Sweet Nell's memento, Smithy's lucky charm

Darragh Christie, 29 June 2021 · #

Nellie Stewart and Charles Kingsford Smith were the rock stars of their day. But before Smithy achieved mythic status he was just another young larrikin army volunteer. The normally extroverted teen felt awkward and shy when he met his idol, sweet Nell, in part because his hair and eyebrows had been shaved off! His sister, who’d made the introduction, was apoplectic with embarrassment. But all was well in the end. Who’d have thought Nellie would be buying tickets to his Pacific flight reception with Charles Ulm, at Mosman, over ten years later? And what was the lucky charm Smithy kept on him during his arduous and sometimes lonely flights…

‘Nellie Stewart, actress. A resident of Thompson Street, Mosman, Nellie Stewart was a famous beauty and renowned actress, known especially for her roles in comic opera.’ Source: ‘Barry O’Keefe’ Library ‘Trace’ image archive http://images.mosman.nsw.gov.au?code=MjA0MDc=

Sweet Nellie

Opening act:

Eleanor Towzey Stewart was born on 20 November 1858, Woolloomooloo, Sydney. She was the daughter of an English-born comedian, and his Irish-born wife. Her mother parents were famous Drury Lane players, surnamed Yates. Theodosia Yates arrived in Hobart with ‘Mrs Clarke’s Opera Company’ in 1840 and married actor James Guerin, and they had two daughters. In 1857 Richard Stewart Towzey, gold prospector turned theatre manager, married (the widowed) Mrs Guerin and they adopted the name ‘Stewart’.1

From the age of five ‘Nellie’ had a stellar career as a singer and stage performer:

Nellie was a talented, considerate and versatile actress. She was fortunate to have had her family’s support, to have found her vocation so early and to have met Musgrove so fortuitously. Yet, besides her luck went strenuous, dedicated work and forthright common sense. She had little trace of pettiness or affectation, but was inspired by a sense of beauty in the world and driven on a quest to better herself. Her greatest attribute was the magnetism that allowed her to reach beyond the footlights to captivate a public for whom she retained loyalty. Commented upon by all, and obvious in her 1931 recording of the coquettish lines from Sweet Nell, was her perennial youthfulness. Probably no other woman has played young roles as successfully so late in life.2

‘A beautiful woman with expressive eyes, a finely tilted mouth and dimpled smile.’

Intermission: Welcome home!


The Evening News 29 June, 1928 announced the biggest ever public event to hit Military Road: Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford Smiths’ arrival back to Sydney after their record-breaking Pacific flight.


SQUADRON LEADER Klngsford Smith and Flight-Lieutenant Uil will be given an enthusiastic welcome at Mosman tomorrow. The airmen will be met In the vicinity of the Buena Vista Hotel, Mosman, at 4 p.m. and a procession, headed by Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and Navy League Cadets, will escort them to the Anzac Hall, where wreaths will be placed on the memorial.
A public reception will be held at Mosman Park, and Flight-Lieutenant Ulm an old resident of the district, will be presented with an address signed by the Mayor and aldermen of the municipality. An official dinner will be held at the Hotel Mosman, and later a cheque will be presented to the filers at the Australian Picture Show. Miss Nellie Stewart, whose autographed photo is carried as a mascot by Squadron Leader Kingsford Smith, has purchased fifteen seats, and has also made a donation of £6 to the fund.4

Inside page of memorial book presented to Charles Ulm on 30 June 1928. Although no longer a resident, Ulm’s parents still lived in Mosman and Mosman Council, in recognition of his achievement, presented him with this fine memorial presentation on 30 June 1928. This presentation includes not only signatures of significant local residents but also a series of photographs of Mosman in the early 1920s. [Author: Smithy’s parents by now lived in Longueville, Sydney] Source: Local Studies collection Barry O’ Keefe Library Trace=

Act II (i) So what was the back-story of the chief mascot?

In the words of Norman Ellison, local resident and Smithy’s biographer in the 50’s:

Like most members of his family, he loved the theatre, and his favourite actress was Nellie Stewart, for several decades the queen of the Australian stage. Every time he saw her perform he declared he’d write and ask her for an autographed photo. But although he had unusual self-assurance for his age, and was daring in many ways, he could not muster courage to put his request. As so often happened in his early life, his sister Elsie came to his assistance. She was then a member of the Nellie Stewart company, and when she told the star of Smithy’s yearning [Nellie] Stewart not only granted the request but insisted on meeting him. The gift preceded the meeting. Smithy was overjoyed with the photo. For, he considered, it had a very special inscription. It read:

‘May you live for those that love you; for the work, God has assigned you; and the good you can do.’

