A case of mistaken identities

News & Events

A case of mistaken identities

April 27, 2019

John Birt entertained a lot of people when he was alive. In death, he continued to amuse people – or so others thought.

John Birt was the manager of a performing dog and monkey show, Punch and Judy puppeteer, and sleight-of-hand magician. His professional name was Professor Frank Weston, a name he shared, unfortunately, with another entertainer, banjo player and Wizard Oil salesman Frank Weston. But the two men were very different.  John Birt was said to have arrived in Australia, from London, in 1851, having already served in the British Navy. The Wizard Oil man had arrived in Australia from America.

When John died at the Old Colonists Homes Sir William Clarke cottage in 1913, aged 83 (or possibly older), it was reported in Australian newspapers that the famous Wizard Oil salesman, Frank Weston, was dead. It was an easy mistake as both men toured the country performing.

John Birt, or Professor Frank Weston, as he was known on stage toured his act around Victorian country shows, school fetes, company picnics and hospital bazaars. As well as showing off his own skills, he often included his daughters Eleanor, Bernice and Gladys, dancing round a maypole, and a ring-in acrobat or ventriloquist.

Every year he could be seen performing at the Bendigo Easter show and he also performed in a furniture shop’s theatre in Smith St, Fitzroy and after-school shows for children at the Collingwood Town Hall.

In his latter years, he moved into the Old Colonists Homes in North Fitzroy. An article in the Fitzroy City Press newspaper after his death said John Birt’s effects left at the Old Colonists Home included photographs of his performing dogs and his troupe dressed as Harlequins and medals showing he served in the British navy from 1840 to 1855 on the ships Nelson, Cyclops and Rodney.

After John Birth’s death, the other Frank Weston continued in his career, and the confusion also continued. It could well have been the Wizard Oil that settled things once and for all.  Weston said Wizard Oil was made with rare herbs only found in America, and would cure (among other things) lumbago, spasms, face-ache, piles, nervous and inflammatory aches and pains. In the 1880s a bottle cost 2 shillings, twice the cost of a visit to the theatre. By 1898 he was off the road, but still a purveyor of Wizard Oil in Adelaide. In 1917, the South Australian Police accused Weston of making the oil with “methylated spirits” made from wood … four years after OCAV’s very own John Birth, aka, Frank Weston had died.

For someone who wants to be a history academic volunteer Liam Nixon is getting some invaluable grass roots learning at OCAV’s Leith Park village.

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