- Honour Roll
Eleanor Stewart Towzey was born on 22 November 1858 in Woolloomooloo, the daughter of actor Richard Stewart Towzey and his actress wife, Theodosia. The family all adopted the surname 'Stewart' and Nellie began acting as a child playing alongside her father. She went to boarding school, and at Christmas, played in pantomime under her father's management. In 1877, the Stewarts staged a show called Rainbow Revels in which they all sang and danced. In 1879, they toured India, England and the United States with the show.
The following year Nellie was invited to play the principal boy in the pantomime Sinbad the Sailor at Melbourne's Theatre Royal. Then George Musgrove invited her to play the lead in his production of Offenbach's La Fille du Tambour Major. Thus began her professional and romantic relationship with Musgrove. She played numerous lead roles for the Royal Comic Opera Company, run by Musgrove, J.C. Williamson and A. Garner. Between 1883 and 1887 Nellie played continuously, touring around the country.
In 1884, she married Richard Goldsbrough Row, although it did not last and was dissolved in 1901. In 1887, Nellie went to England with Musgrove for a rest. In 1888, she appeared in grand opera as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust. She was eventually forced to relinquish opera and concentrate solely on comedy and drama. In 1891, Nellie and George returned to London where their daughter Nancye was born in 1893. Nellie returned to Australia and played in comic opera again for two years before returning to England and taking a break from the stage.
When she appeared on stage in England in 1899 she was well received, one critic describing her as 'a lovely and gracious woman, a born actress, an experienced artist, with an attractive style and pure as well as beautiful voice'. In May 1901, she sang the memorial ode 'Australia' at the opening of the first Commonwealth Parliament at the Royal Exhibition buildings in Melbourne. In 1902, she appeared in the role which she made her own - Nell Gwynne in Sweet Nell of the Old Drury, which proved a resounding success. She continued to tour Australia, New Zealand and even the United States over the next decade.
In 1911, she acted in Raymond Longford's film of Sweet Nell of the Old Drury which premiered in Sydney and screened for six years. In 1910, she made one of her many appearances for charity to raise money to buy radium for Sydney Hospital which named its children's wards after her. During World War I Nellie was forced to live on her savings and her hardship became worse when Musgrove died in 1916.
Nellie was a versatile actress, who was also beautiful and had expressive eyes. She had a certain magnetism and her perennial youth enabled her to play young roles late in her life. She even played an astonishing revival of 'Sweet Nell' when she was 70. In her later years she opened the Nellie Stewart School of Acting where she continued to teach until close to her death in Sydney on 21 June 1931.
Reviewed 26 May 2022