William Luscombe Searelle
1860 - 1907


Searelle, William Luscombe (born Isaac Israel)

Date of Birth: *1860
Date of Death: 18 December 1907
Place of Birth: Devonshire, England
Place of Death: East Molesley, England
Gender: Male
In Summary:

Composer, dramatist, impresario and South African theatrical pioneer, in the English language.

William Luscombe Searelle. Picture: homepages.ihug.co.nz

Early Life :
William Luscombe Searelle was born Isaac Israel and later adopted a professional name formed from Luscombe (in South Australia) and an imperfect anagram of “Israel.” As a child he was taken to New Zealand and ran away to sea at the age of thirteen.

Searelle became associated with the theatre in Australia in 1881 and went to London for the production of a two-act comic opera, The wreck of the “Pinafore” the music of which he had composed. The opera ran for 200 nights and it was a success.

Career in South Africa:
Leaving Australia for Mauritius Searelle arrived in South Africa in 1887 with his wife, renowned opera singer Blanche Fenton, and his two children. He brought an opera company with him and made many successful presentations around South Africa and particularly in Cape Town. From around 1887-1889 the company performed all the well known opera’s like; Bobadil, Estrella and Isadora, composed by Searelle himself.

In 1889 Searelle took his company, by coach, from Durban to Johannesburg, together with scenery and properties and a theatre in the form of galvanized iron. He set up a playhouse in Johannesburg that became popularly known as ‘Searelle’s Shanty’, at the corner of Commissioner and Eloff Streets.

  Sources for this biography

De Kock, W.J. et al.(eds).(1968).Dictionary of South African Biography, Nasionale Boekhandel Beperk:Cape Town.v. 1, p.705.

Potgieter, D.J.et al. (eds). (1973). Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, NASOU: Cape Town.v. 9, p. 558. 

homepages.ihug.co.nz, 'Down Under in the 19th Century'.

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Last updated January 2008

For the next ten years Searelle began traveling extensively throughout South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and parts of Mozambique. In the Transvaal he bought a 4000 acres coal farm that produced no coal, and in Swaziland he prospected for tin, but with no success. He also joined a Boer commando and fought in a minor war against the natives and when the Second Anglo-Boer war broke out in 1899, he offered himself asa war correspondent but he was not engaged. Around this time he left South Africa and did not return.

Later Life :
The remaining years of his life were spent between the United States and England. In 1905 he was in the United States for the production of Bobadil but its failure and the defection of the principals with the funds, left him in debt and homeless. He was imprisoned for a week on the supposition that he was responsible for the actors’ pay. On his release, he slept on a bench on Boston Common and earned a few cents by hawking dusters from door to door.

He sold a poem to The New York Journal whichattracted the attention of the poetess Ella Wheeler Wilcox with whom he wrote a religious opera, Mizpah. The opera was produced in San Fransisco in 1906 whilst Searelle, a pauper in hospital, lay suffering from cancer, in a critical state. The presentation was well received and the profits, the honours and congratulations revived him. He was wheeled on to the stage to receive the plaudits of the delighted audience and for a while he seemed to be recovering.

Some months later, Searelle wrote a detailed letter to the African Banking Corporation announcing his good fortune and his intention of going to London for production of Mizpah but he died before the arrangements had been concluded.

The South African news (20-12-1907) referred to Searelle as ‘the greatest and most remarkable personality ever connected with theatre in South Africa. Among his writings are the following: The Dawn of Death (1889), a poetical work: Tales of the Transvaal (1896), and A tour of Rhodesia.

 *The website source gives his year of birth as 1853, and the other sources give the date of birth as 1860.

- South African History Online -