And, after, her signature, Nellie Stewart added, ‘God bless you all!’ there were to be many, many proofs of her deep affection for Diggers.

Nellie Stewart as Mam’zelle Nitouche,1895

Biographer Ian Mackersay added further detail in the ’90s about the encounter.

Smithy had obviously been through a bit of ‘hazing’ or his army mates had taken advantage of a drunken night out, or maybe he’d lost a bet (?). In any case, it was bad timing and embarrassing despite his larrikinism or, as Ellison puts it, unusual self-assurance for his age :

Smithy’s first meeting with his beloved Nellie Stewart was preceded by a stormy scene. Sister Elsie had arranged the appointment between worshipper and worshipped in Melbourne, but when she met her brother she was bewildered and angry. What she wanted to know, had happened to him? A very sheepish young man admitted that his hair had been clipped and his eyebrows shaved off. How and why he would not divulge. But Nellie Stewart did not seem to mind. She knew something of young soldiers and their pranks in camp.

Sapper Charles Edward Kingsford Smith of Neutral Bay (left) and friend after enlisting in the Australian Army.

Anyway, as Ellison continues the story:

Smithy, recovering from surgery after having a few toes blown off by German fighter pilot. One of many incidents he was lucky to survive.

The autographed photo was one of Smithy’s most prized possessions. He who was so careless with personal goods, he whose wardrobe was always depleted after a trip away from home; he who was to discover at the end of so many flights that he had misplaced goggles or a helmet or both, he, careless, casual Smithy, was extraordinarily careful with his photo of Nellie Stewart. From the time he got it, he regarded it his chief mascot, and as soon as mother realized this she had a container specially made for it.

(ii)…his deep affection for it never waned.

When he entered the cockpit to begin a long or special flight Smithy always carefully placed the mascot under a cushion- until the flight, in 1932, when he made an unsuccessful attempt on the Australia to England record in the Avro Avian Southern Cross Minor . The final of several setbacks was carbon monoxide poisoning; dizzy and sick, Smithy abandoned the flight when he was over half-way to England. But, declared those of his intimates who were superstitious, Smithy had only himself to blame, because it was tempting providence to carry the photo of a dead person – Nellie Stewart died just before Smithy started his flight. So sustained were the importunings of these well-wishers that never again did he carry the photo as a flight mascot. But his deep affection for it never waned.

Smithy as aviation legend. Charles was an accomplished amateur musician, entertaining in the officers mess with the piano or Ukelele. He bought a Ukelele (fittingly) in Hawaii to keep his Co-pilot P.G. Taylor awake and Smithy amused on the long flight. One sold a few weeks ago at auction

So from all this, we can assume Smithy kept the picture through the war and afterwards, and had it on him during his Pacific flight, and Mosman welcome. It is nice to imagine they met briefly that day. Even though he hadn’t lived up completely to Nellie’s autographed sentiments he’d come a very long way since the day they’d met. Riding into the theatre company on a motorbike, to be scolded by his sister, blushing as he met his idol with no hair or eyebrows. But since then he’d been very lucky to have survived some close calls with death, and his devotion to this lucky mascot and admiration for Nellie Stewart never waivered. A devotion and respect she would have in turn reciprocated and deeply appreciated.

Finale: Memories of a local thespian

Clifton Haynes remembered Nellie in her golden years from his younger days:

In the early 1920s in Thompson Street there lived a very famous English actress Nellie Stewart who came to live in Australia. Whenever she did her shopping at Mosman the chauffeur would arrive in an old Essex car and he would roll a carpet from the car into the Northern Suburbs grocery shop and she would get out of the car and walk over the carpet into the shop. I was aged about eight and I used to jump over the carpet so as not to tread on it and make it dirty. When she had finished shopping the chauffeur would roll up the carpet, put it back in the car and they would drive back to Thompson Street.

Nellie Stewart was known for her performance of ‘Sweet Nell of old Drury’ and she used to play in Sydney in some of the big theatres such as the Palace Theatre, but she may have played ‘Sweet Nell’ at the Tivoli Theatre.

