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Wilton, Olive Dorothea Graeme (1883–1971)

by John Moore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Olive Dorothea Graeme Wilton (1883-1971), actress and producer, was born on 17 April 1883 at Bath, Somerset, England, eldest daughter of John Gauler Wilton, solicitor, and his wife Agnes Emily, née Kitching, an amateur actress. Olive was educated at home by governesses and later attended the Bathwick Ladies' School. Her parents then enrolled her at the Ben Greet school of acting, London.

She made her debut as a parlourmaid in (Sir) Arthur Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray; conspicuous for her 'red-gold hair', at 17 she played opposite Courtenay Thorpe in F. Marion Crawford's A Cigarette-Maker's Romance which toured England. Engagements followed as Princess Flavia in Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda, as Viera in A Cigarette-Maker's Romance and as Glory in (Sir Thomas) Hall Caine's The Christian. Edward Terry chose her for the name part in Pinero's Sweet Lavender in the New York production of the play. From that time her success was assured and she took leading roles in many popular contemporary plays in London and the provinces.

Against her family's wishes, on 5 March 1906 at St Luke's parish church, Chelsea, Olive married an actor, Benjamin Arthur Cornell. They came to Australia that year with Grace Palotta and the Willoughby and Ward London Company, and made return visits under different managements. In 1909 she was engaged in London by William Anderson, an enthusiastic producer of Australian plays, who saw her perform a dangerous ride on stage because the stand-in jockey was too drunk. 'Tall, commandingly beautiful, and polished in manner and speech', she had spirit and verve, and was dedicated in every detail of her work. In 1910 Wilton starred in The Squatter's Daughter, a full-length Australian film which enjoyed box office success.

A divorcee by the outbreak of World War I, she decided to remain in Australia: she toured interstate with J. C. Williamson Ltd and other companies, travelling for long periods by train and ship. During these years Olive Wilton played opposite such actors as Julius Knight, Frank Harvey and Emélie Polini; two of her greatest successes were as the Empress Josephine in A Royal Divorce and as Mrs Dubedat in G. B. Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma.

In 1920 Wilton settled in Tasmania. Using her own money, she produced and presented four plays each year at Hobart's Theatre Royal, beginning with Pinero's His House in Order. She also began drama classes and formed the Olive Wilton Company which staged a series of performances at the Hobart Town Hall. Able to attract patronage and to interest prominent citizens in her work, she was instrumental in the formation of the Hobart Repertory Theatre Society on 21 July 1926. Its first performance, Mice and Men, was produced by Wilton at the Theatre Royal next year. She remained the society's major producer until 1933 when commitments to education, radio and the arts forced her to relinquish her position, but she returned occasionally as a guest producer.

Olive Wilton was superintendent of speech at the Teachers' College in 1927-46; she qualified as a licentiate in the art of speech at the university in 1938. A member of the Australian Music Examinations Board in Hobart (1936-48) and of the Australian Broadcasting Commission's State advisory committee (1946-49), she represented Tasmania on the federal executive of the British Drama League, Sydney, and on the Arts Council of Australia in 1948-52. Her passionate regard for the traditions of the theatre and for the welfare of fellow actors had led her to attend a meeting in Melbourne in 1910 for the protection of Australian actors against exploitation by certain theatre companies; she was later a member of the first federal executive committee of the Actors' Association. In 1959 Wilton was appointed O.B.E. She died on 8 June 1971 in Hobart and was cremated; her only child Junee Cornell (b.1911), a radio and stage actress, survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Adel, 1965)
  • Hobart Repertory Theatre Society Golden Jubilee 1926-1976 (Hob, 1976)
  • Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, 9 June 1921
  • Mercury (Hobart), 30 June 1938, 17 June 1944, 9 June 1971
  • private information.

Citation details

John Moore, 'Wilton, Olive Dorothea Graeme (1883–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilton-olive-dorothea-graeme-9149/text16145, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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