This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967
Eliza O'Flaherty (1818-1882), née Winstanley, was born in England, the elder daughter of William Winstanley and his wife Eliza, née Finch. She came to New South Wales with her family in May 1833 and made her first stage appearance in the leading role of Clari, or the Maid of Milan, a melodrama, at Barnett Levey's Theatre Royal, Sydney, on 31 October 1834. The occasion was a benefit performance for her father, a scene-painter at the theatre. Her younger sister, Ann (b.1825), also took part in the programme.
The critics immediately recognized Eliza's strong natural talent, her remarkable speaking voice and her power of expression which triumphed over her lack of experience and faults of technique. She played a great variety of parts in the early days but it soon became clear that she was essentially a dramatic and tragic actress. In December 1835 she played Juliet, and Desdemona at the opening of the Royal Victoria Theatre in March 1838. Her sister Ann, a trained musician, gained great popularity in singing and dancing parts; she was engaged at the Victoria in November 1840 and after her marriage in 1841, as Mrs Ximenes, remained a popular performer for many years.
In February 1841 at St James's Church Eliza married Henry Charles O'Flaherty, a musician in the theatre orchestra; he made his acting début at her benefit in May. Later in the year she had played Portia, Lady Macbeth and other parts and was unanimously acclaimed 'in the southern hemisphere a star of the first magnitude'. After one of many disagreements with the management of the Victoria Theatre she left with her husband and had a successful season in Hobart and Launceston. In February 1842 they were back in Sydney, appearing in leading parts at the new Olympic Theatre; when it closed in May they tried to carry on with the management, Eliza once shocking the press by appearing as Richard III. Eliza returned to the Victoria, where in August she played the title role in Isabelle of Valois; or, the Tyrant of Navarre, written by O'Flaherty for her benefit, and appeared in many leading parts in the tragic and melodramatic repertoire of her day.
On 1 April 1846 the O'Flahertys sailed for England, where Eliza played Shakespearean roles in the provinces and appeared for a short season at the Princess Theatre in London. In 1848 she went to the United States, where she appeared at theatres in New York, Philadelphia and other cities. She returned to London and played leading Shakespearean and other roles for nine years with Charles Kean's company at the Princess Theatre. She appeared in several command performances before the Queen at Windsor Castle.
Her second career, as an author, began some time after her husband's death about 1854. Her first book, Shifting Scenes in Theatrical Life, was published in London in 1859. In 1860 her novel Bitter-Sweet—So is the World was serialized in the Sydney Mail under the pseudonym Ariele. She began to devote more time to writing, finally abandoning her dramatic career about 1864. Most of her stories were serialized under the name of Mrs Eliza Winstanley in the London magazine Bow Bells and several were published in the series, Dicks' English Novels. In 1865 she became editress of the weekly Fiction for Family Reading, a subsidiary of Bow Bells. For themes she drew on her theatrical experiences, as in Desmoro; or, the Red Hand (1866) and Entrances and Exits (1868), and her memories of Australia. Among her Australian novels are The Mistress of Hawk's Crag (1864), Twenty Straws (London, 1864), What is To Be Will Be (London, 1867), and For Her Natural Life: A Tale of 1830 (1876). Although absent from Australia for more than thirty years, she wrote that she had fond memories of it, and in 1880 she returned. She died of 'diabetes and exhaustion' on 2 December 1882 in Sydney. Her grave is in Waverley cemetery.
The novels of Eliza Winstanley have curiosity value only, but the sum of her stage and literary activities conveys the picture of a gifted and vigorous personality. Although she was not, as legend had it for some time, a native-born Australian, she began her career in this country, and may fairly be described as the first Australian actress to succeed overseas.
N. M. Robinson, 'O'Flaherty, Eliza (1818–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oflaherty-eliza-2520/text3411, accessed 25 May 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967