Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Elizabeth Esther Helen Jennings (1864–1920)

by Helen M. Van Der Poorten

This article was published:

Elizabeth Esther Helen Jennings (1864-1920), by Falk Studios

Elizabeth Esther Helen Jennings (1864-1920), by Falk Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23447181

Elizabeth Esther Helen Jennings (1864-1920), actress, best known as 'ESSIE JENYNS', was born on 5 October 1864 at Brisbane, the second child of Charles Jennings, chemist, and his wife Emily, née Morse (Moss). Her father died in 1871 and her mother went on the stage as 'Kate Arden' and in 1877 married William James Holloway, actor-manager. As Essie Jenyns, Elizabeth had her first speaking role in 1879 at the Theatre Royal, Hobart, under the tragedian, William Creswick, and next played in George Rignold's production of Henry V in Adelaide. By 17 she had played such roles as Ophelia, Desdemona and Lady Teazle. Holloway worked Essie very hard; Nellie Stewart attributed her unhappy adolescence to 'stepdaughter's luck', though she was often ill.

In 1884 Essie visited Europe with her mother and Holloway. She saw Sarah Bernhardt act, watched the foremost French directors instruct students at the Paris Conservatoire, and in London saw the actress, Mary Anderson, in whose roles she was to excel, although unfavourable Australian critics later called her 'Mary Anderson and water'. With his own 'Shakespeare Company' Holloway opened in Sydney in September 1886, claiming that Essie, who had not acted overseas, had been 'pronounced by eminent critics to be the foremost actress in Australia'. The Evening News, 13 September, praised her 'pleasing' performance and voice in the melodrama, A Ring of Iron. Overnight she became the star Holloway had advertised. After fourteen weeks at the Opera House and sixteen at the Criterion in Sydney she played for twenty weeks at the major theatres in Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart and Brisbane. Excelling in such roles as Rosalind and Portia, she gave a much-needed boost to the ailing production of Shakespeare. She became the first star in George Darrell's Sunny South. One reviewer observed that audiences were so mesmerized by her great beauty and fascination that they were unable to judge her acting. Although she showed little original interpretation, smitten admirers claimed that she had 'infinitely more soul' than any contemporary comic actress, and she was a native-born Australian.

At the height of her success on 5 December 1888 Essie married John Robert Wood, a prominent cricketer and son of a wealthy Newcastle brewer. Holloway had plans for her to try her luck in London but she saw her marriage as an excuse to retire from the stage. Later she claimed that although she missed the hard work in the theatre she had only acted for a living. In the 1890s the Woods toured Europe for five years in their yacht Imogen. Essie described their Mediterranean cruise in Yachting Ways and Yachting Days (London, 1892). Her early retirement into respectable and wealthy domesticity made her the heroine of women's magazines and apart from charity, patriotic and benefit performances she emerged only once from retirement to play in a special Sydney presentation of The Merchant of Venice under Ellen Terry in 1914. The Woods later lived at Putney Hill, London. Essie died at Killara, Sydney, on 6 August 1920 and was buried by an Anglican minister in the Presbyterian section of the Sandgate (Newcastle) cemetery. She was survived by her husband, a son and a daughter. Her estate was valued at £1697. She left her 'presentation copy of Shakespeare (1623)' to the National Art Gallery of New South Wales as a gesture to the people of Sydney 'for their loyalty to me'. In 1922 her remains were disinterred, cremated and buried in Waverley cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Stewart, My Life's Story (Syd, 1923)
  • Centennial Magazine, 1888
  • Australasian, 15 Dec 1888, 25 Jan 1902
  • Imperial Review, Jan 1889
  • Mrs C. Bright, '"Juliet": Married and Happy', Cosmos Magazine, vol 1, no 8, 30 Apr 1895, pp 398-402
  • Bulletin, 1 Feb 1902
  • W. Moore, 'Miss Jenyns', Shakespearean Quarterly, vol 1, no 2, Apr 1922, pp 10-11, 13.

Citation details

Helen M. Van Der Poorten, 'Jennings, Elizabeth Esther Helen (1864–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Elizabeth Esther Helen Jennings (1864-1920), by Falk Studios

Elizabeth Esther Helen Jennings (1864-1920), by Falk Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23447181

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Jenyns, Essie
  • Wood, Essie
  • Jenyns, Essie

5 October, 1864
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


6 August, 1920 (aged 55)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.