Clifton Haynes interviewed by Zoe Dobson for the Mosman oral history project in his home, 2001, built by his parents in 1925. Source: ‘Barry O’Keefe’ Library ‘Trace’ image archive

Curtain call: Withdrawn into the dimness

Nellie left many legacies:

Nellie made many appearances for charities and was responsible for assisting to raise £3000 in 1910 to buy radium for Sydney Hospital, which named its children’s ward after her.5

She continued to perform late into her life. When nearly 70 she played in an astonishing revival of her lithe, graceful Sweet Nell. [6]

Her Autobiography My Life’s Story, (1923) to be published posthumously has been lost as with her popular six-reel Australian film Sweet Nell of Old Drury directed by Raymond Longford Longford, despite exhaustive searches in library archives7 Her Address to her public, March 1931 has been uploaded online. (see also postscript below)

Nellie Stuart died at her Clifton Gardens home, Den O’ Gwynne, in 1931, aged 74. She was survived by her daughter Nancye from her relationship with George Musgrove. Her marriage to the wool magnate Richard Goldsbrough Row which she described as just a girl’s mad act to repent of at leisure.

This date, and that on which George Musgrove died, she later described as the two most tragic days of her life.8

Her ashes were buried at the family tombstone in Kew, Melbourne. The memorial has a kneeling angel in her likeness and an inscription which reads Sacred to the Memory of Eleanor Stewart Towzey (Nellie Stewart) Born 20th November 1858 Died 20th June 1931:

A rose garden and plaque monument was dedicated to her in 1938 by the Nellie Stewart Memorial Club at Sydney Botanical Gardens.

In words spoken prophetically three months before her passing:

And when I am no longer with you, I want you to think of me as just withdrawn into the dimness. Yours still, you mine . Remember only our best moments and forget the rest. And so to where I wait come gently on. Always the same, Nellie Stewart.9

Final bow: author dedication

It isn’t the things you do that matters, it’s the things you leave undone that gives a great big heartache10

Aunt Connie playing, back in the day.

Writing this story for some reason or other brought back memories of my great aunt. Her compassion, individual style and musical prowess have, like sweet Nell, now withdrawn into the dimness.

I imagine she would have known of Nellie, maybe even had a story. Or an old recording. Somewhere probably near the stacks of well-loved music scores- Chopin, Strauss, Bach- abutting the grand piano, in the federation-style front room with lead-light windows.

One story that I do remember was of her clan walking cross-country (working people didn’t own cars then!) from the Enmore- Marrickville area (‘mostly farms’), to watch Smithy land at Mascot. They were amongst the crowd of thousands who made the trek out, to cheer on the legendary airmen. They could even be in the photo below…

View of a section of the crowd at Mascot, with Warner’s hand-written notation – ‘200,000 people’. James Warner collection, National Museum of Australia.

Postscript: Nellie’s address

Stewart’s farewell address recalls the emphatic, sometimes sentimental, performance style of the early 1900s. But it also conveys her absolute sense of herself as a public identity, her connection with her audience, and her desire to be remembered. The speech begins with the final words of the play Sweet Nell: ‘Memory will be my happiness. For you are enshrined there.’ She then talks of the ‘tears of gratitude’ and ‘tears of joy’ that public affection has brought her and reflects on the ‘indefinable something’ that can endear a person to many others. ‘My endeavour always,’ she declares, ‘is to try and radiate some of the love, esteem, and affection which you have given me all my life.’11

Nellie, always versitile


1 Cooper, Ross Stewart, Eleanor Towzey (Nellie) (1858–1931) Australian dictionary of biography online. Retrieved 2/6/2021 http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-eleanor-towzey-nellie-8663

2 Ibid

3 NELLIE STEWART AT MOSMAN WELCOME (1928, June 29). The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1930), p. 5. Retrieved July 5, 2021, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article246780609

4 MOSMAN’S WELCOME (1928, June 29). Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), p. 6. Retrieved July 5, 2021, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article115411176

5 Cooper, Ross _Stewart, Eleanor Towzey (Nellie) Retrieved 5/7/2021 http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-eleanor-towzey-nellie-8663

6 Ibid

7 Shirley, Graham The lost film of Nellie Stewart State Library of NSW online stories retrieved online 06/07/21 https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/lost-film-nellie-stewart

8 Cooper, Ross Retrieved 6/7/2021

9 Words of Nellie Stewart transcribed by author from 1931 recording 6/7/2021

10 Ibid

11 Shirley, Graham The lost film of Nellie Stewart

Bibliography :

Cooper, Ross Stewart, Eleanor Towzey (Nellie) (1858–1931) Australian dictionary of biography online. Retrieved 2/6/2021 http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-eleanor-towzey-nellie-8663

Ian Mackersey (1998). Smithy the life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith. London Little, Brown and Company

Ellison, Norman & Kingsford Smith, Charles, 1897-1935 (1957). Flying Matilda : early days in Australian aviation. Angus and Robertson, Sydney, N.S.W

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