Nellie Stewart

Eleanor Stewart Towzey (1858-1931), singer and actress, was born on 22 November 1858 in Wolloomooloo, Sydney, daughter of Theodosia Stewart, actress, and her actor husband Richard Towzey, who changed his name to Stewart. There were two half-sisters from her mother's previous marriage to James Guerin, theatre musician. Nellie made her stage debut as a child playing with her father in The Stranger at the Haymarket, Melbourne. She attended boarding school, which she disliked, and at Christmas played pantomime under her father's management.

The family toured Australasia, India and London with Rainbow Revels written for them by Garnet Walch, and cut short an American tour in 1881 to do Sinbad the Sailor for George Coppin. Nellie played the principal boy. She was noticed by George Musgrove who signed her for an Adelaide season where she was a success as the drummer boy in La Fille du Tambour Major. Musgrove joined J. C. Williamson and A. Garner in 1882 and Nellie played leading roles for their Royal Comic Opera Company, alternating drama and comic opera. In 1884 in Sydney she married Richard Goldsborough Row but the marriage did not last. Dissatisfied with the firm's terms and in need of rest, she went to England in 1887 with Musgrove to study acting and dancing. She lived with Musgrove until his death in 1916. The style of acting in Australia, she perceived, was 'old fashioned'; in London comic opera 'business' was 'not so pronounced as at home'.

On their return she played leading roles in Musgrove's productions, including Marguerite in Faust, Cellier's Dorothy, the lead in Paul Jones and several Gilbert and Sullivan roles. She was very versatile and greatly loved by Australian audiences. In 1891 she and George were again in London, where she had a run of 80 nights at the Prince of Wales in Blue-eyed Susan. While Musgrove went to America to negotiate the rights to new works, Nellie remained in England where their daughter Nancye was born. Two years in comic opera for a new Musgrove- Williamson partnership followed. After a wildly successful benefit performance for the poor children of Sydney they left again for overseas in 1895. They did not realise plans to play in America, and Nellie had indifferent notices in London until she played Ganem in the Boxing Day pantomime, 1899: the Daily Telegraph found her 'a lovely and gracious woman, a born actress, an experienced artist, with an attractive style and pure as well as beautiful voice'. In 1902 back in Australia she played Nell Gwyne in Sweet Nell of Old Drury, the role for which she is best remembered. Her singing career had ended, probably a consequence of having overworked her voice, but she retained her popularity in comedy and drama, touring Australia, New Zealand and in 1904 and 1906 America. She appeared in an Australian-made film of Sweet Nell in 1911. She was remarkable for the age at which she appeared in young parts, but with the effects of war on theatre and the death of her loved companion she performed less often. She opened the Nellie Stewart School of Acting and continued to teach until close to her death on 20 June 1931. When Doris Fitton (q.v.) established her company, Nellie was patron. She published My Life's Story in 1923 and made recordings of Sweet Nell in June 1931, now in Mitchell Library, Sydney. She gave many benefit performances, raising large sums for Sydney Hospital, which named its children's ward for her, and Women's Hospital, Sydney. She also inaugurated a Christmas dinner for the old folks from the parish of St James, which was her church of regular worship.

Heather Radi

Marjorie Skill Sweet Nell of Old Sydney 1974.