple of opera glasses, and an infinity of other things which we need not describe. One singular circumstance in connection with the prizes was that the great bulk of them went to the shilling part of the hall, thus doing away with any suspicion of favouritism. The exhibition will be on view again to-night.

Hobart Mercury, 26 September 1876

USS Hatteras in action with CSS Alabama, off Galveston, Texas, on 11 January 1863, from Wikipedia.

Evening Post 7 August 1877

Wanganui Herald 5 September 1877

This went down a treat, but by the end of the 1870s, the American Civil War probably seemed rather old hat. So, Thompson took steps to freshen up his act. Fortunately for him, I suppose, this was the age of the British Empire, and a colonial conflict out in the Darkest Continent came in time to rescue his fortunes.

Melbourne is to be instructed during the Exhibition in regard to most of the leading incidents which took place during the Zulu War. Mr W H Thompson, of American war diorama celebrity, on leaving Sydney made his way to South Africa, where he collected such information as will enable him to present to Australia a thoroughly reliable panoramic view of the war. The artists who have been employed upon it are Messrs Telbin, Gordon, Harper, Walter Harm, and H. Emden, of Drury Lane. Mr Thompson goes out by the Kaisar-i Hind to make the necessary preparations, so as to have everything ready by the time the Exhibition opens.

Otago Witness 24 July 1880

Thompson's Colossal Mirror of the Zulu War will open for a season of six nights at the Mechanics' Institute, this evening. The paintings of the various scenes in that dreadful struggle are from the brushes of several of the most celebrated London scenic artists, such as Telbin, Gordon (of the London Comedy Company), Harford, Lloyd, and others. The exhibition has been shown before crowded audiences throughout Australia, and is altogether superior to most of such entertainments that have visited the colonies. The views comprise pictures of the battle of Isandula; the defence of Rorke's Drift ; saving the colours; the wreck of a the troopship Clyde; and the diorama of 8000 moving figures, representing Lord Chelmsford's march to the relief of Ekowe, and the funeral procession of the Prince Imperial from Woolwich to Chislehurst, together with many other interesting and masterly portraits. At the conclusion of the exhibition a number of a valuable presents will be distributed among the audience. The descriptive lecturer is Mr W. H. Thompson, who some years since made two successful visits to this place.

Launceston Examiner 17 October 1881

The defence of Rorke's Drift 1879, from Wikipedia.

He toured around both Australia and New Zealand with the diorama, and it proved an enormous hit. But then, his business sense went awry. He bought another diorama when the Zulu War one seemed to be a little flat as far as audience attraction went – and that one turned out to be as old as the hills. And the cost of those prizes – even when the takings were slim, folks still expected their prizes, of course. Bankruptcy loomed, then crashed over “Zulu” Thompson, landing him in meetings with his creditors in Wellington.

The Troubles of a Showman.
The adjourned meeting of creditors in the estate of William Henry Thompson, proprietor of the Zulu War Diorama, was held to-day , the representatives of two creditors being present in addition to the Official Assignee and the debtor. Mr. Thompson made the following statement : — I am a married man and have two children. About three and a-half years ago I passed through here, and the Manager of the Bank of Australasia will tell you that I had £2500 to my credit in that Bank. It was on deposit at 2½ per cent. I then went to Sydney and bought 200 shares in the new theatre building in that city at £10 per share, and altogether I paid £600 in calls. I was advised to sell out, and did so for £250, thus dropping £350 on the shares.

I bought from Mr. George Gordon, of the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, for .£550 cash, the panorama of the Egyptian War, which I exhibited in Sydney. There I lost £750, owing to opposition and the show not being as successful as I expected. [It had been the fifth time the same show had gone through Melbourne]. I then went to Mauritius, taking a company of nine people with me. I paid £350 for passages alone. I paid £600 to Saber and Sons for goods, and got credit for £100 worth of goods in addition, and I had 660 sovereigns in my pocket. I arrived in Mauritius in the height of the summer, and consequently had a bad season, and Mrs. Thompson had to pawn her diamonds to pay our fares to get away, as I had lost all my cash. I had been six weeks in Mauritius, and spent about £200 a week expenses.

Then I went to Durban, South Africa, and was similarly unsuccessful in consequence of the depressed state of the country. I then performed at Capetown, and had £90 left out of the whole of my capital and goods— just sufficient to pay the fares of myself and wife to Melbourne. I was unsuccessful throughout the whole of my African tour.

I arrived in Melbourne with £5 and went to Sydney and reorganised the company, the Bank of Australasia lending me £200 on some land I had at the North Shore. I went up country with that money and lost it all. With £50 more which the Bank lent me I went to Melbourne and lost again, and had to sell my diamonds to pay my liabilities. Then I went to Ballarat, where the show was seized. I purchased it back with £100 my wife lent me out of her own private purse — money left her by will. Then I came to New Zealand, and in Dunedin I made £65 after paying all expenses. In Christchurch I did nothing, and that was the cause of all my trouble, as I lost everything. Then I went to Blenheim, the West Coast, and Wanganui and struggled through till 10 days ago the bailiffs took possession of the diorama on account of a debt owing to a Christchurch firm. Then I filed.

