Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stirling, Helen Dorothy (Nell) (1909–1951)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Helen Dorothy (Nell) Stirling (1909-1951), radio actress, was born on 22 August 1909 at Summer Hill, Sydney, daughter of Henry James Malmgron, a New Zealand-born sharebroker's clerk of Danish-German descent, and his wife Mary Rose, née Lawrie, who came from South Australia. While still at school, Nell determined to go on the stage. After studying classical dancing under Frances Scully, she performed her own act at the Tivoli Theatre at the age of 16. Later, as a soubrette and tap dancer, she joined Jim Gerald's company. In 1931 she danced in the Fullers' chorus line. Calling herself 'Nell Stirling', she was engaged by Harold Parks (an unsuccessful actor known as 'George Edwards') as his assistant in variety acts.

With striking red hair that 'curled into innumerable little anchovies around her oval face', Nell had long, shapely legs, 'unstoppable ambition and a steel-trap business brain'. In 1932 Edwards hesitated when radio-station 2UE offered him £75 to adapt The Ghost Train, engage and rehearse twelve actors, and bring the show live to air on Christmas Eve. Nell grasped the chance and engaged Maurice Francis, who wrote the first of thousands of scripts for them. To save money, she suggested that George could play six or seven different parts. The public loved him and dubbed him 'The Man with a Thousand Voices'.

By 1934 they had moved to radio 2GB. The George Edwards Players appeared in at least twenty-four live productions a week, starting with 'Darby and Joan at the Breakfast Table' at 7.40 a.m. (Monday to Friday). At night they broadcast four serials live to air in their 'melodramatic acting styles': 'David and Dawn' for children, an adventure adapted from a classic novel such as Westward Ho!, 'Inspector Scott of Scotland Yard', and 'Notable British Trials'—which provided the indefatigable George with the chance both to defend and prosecute himself. On 29 March 1934 George and Nell were married at St David's Presbyterian Church, Haberfield, where she had been christened. He was 47 years old and she was his third wife.

For a few years Nell's life was frenetic. In addition to playing the lead in almost every production, she marked all George's scripts, looked after the effects and properties (among them 'toy popguns for the popping of champagne corks'), edited scripts, cast and produced the plays, and chose the music. She became famous for her 'life-like screams of horror'. From May 1937 she played Mabel in the long-running serial, 'Dad and Dave of Snake Gully'. One year earlier the couple had signed a contract with Columbia Records which released them from their 'arduous evening schedule'. Radio-station 2UW and the Commonwealth Broadcasting Corporation Pty Ltd acquired sole broadcasting rights throughout Australasia to George Edwards Productions.

At an audition in 1934, Sumner Locke Elliott had thought that Nell Stirling 'looked like a barmaid who had won the Irish sweepstakes': covered with diamonds 'at ten o'clock in the morning', she wore 'rich glossy black satin', 'a wide-brimmed black velvet hat', and 'a great deal of mascara and lipstick'. Soon taken in hand by 'Andrea' (Dorothy Jenner, the newspaper columnist), Nell was to become noted for her smart clothes, hats, furs and jewellery.

Although they were known to their underpaid actors as 'Scrooge Edwards and Nell Pound Stirling', they spent their new found wealth recklessly. In 1937 they built their dream home, Darjoa, at Point Piper. 'The bathrooms were black with gold fittings imported from America, the furniture was light sycamore; wardrobes, sideboards and cocktail bars—one in each room—were all built in. There were cream walls throughout, and domed ceilings with concealed lighting'. In 1940 Miss Stirling provided the money to open the Women's All Services Canteen. She remained its patron until 1945. While George established a racing stable, she opened a nightclub; both enterprises lost money. Even worse, George bet on the horses and began drinking heavily. Nell brought him into line by having a baby in April 1941. Her listeners overwhelmed her with letters, hand-knitted garments and other gifts.

After World War II, Nell spent more time at her country house at Bowral. Late in the 1940s she called in a young accountant to take over the books from her ageing father. She divorced George in July 1948. At St Philip's Church of England, Sydney, on 9 November that year she married Alexander George Atwill, her accountant. The Atwills bought out Edwards. Nell Stirling died of an accidental overdose of carbitral capsules on 10 November 1951 at her Vaucluse home and was cremated with Anglican rites. Her husband and their daughter survived her, as did the daughter of her first marriage. She left her estate, sworn for probate at £15,840, to her daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Bridges, Wonderful Wireless (Syd, 1983)
  • R. Lane, The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama (Melb, 1994)
  • Wireless Weekly, 7 Dec 1934
  • Radio Pictorial of Australia, 1 June 1941, p 16, 1 Oct 1941, p 26, 1 May 1942, p 24
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 23 Aug 1945
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Nov 1951, 28 Feb 1952
  • Bulletin, 22 July 1980
  • N. Stirling photographs and recordings (National Film and Sound Archive).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Stirling, Helen Dorothy (Nell) (1909–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stirling-helen-dorothy-nell-11772/text21055, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Malmgron, Helen Dorothy
Birth

22 August 1909
Summer Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

10 November 1951
Vaucluse, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation