Best known as the proprietor and manager of the Hiscocks' Federal Minstrels, arguably the greatest minstrel combination ever assembled in Australia, F. E. Hiscocks was also one of the leading variety entrepreneurs to operate here during the 1870s amd 1880s. Born in Bristol, England, he is believed to have started out his career in Australia operating F. E. Hiscocks and Company, a map publishing business (and which also pioneered the concept in Australia of including advertising on these maps).
In early 1875, while based in Melbourne, Hiscocks married Fanny Marshall. Around the same time he was also offered the position of Treasurer at Sydney's Queen's Theatre by Samuel Lazar. In early July, while in Sydney, Hiscocks new born son died in Melbourne eight days after his birth. He subsequently returned to Melbourne, later taking over the management of the Apollo Hall, before overseeing the Australian tour of the Great Asiatic Circus and Japanese Troupe (1875-76).
For most of 1877 Hiscocks operated both his theatrical and mapping business out of Brisbane. Among the troupes and artists he produced and managed were the US Minstrels, Dr Silvester, Dr Carr's Royal Phreno-Mesmeric Seances, Hart and Searell's Operetta and Burletta Co, and Captain Hayward's Combination of English Stars. The following year he and his American partner Alf Hayman took up the management of Kelly and Leon's Minstrels, presenting them at the Queen's Theatre (Sydney) and St George's Hall (Melbourne). The pair also managed Madame Carlotta Tasca's Hobart season (the company included Alfred Plumpton).
After touring Kelly and Leon's company through New Zealand in late
1878/early 1879 Hiscocks and Hayman formed two touring companies. One, a
dramatic troupe featuring such well-known actors as Lance Lenton,
Alfred Boothman, D'Orsy Ogden and Harry Daniels, was engaged to tour New
Zealand. The other company, billed as Hiscocks and Hayman's Mammoth
Minstrels and boasting such luminaries as W. H. Bent, Cheevers and Kennedy,
Lou Braham and Edward Amery, was established in Australia before also touring New Zealand. Hiscocks and Hayman also simultaneously managed Tommy Hudson's Surprise Party tour of that country. In order to better manage their increasingly expanding operations,
the pair established an American-style "Bureau" circuit -
leasing theatres in each of the principal New Zealand cities, while also
negotiating deals with the managements of the leading theatres in
Sydney and Melbourne. In this way they intended to both secure opportunities for their artists and reduce the overheads and inconveniences typically endured by companies
and artists touring under various managements (Hobart Mercury, 13
February 1879, p.2). The two most prominent of the Australian theatres
were St George's Hall (Melbourne) and the Queen's Theatre (Sydney).
While their partnership looked to be building momentum, two significant
events almost undermined Hiscocks and Hayman's operations - the first
being the "Great Wellington Fire" which destroyed among other buildings
the Te Aro Theatre which their dramatic company was then
occupying. The second, and more serious event was the collapse of
Melbourne's Provincial and Suburban Bank. Having lost most of the
capital they have managed to build to that date, the pair became
prominent witnesses in the legal proceedings taken against the bank's
directors in 1880 (Sydney Morning Herald 25 Feb. 1880, p.7).
The Mammoth Minstrels toured Australia though until July 1880, at which
time the troupe and its managers left to undertake engagements in Great
Britain. Hiscocks returned the following year on his own, his
partnership with Alf Hayman having by then ended. Hayman is believed to
have returned to America where he had some success as a theatrical agent
and manager. After re-establishing himself in Australia by promoting
various artists and entertainments Hiscocks put together the
Federal Minstrels in 1883. The following year he made a major investments in
minstrel entertainment by taking up a long-term lease of Sydney's
Academy of Music (previously the Scandinavian Hall/Hotel). The first
company to play there was natural the Federal Minstrels. Hiscocks also
made a concerted effort to capture a Melbourne market for his
operations, opening limited seasons there with the Federals for several
years. Generally held towards the end of each year, the Melbourne
seasons typically opened after short country tours through southern New
South Wales and Victoria - including such towns as Goulburn, Wagga
Wagga, and Albury.
The Federal Minstrels maintained a constant presence in Australia up
until 1889. Although unchallenged as the leading local variety
minstrel company operating in Australia at the time, Hiscocks decided
to disband the troupe in order to challenge Harry Rickards' domination
of the high class variety entertainment market, beginning this attempt with the London Pavilion Company. Among his other significant entertainment
productions during the late 1880s and early to mid-1890s were the New
English Specialty Company (in partnership with Harry Friedmann); Charles
B. Hicks' company the Hicks-Sawyer Coloured Minstrels; Gaylord and
Silbon's Anglo-American Humpty Dumpty Troupe; and the Silbon-Stirk
Combination. Although none of these tours appears to have been a
failure, Hiscocks' timing was poor, occurring at a time when the country was sliding ever more quickly into an economic
depression. With Sydney and Melbourne able to sustain only one
upper-level variety organization Hiscocks soon found himself in in
financial difficulties and he was eventually forced to end his
entrepreneurial career. After a serious accident laid him up in early
1901 the theatrical community banded together to raise money to help him
through what was expected to be a long convalescence. In July that
year, however, Hiscocks died in Sydney, aged 59. He is believed to have
been survived by his son, Eceldowne and daughter Fannie.
Although never considered to have been in the same class as Harry
Rickards', Hiscocks's career was nevertheless significant in terms
of the development of Australian variety theatre, and indeed he ranks
alongside Frank Smith, Dan Tracey and the Cogill Brothers as one of the four
most important managers to operate in this country during the last three
decades of the nineteenth century. Responsible for bringing to
Australia such pivotal performers as Charles Pope and Irving Sayles,
John Fuller Snr, Beaumont Read, Wallace King, General Mite and Frederick McCabe to
Australia, Hiscocks was closely associated with such artists as W.
Horace Bent, Sam Keenan, Johnny Cowan, and Harry Clay.
Among his business partners, too, were Rignold and Allison, and J. W.