I have paid everybody in Wellington. Saber and son's books will show that for years I have paid them about £2000 a year for goods. I always paid the board of my company, and their wages were paid every Monday. I did not think it necessary to keep books. I had good houses here, but the Athenaeum Hall will only hold about £18 or £19 at my prices. The Zulu War Panorama cost me £2000. There being no quorum of creditors no resolution was passed, and the matter was left in the hands of the Official Assignee, who will call for tenders for the purchase of the two panoramas.
Evening Post 27 February 1886

Evening Post 10 April 1886

His Zulu War diorama was purchased by Alfred Eric Wyburd (d. 1900), himself a theatrical celebrity in his day.

Death of Mr Wyburd -Mr Alfred Wyburd, well known here and in South Africa as a theatrical agent and hotel keeper, died last evening at the Baden Baden Hotel, Coogee, of which he was the lessee. Mr Wyburd who was an energetic and popular man was, at the outset of his career, a professional cyclist, and for a long time he managed the Bondi Aquarium with success. As a boniface he was entirely connected with the Commercial Hotel, King street, which he left to conduct a long theatrical tour of the Cape This was interrupted by the outbreak of the war, and he then returned to Sydney, and died at Coogee, as noted above, whilst not much past the meridian of life.
Sydney Morning Herald 5 September 1900
Zulu Thompson's War Diorama, after a very good time in Wellington, has gone to the country districts under the management of that experienced showman, Mr. Alf. Wyburd, the "gifts" being, of course, the leading feature in the nightly programme. Possibly we may have an opportunity, in the sweet by-and-bye, of annexing some of the jewelled coffee-pots, gold-headed walking-sticks, and silver-plated meat choppers so lavishly scattered around.

Observer 7 May 1887

“Zulu” Thompson reinvented himself as host at Wellington’s Albion Hotel – but, it was all too late for him. Diabetes, in the days when it was a death sentence, claimed him.

We regret to have to record the death of Mr. W. H. Thompson, better known as " Zulu " Thompson, who breathed his last at his residence in Dixon-street last evening, at the age of 46. The deceased came out to Australia about 1860, and was a member of a dramatic company for some time. He then wont back to England, and returned as lecturer to a diorama of the American war, with which ho travelled all over the world. After being connected with the show for some time, he purchased it, and amassed a large amount of money, the receipts as a rule being very good. He subsequently acquired a diorama of the Zulu war, and exhibited it in different parts of the world with more or less success. The soubriquet of "Zulu" was gained through his connection with this show. About two years ago he settled down in Wellington, and was licensee of the Albion Hotel until his health gave way and compelled him to relinquish business. For five or six months prior to his demise he suffered severely from diabetes, and his death was due to that disease. Mr. Thompson was a genial, kind-hearted man, and was well-liked by all who knew him. He leaves a wife and daughter, the latter about 7 years of age.

Evening Post 27 December 1887

Thousands of people throughout the colonies will remember the Diorama of the Zulu War, and its portly cicerone, Mr. Thompson. He had for some time past been host of an hotel at Te Aro, Wellington. A telegram, dated Wellington, December 28, says :-" ' Zulu ' Thompson was buried to-day, and his funeral was attended by a considerable number of members of the theatrical profession." From another source we learn that he had been suffering from diabetes for some months past. He was 40 years of age, and leaves a widow, formerly a Hobart resident, and one daughter, seven years of age. Mr Thompson first came out to the Australian colonies as lecturer to a panorama of the American War somewhere about 1865. He travelled all over the world with that and his succeeding show, the Zulu War, visiting Great Britain, Canada, the United States, South Africa, India, China, Japan, and the Australian colonies. In the "show" line few men were better known or more universally liked than poor " Zulu.” With a natural genial bonhomie he made friends wherever he travelled, and no call was ever made for his help in cases of brother professionals in need of assistance, but what a generous response was given. Mr. Thompson was a member of the Masonic fraternity.

Mercury (Hobart) 7 January 1888

Such was the Australasian career of “Zulu” Thompson.


  1. Whenever I'm in Sydney and have time, I head to the Art Gallery of NSW which contains a number of my favourite paintings, among them the Defence of Rorkes Drift - the one you reproduce above via Wikipedia. This is a stunning canvas that captures the horror of war better than almost anything else I have seen. Here's an appropriate link to the gallery's site:

  2. Thank you for writing this article on WH Thompson. He is my G-G-Grandfather and I was lucky enough to discover the beginnings of his career and subsequently found your blog which tells me everything I needed to know. It seems he was a showman on and off the stage as other newspaper articles talk about his popularity with the ladies and his fancy clothing and jewellery. Sounds like he was an entertainer through and through...