Tracking down John Collinson

BY GRAHAM MCDONALD

Sheet music nla.mus-an7412026-s1-v

Every Australian knows the chorus of Waltzing Matilda but who sang the song first? We know that the Australian classic, based on Banjo Patterson’s poem, was originally recorded with vocals by a John Collinson – but until now nothing more was known about him. His name appears on the 1926 release by Vocalion Records (Broadcast Deluxe Series W573) but it seems to be the only recording the tenor made – so who was he? The song was added to the Sounds of Australia registry in 2008 but all we knew was that the singer had been described as a ‘Queensland tenor’.

The only other hint we had was from the archivist at the Royal College of Music in London who told us that a John Collinson had enrolled there in 1919. The College records contained little biographical information other than that he was listed as a British subject, and the date suggested that he could have been a discharged serviceman, with WWI ending in 1918.

The mystery of John Collinson was put aside until a recent conversation with an NFSA visitor reminded me to pursue the possible military connection. Searching the National Archives’ military records from WW1 quickly turned up three John Collisons, two from Victoria and one from Queensland. The Queensland Collinson enlisted in Brisbane, joining the 25th Battalion in February 1915 aged 22. His birthplace was given as Newcastle-on-Tyne in England, and his occupation as a boilermaker. He served in Gallipoli and the Western Front until wounded in 1917, a gunshot wound breaking both forearms. After medical treatment in England he was discharged, giving his intended place of residence as Wallsend-on-Tyne. Then in 1963, aged 70, John Collinson wrote to Army Records from a PO Box in Broome WA requesting his campaign medals and applying to join the WA branch of the RSL. There is no mention of any musical activity, but it gave us a Queensland enlisted John Collinson who was in the UK after the war finished in 1918.

Newspaper reports of concert performances can be valuable evidence of artists’ origins and careers and The National Library’s Trove, with thousands of pages of digitised and searchable newspapers, has proven a valuable resource in identifying obscure recording artists. Numerous references to ‘John Collinson tenor’ in various newspapers from 1925 up until 1940 were discovered. The first mention found was in Perth’s The Sunday Times, May 1925, of a performance in England by the Maidstone Choral Union featuring an Australian tenor John Collinson along with two other Australian singers. Then come two reports from 1927 of Collinson singing at a private concert, again in England, for the former Governor of South Australia with specific mention of him serving in the 25th Battalion, suggesting we had tracked down the right John Collinson.

The newspaper reports made mention of another surprise in this story. How did a boilermaker who had enlisted in the Army become an internationally performing tenor? After the operation on his injured arms one of the medical staff heard him singing while still under the influence of the chloroform anesthetic. Recognising a special talent she put him in contact with the conductor Sir Henry Wood, who ran the Prom Concerts each year in London. Sir Henry sponsored his musical training in England and Europe, suggesting a corroboration of the Royal College of Music connection.

Further Australian newspaper reports of Collinson’s career are sparse, but include the announcement of his return to Australia in 1940, arriving in Fremantle and hoping to find work as a singer. According to a biography on the National Archives of Australia’s Mapping Our Anzacs website, Collinson married a woman he met while in hospital in England and they had two sons. He had enjoyed a moderately successful career as a singer and singing teacher, performed for the BBC and possibly toured the US. The marriage eventually broke up and he arrived in Australia in the company of another woman. What he did between 1940 and the mid ’60s when he surfaced in Broome is still a mystery. He died there in 1973 and was buried in the Anglican section of the cemetery.

It’s not clear why he has been labelled a ‘Queensland tenor’ as his only connection with that state is that he enlisted in the army there. It may even be stretching things to claim him as Australian, but he did serve in the Australian army and spent most of the second half of his life here, to say nothing of being the first person to record Waltzing Matilda.

Please contact us if you have further information on John Collinson, ‘Queensland tenor’.

The first recorded version of Waltzing Matilda, recorded in London in 1926, by John Collinson
Broadcast (Deluxe Series) W573. NFSA title no. 283469

Additional material

British Pathé have published 85,000 newsreels on YouTube, making the entire newsreel collection searchable and viewable. Watch the only vision of John Collinson of which the NFSA is aware.