Nellie Stewart 1858-1931

Nellie Stewart

Nellie Stewart

Eleanor Towzey Stewart was born in Woolloomooloo, Sydney, on 20 November 1858.

Stewart’s education at the National Model and Training School and Grandtown Boarding House in Melbourne was often interrupted by stage work. In 1875, for instance, she and her family appeared at the Theatre Royal in a piece called A Frogee Would a Wooing Go.

 

Fated for the theatre

‘Her dimple, her grace of movement, her vitality and her delightful voice enchanted men and
women alike,’ reminisced author and playwright Hal Porter. ‘Her photograph was to be seen in every barber’s shop and postcard album. She was never an actress in the tradition of Bernhardt; she lacked the grandeur or fury or inspired intensity. She was trained, however, to the finest point in the lore of the stage, and used every artifice to make her natural abilities appear at the best advantage. Adhering to her rule – “Always be picturesque, even in tatters” – she was ever lovely to look at. She worked hard and honestly to burnish and perfect. Particularly in scenes of tender emotion and delicate gaiety, her work was a model. Her diction faultless, her sense of movement and timing never in error, her femininity expressed without cloying sweetness. She was the most lovable of actresses.’

She was, quite simply, the most popular performer this country has ever produced. She was beautiful, vivacious, warm, intelligent, artistic, generous, enthusiastic, enterprising, widely travelled, appreciated and loved – and she was, first and foremost, a fine actress.

Nellie Stewart was a child of the theatre. Her mother, Theodosia Yates, was an Irish-born singer descended from Richard and Mary Ann Yates of Drury Lane fame; she had come to Australia with Mrs Clarke’s Opera Company in 1840, and had been a popular star at the Theatre Royal, Hobart, for many years. Her father was Richard Stewart, an English comedian, actor and entrepreneur.

Eleanor Towzey Stewart was born in Woolloomooloo, Sydney, on 20 November 1858. When she was still very young, she and her family – she had two sisters and a brother – moved to Melbourne, where her father was associated with George Coppin at the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street. At the age of five she made her stage debut at the Haymarket Theatre in The Stranger, with the great Charles Kean. Sixty years later she was to write: ‘That first appearance did not determine my destiny – my birth did that – but it did set the seal on my calling and inclination. From that time on I never had any clear idea of my life or career, apart from the stage. Always I knew that I was fated for the theatre’.

Stewart’s education at the National Model and Training School and Grandtown Boarding House in Melbourne was often interrupted by stage work. In 1875, for instance, she and her family appeared at the Theatre Royal in a piece called A Frogee Would a Wooing Go. In 1877 Nellie played Ralph Rackstraw in an unauthorised production of HMS Pinafore at St George’s Hall in Melbourne; her sisters Docie and Maggie were Josephine and Buttercup, her brother Dick was Corcoran, and her father was Sir Joseph.

Biographical references

Ross Cooper: ‘Nellie Stewart’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 12, Melbourne University Press
Richard Lane: ‘Nellie Stewart’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Hal Porter: Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, Rigby, 1965
Marjorie Skill: Sweet Nell of Old Sydney, Urania Publishing, 1974
Nellie Stewart: My Life’s Story, John Sands, 1923
Frank Van Straten: ‘Nellie Stewart – Fated for the Theatre’, in Stages, June 1991