This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990
Eleanor Towzey (Nellie) Stewart (1858-1931), actress, was born on 20 November 1858 at Woolloomooloo, Sydney, daughter of Richard Stewart Towzey (c.1826-1902), English-born comedian, and his Irish-born wife Theodosia, née Yates, formerly Guerin. Her mother, a descendant of the famous Drury Lane players Richard and Mary Ann Yates, arrived in Hobart with Mrs Clarke's Opera Company in 1840 and married the actor James Guerin by whom she was to have two daughters. Nellie's father tried gold digging before turning to stage management in 1857 when he married the widow Mrs Guerin and adopted the name 'Stewart'. Shortly after Nellie's birth, the family moved to Melbourne where she was educated at the National Model and Training School and Grandtown House boarding school.
Ancestry and strict parental education combined to make Nellie, at the age of about 5, an early success with Charles Kean in The Stranger. In 1877, with her family, she sang and danced through seven parts in Rainbow Revels, an entertainment by Garnet Walch. The Stewarts toured India, England and the United States of America in 1879; next year George Coppin, manager of Melbourne's Theatre Royal, cabled Nellie in America offering the part of principal boy in the pantomime Sinbad the Sailor. This engagement marked one of the turning points in her career for, after a fourteen week run, she met George Musgrove and became the lead in his production of Offenbach's La Fille du Tambour Major. Thus began a romantic and professional relationship that was interrupted only by her marriage (dissolved in 1901) to Richard Goldsbrough Row at Scots Church manse, Sydney, on 26 January 1884—'just a girl's mad act to repent of at leisure'. This date, and that on which George Musgrove died, she later described as the two most tragic days of her life.
Between 1883 and 1887 Nellie played continuously in comic opera, taking twenty-one roles (her interpretation of Yum Yum in The Mikado gained special praise) and touring with them under the management of J. C. Williamson, Arthur Garner and Musgrove. She appeared in grand opera in 1888 as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, but unwisely strained her voice by singing this demanding role for twenty-four consecutive nights. Eventually she had a repertoire of thirty-five prima donna roles before she was forced to relinquish opera and turn to comedy and drama.
After starring for Musgrove in Paul Jones in 1889, Nellie went with him to England where their daughter Nancye was born in 1893. Returning to Australia in September, she headed a comic opera company which toured Australasia until 1895 when she returned to London. Except for a small part in one unsuccessful play, she did not appear on the stage until Christmas 1898 when she was principal boy in the Drury Lane pantomime The Forty Thieves. In 1900-01 she played in the pantomime Cinderella in Australia and in May 1901 she proudly sang the memorial ode 'Australia' at the concert following the opening of the first Commonwealth parliament. On 15 February 1902 she began the greatest part of her career as Nell Gwynne in Sweet Nell of Old Drury by Paul Kester: for a fortnight the show wavered in Melbourne and then proved a resounding success. Because of her strong personal identification with the role, it became the one for which she was remembered and loved by Australians as 'Sweet Nell'.
In 1905 the company began a tour of the U.S.A. Sweet Nell was successful in San Francisco, but the 1906 earthquake shattered plans of reaching New York. The stoic manner in which Nellie and Musgrove took this financial adversity was characteristic of their temperaments; so also was the way she sold her jewellery to help the company to return to Australia. It was not until 1909 that she had another hit—in Sweet Kitty Bellairs—which she played in a long season in alternation with Zaza, or As You Like It, or Sweet Nell. In March 1910 she played the comedy role of Maggie Wylie in What Every Woman Knows, followed by parts in When Knighthood was in Flower and Trilby.
Nellie Stewart was one of the first world-class performers to be enshrined in celluloid when she acted in the six-reel Australian film Sweet Nell of Old Drury directed by Raymond Longford and premiered at the Sydney Lyceum on 2 December 1911. A contemporary described her appearance as one of grace and youth in which the inexorable lens could find no trace of time. The film screened for at least six years. Although in her autobiography (My Life's Story, 1923) Nellie stated that 'a copy was held to be produced when I am no more', no print has subsequently been found.
With the outbreak of World War I, a bleak period followed for the theatre. Nellie lived on her savings. When Musgrove died on 21 January 1916, she felt 'like one who had been torn apart from some other world', and it required the tact of Hugh McIntosh to persuade her to tread the boards once again in a version of Sweet Nell.
A beautiful woman with expressive eyes, a finely tilted mouth and dimpled smile, Nellie was a talented, considerate and versatile actress. She was fortunate to have had her family's support, to have found her vocation so early and to have met Musgrove so fortuitously. Yet, besides her luck went strenuous, dedicated work and forthright common sense. She had little trace of pettiness or affectation, but was inspired by a sense of beauty in the world and driven on a quest to better herself. Her greatest attribute was the magnetism that allowed her to reach beyond the footlights to captivate a public for whom she retained loyalty. Commented upon by all, and obvious in her 1931 recording of the coquettish lines from Sweet Nell, was her perennial youthfulness. Probably no other woman has played young roles as successfully so late in life.
Nellie made many appearances for charities and was responsible for assisting to raise £3000 in 1910 to buy radium for Sydney Hospital, which named its children's ward after her. When nearly 70 she played in an astonishing revival of her lithe, graceful Sweet Nell. Survived by her daughter, she died in Sydney on 21 June 1931 and was cremated. Her ashes were buried in her family tomb in the Boroondara cemetery, Kew, Melbourne, beneath a kneeling angel bearing her facial likeness. In 1938 the Nellie Stewart Memorial Club erected a monument to their idol in the Botanic Gardens, Sydney.
Ross Cooper, 'Stewart, Eleanor Towzey (Nellie) (1858–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-eleanor-towzey-nellie-8663/text15149, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 1 September 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990