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Ellen Alma (Nellie) Martel (1855–1940)

by Margaret Bettison

This article was published:

Nellie Martel, n.d.

Nellie Martel, n.d.

photo supplied by Brian Hobson

Ellen Alma (Nellie) Martel (1855-1940), suffragist, elocutionist and parliamentary candidate, was born on 30 September 1855 at Beacon, Saint Agnes, Cornwall, England, seventh of thirteen children of John Charleston, hammer-man, and his wife Elizabeth, née Williams. An older brother migrated to South Australia in 1869, followed in 1878 by a married sister. Nellie came to Australia next year and reached Sydney from Adelaide in January 1880. On 4 April 1885 at Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle, she married with Anglican rites Charles Martel, a widower from Guernsey. He worked as a photographer and invested successfully in real estate. They lived in Sydney before sailing to Britain in 1889. On her first visit to London she was shocked by the 'emaciated faces, stooping shoulders and halting steps' of the men working in sweatshops. In Cornwall she was a witness at her sister's marriage to Alfred Goninan.

The Martels also visited France and Italy. They returned to Sydney in 1891, the year of the formation of the Womanhood Suffrage League, of which they both became early members. In 1894 Mrs Martel was elected to its council and organizing committee. Her brother D. M. Charleston, a South Australian politician, spoke at meetings of the league in 1892, 1894 and 1895. That year she was on the finance committee and was secretary of a committee to take charge of petitions. She was recording secretary until 1901; during that time 14,718 signatures collected by the league for the enfranchisement of women were presented to the New South Wales parliament. She was one of five signatories to the league's petition presented to the Australasian Federal Convention, Adelaide, in March 1897.

A talented elocutionist with a 'rich contralto' voice and a quick wit, she took part in the W.S.L. debates and lectures and gave recitations. By 1896 the Martels held monthly 'At Homes' at the Hotel Arcadia, with musical and elocutionary items to which they both contributed. They were honorary secretaries of the Cercle Littéraire Français. Nellie was a member of the Victoria Salon, and recited at the inaugural 'At Home' of the new Victoria Club in November 1896. In September 1901 the first public meeting of the Women's Progressive Association of New South Wales was held, with Nellie president and Annie Golding secretary. The formation of the group was a reaction to Rose Scott's domination of the W.S.L., but its aim was to assist reform, especially with regard to working women.

In September 1893 Charles had been bankrupted, due to a failed business venture; he obtained a certificate of discharge in March 1894. Responding 'with courage and determination and a good business head', Nellie taught elocution from her Paddington home—she had paid off its mortgage by 1900 when she advertised as a teacher at a studio in George Street. In 1902 she gave a recital in the Centenary Hall under vice-regal patronage.

At a conference of the Temperance Alliance in March 1903 Mrs Martel supported local option without compensation. In June she spoke at the first social meeting of the Women's Social and Political League. Next month, at a meeting held at her new studio in Margaret Street, she was elected president of the Women's Liberal and Reform Association. In early October she was elected to the finance committee of the Australian Freetrade League.

With women in New South Wales voting for the first time in December 1903 (in the Commonwealth elections), Mrs Martel advised them 'to organise and record their vote, not for the use of fiscalism or sectarianism, but for the good of humanity'. She requested support from the W.S.P.L. as a Senate candidate. When the Freetrade League selected three male candidates, the women's league decided that 'the time is not yet ripe for women representatives'. She then announced that she would stand as a free trade candidate for the Senate and nominated as Nellie Alma Martel.

Auburn-haired, fashionably dressed and fond of jewellery, Martel was a 'fluent and somewhat demonstrative speaker' with a determined jaw. She campaigned at Newcastle, Tamworth, Lambton and Maitland, speaking in halls and from balconies for up to an hour and a half. Though standing to represent her sex and to promote domestic and social legislation, she disapproved of women in parliament if they had home ties (Charles was in a nursing home after a breakdown and she was childless). Opposed to the Political Labor League because of its caucus structure and support of the minimum wage, she advocated equal pay for women, arguing that men would then be employed in preference to females and 'every man would be able to [marry] and keep his wife at home'. This would solve the problem of the falling birthrate.

Martel supported free trade; the encouragement of private industries; irrigation to combat drought; and the teaching of foreign languages as part of the commercial education of young men. She objected to the country 'being full of Chinese and other foreigners', but believed Australia should be 'open to every British subject'. In the last nine days of electioneering she addressed open-air audiences nightly (except on Sunday) in Sydney and the suburbs, closing her campaign on election eve at North Sydney. She gained 18,502 votes, coming eleventh of the twelve candidates.

Charles, now convalescing, sailed for England in 1904. Alarmed by news of his erratic behaviour, Nellie followed on 27 July—they were a devoted couple. Louisa Lawson's the Dawn continued to carry articles about her: a lengthy interview in Natal, South Africa, an interview in the London Daily News, a letter about her activities in London. There she achieved notoriety as a woman who had not only voted but stood for parliament. By May 1905 she had joined Mrs Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union. On 12 May she was at the House of Commons for the debate on a women's enfranchisement bill. After delaying tactics resulted in an adjournment, some 300 women held a meeting nearby, where Martel read aloud a petition of protest. Early in 1906 the W.S.P.U. formed a central London committee, of which she was a member and a few months later an organizer. Next year the W.S.P.U. published Martel's pamphlet, The Women's Vote in Australia. In January 1908 she accompanied Pankhurst to Devon, where they successfully campaigned against a candidate who did not support women's enfranchisement. Later that year, however, she left the W.S.P.U.

In 1918 Nellie's 'strenuous advocacy' of the coalition Unionist candidate in Sunderland assisted his re-election. That year she hosted Christmas Day festivities for six Australian soldiers at her home in Ladbroke Gardens, Notting Hill, London. Charles died in 1935. Nellie died at home on 11 August 1940. Her estate was valued at £3057.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Rosen, Rise Up, Women! (Lond, 1974)
  • A. Oldfield, Woman Suffrage in Australia (Melb, 1992)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 11 Feb 1892, p 4, 23 Jan 1894, p 6, 30 Oct 1903, p 11, 6 Nov 1903, p 6, 19 Nov 1903, p 6
  • Evening News (Sydney), 28 Aug 1896, p 3, 8 Oct 1896, p 5, 21 Oct 1896, p 2, 30 Oct 1896, p 7, 5 Nov 1896, p 5, 27 Nov 1896, p 2, 25 Mar 1898, p 7, 30 Sept 1898, p 3
  • Dawn, Oct 1900, p 8, Nov 1901, p 8, Jan 1903, p 12, Mar 1903, p 8, May 1903, p 7, July 1903, p 23, Aug 1903, p 14, Oct 1903, p 14, Sept 1904, p 6, Nov 1904, p 6, June 1905, p 5, July 1905, p 7
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Oct 1903, p 8
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 27 Nov 1903, p 6, 28 Nov 1903, p 5, 30 Nov 1903, p 5
  • Tamworth Observer, 5 Dec 1903, p 4
  • Womanhood Suffrage League papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • bankruptcy file, C. Martel, item 10/22892 (State Records New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret Bettison, 'Martel, Ellen Alma (Nellie) (1855–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Nellie Martel, n.d.

Nellie Martel, n.d.

photo supplied by Brian Hobson

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Charleston, Ellen

30 September, 1855
Beacon, Cornwall, England


11 August, 1940 (aged 84)
London, Middlesex, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.