On 31 October 2022, Woollahra Municipal Council in Sydney unveiled the latest addition to its historical Plaque Scheme, a marker commemorating the actor and singer Eleanor (Nellie) Stewart at 23 Wunulla Road, Point Piper, her former home. Nellie Stewart was a much-loved and highly accomplished artiste, and became synonymous with the role of Nell Gwynne in the play Sweet Nell of Old Drury, which she performed for nearly thirty years.
The plaque ceremony was presided over by Deputy Mayor of Woollahra, Councillor Isabelle Shapiro, with guest speaker Graham Shirley, an Australian filmmaker and author known for his work in Australian film history. The nomination for the plaque was made by Graham Humphrey, community member. All those in attendance listened to the highlights of Nellie’s life, career, and impact on Australian theatre with keen interest outside the Den-o-Gwynne property, named for Nellie’s most famous role.
Nellie was born in Woolloomooloo on 20 November 1858. Her father Richard Stewart (formerly Towzey), was an English actor, comedian, entrepreneur and theatre manager. Her Irish-born mother Theodosia (née Yates, formerly Guerin) was the daughter of Richard and Mary Ann Yates, famously known for their work at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. Nellie made her stage debut at the tender age of five, and it is no surprise that travel with her theatre-centric family provided her with a viable entry to the craft.
As a young woman, Nellie toured in productions with her family (and the upper echelon of Australia’s theatre elite) to New Zealand, England, and the United States. Upon their return to Australia, Nellie went out on her own, being cast in leading adult roles independent of her family’s successes. Still, her ties in the theatre continued to influence her life, and it was forever changed upon meeting the producer George Musgrove: Nellie would become his leading lady both on and off the stage.
Nellie and George's partnership was mutually beneficial—she graced the stage with poise and he managed her career and helped create opportunities for her talent. Their daughter, Nancye Doris Stewart, was born in 1892. Though the two never married, Nellie Stewart was given a bangle by George Musgrove which she wore on her upper arm for the rest of her life. This fashion statement became known as ‘Nellie Stewart bangle’ and was swiftly emulated by thousands of women all over Australia.
At the turn of the 20th century, Nellie had performed 35 different productions, including her role as the iconic ‘Sweet Nell’. She was best suited to light or comic operas and pantomimes, after a stint in grand opera caused her to strain her voice. One of the most photographed figures of the day, her national significance became most apparent when she performed the song ‘Australia’ at the opening of the first Federal Parliament in 1901.
After Nellie and George toured the theatre hubs of the world, both separately and together, they settled in Point Piper at Den-o-Gwynne in 1913, which George had built for Nellie and Nancye. He sadly fell ill and died of whooping cough in 1916, but Nellie carried on; she was nearly 70 when she resurrected her last performance of Sweet Nell. Writing her memoirs took much of her time in the later years, and she inspired a new generation of actors through the opening of the Nellie Stewart School of Acting. Her last public performance was with her daughter performing the balcony scene of Romeo & Juliet three days before her death on 20th of June 1931.
Nellie completed her memoir with the following words, which summarises her wishes and intentions in life: ‘I am still steadfast in my determination to do my utmost best always. Resolve will meet no rocks, but it can scale them. And so, friends of mine, au ’voir. Let me take my leave of you in the lasts words of “Sweet Nell”—“Memory will be my happiness—For you are enshrined there”.’ (1924)
She made a lasting impact on the Australian theatre community, and turn of the 20th century culture, and her plaque is the 39th unveiled by Woollahra Municipal Council. The plaque scheme relies on nominations from members of the community, so please contact Woollahra Libraries to make a nomination. You can learn more about Nellie’s life and achievements here: