State Library of South Australia logoSA People heading

More on this theme

SA Memory. South Australia past and present, for the future

Dawson, Peter Smith 1882-1961

View catalogue details

Born: 31 January 1882 [Adelaide, South Australia]

Died: 27 September 1961 [Sydney, New South Wales]

Singer, composer

As a child Dawson sang in the choir of College Park Congregational Church, St Peters, and later with the St Andrew's Presbyterian Church choir. He began formal singing lessons with CJ Stevens at the age of 17 and performed with the Adelaide Grand Orchestra. Although apprenticed to his father as an iron worker and plumber, Dawson was keen to pursue a singing career and with Stevens' encouragement he left Adelaide for the UK in 1902. Dawson first studied in Glasgow with FL Bamford and then settled in London, where he was tutored by Charles Santley and Professor Kantorez. Whilst studying Dawson also performed publicly and in 1908 was made principal baritone at the Chappell ballad concerts.

In 1909 Dawson appeared in Wagner's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at Covent Garden, but he did not pursue an opera career. In September that year he returned to Australia to tour with the company of Australian soprano Amy Castles. By 1911 Dawson's reputation had grown and some reviewers were stating that he was the best British baritone of the day.

Dawson returned to Australia during World War I and enlisted in the Australian Army, but did not serve overseas. He went back to London at the end of the war to continue his recording and performing career. Dawson recorded and composed music under a number of pseudonyms including Hector Grant, Will Strong, JP McCall and Alison Miller. He also set Rudyard Kipling works to music.

During the 1930s Dawson toured extensively, visiting Australia several times and India and other parts of Asia. He returned to Australia to live in 1939 and during World War II entertained the troops in Australia and New Zealand. He had planned to retire after the war, but claimed that the size of his tax bill compelled him to go back to work. Engagements included radio broadcasts and concerts. Dawson's last known performances were recordings made for the ABC in Adelaide in January 1960.

Dawson was one of the most prolific recording artists of the 20th century having recorded more than 1500 songs under his own name and pseudonymously. In addition, it is claimed that Dawson sang a more varied repertoire than any other recording artist.

Key achievements

1900: Won first prize for bass solo at the South Street Competitions, Ballarat, Victoria

1904: Made first gramophone recording; on wax cylinders for the Edison Bell Phonograph Co. Dawson's recording career was to continue until 1958

1906: Signed a contract to record exclusively for The Gramophone Co. (on their labels including His Master's Voice and Zonophone)

1909: Appeared in Wagner's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at Covent Garden

September 1909: Toured Australia with Amy Castles

1936: First live singer on BBC television

1937: Appeared in the film Okay for sound featuring the comedians and performers of the Crazy Gang

1951: Published autobiography Fifty years of song

Did you know?

Dawson recorded more Australian songs than any other singer of his time; he is credited with popularising 'Waltzing Matilda', 'Along the Road to Gundagai', 'Song of Australia' and 'Advance Australia Fair'.

Further reading

Dawson, Peter. Fifty years of song, London : Hutchinson, 1951

Glennon, James. Australian music and musicians, Adelaide : Rigby, c1968, pp. 47-51

Smith, Russell and Peter Burgis. Peter Dawson : the world's most popular baritone : with complete song title discography, Strawberry Hills, N.S.W. : Currency Press, 2001

Vose, John D. Once a jolly swagman : tribute to Peter Dawson, the king of song, [Blackpool, England : J. D. Vose, 1988?]


Australian Dictionary of Biography Online: Search for Peter Dawson

Music Australia [Sheet music and audio recordings of Peter Dawson]

Thomas, George. 'The song of Peter Dawson', Quadrant, volume XLVI, number 5, May 2002

Subjects :



About SA Memory

Explore SA Memory

SA Memory Themes


My SA Memory


What's on