Only the Newtown District Rugby Club could boast of having Nellie Stewart as “First Lady Patron”.

Nellie Stewart
Nellie Stewart

Woolloomooloo’s Nellie Stewart (1858-1931) was the most popular stage performer Australia has ever seen.

Melba might have been the acme of high-brow operatic perfection, but Nellie Stewart was the actress-singer and musical theatre star popular with all ages. Very pretty, good-natured and accessible she was known as ‘Australia’s Sweetheart’. — Marina Maxwell [link]

How the Newtown Rugby footballers in 1907 came to be besotted by Nellie is no mystery. Her photograph was to be seen in every barber’s shop in Australia.

Despite then nearing 50, she played much younger roles and continued to enchant the public, male and female, of all ages. A 1909 newspaper clipping described her as:

…a beautiful, graceful, and gracious woman. Nellie Stewart possesses more than a share of that personal charm — magnetism it is usual to call it…Nobody pretends that the great English exponent of Madame Sans Gene is beautiful. ‘Our Nellie’ is. Here is that rare beauty and charm which win women as completely as they win men.

By that time Nellie had become internationally famous in the UK and the USA. In San Francisco in February 1906 she was the guest of honour, alongside the 1905 New Zealand All Blacks touring party, at a reception given by the British Consul General.

Nellie was there at the beginning of an American tour of her play Sweet Nell of Old Drury. Weeks later the San Francisco Earthquake hit, and though the Australian star happened to be in Colorado at the time, the play’s production, the crew and stage scenery were all caught up in the disaster. It ended plans to take the show to New York and she returned home.

Early in the 1907 football season the Newtown club wrote to Nellie, seeking her patronage. Sydney’s The Evening News (3 June 1907) reporting of their success:

The Newtown District Rugby Club have had a unique honour conferred up it, Australia’s favourite actress, Miss Nellie Stewart, having accepted the position of lady patron. A copy of the letter accepting the position is: —

The Australia, Sydney, May 31, ’07.
To the Newtown District Rugby Football Club.
Gentlemen, — I am very much pleased to accept the position of first lady patron to your club, for which you have so kindly elected me, and I sincerely trust I may prove a mascotte to you. My loyalty to my native land, and my love for all Australian-born, may assist the earnest wish of my heart to bring you good luck and God’s blessing.
— Faithfully (signed),
Nellie Stewart.

Bill (top) & Viv Farnsworth played in Newtown team that beat University in 1908 premiership final. They later joined Newtown Jets/Bluebags rugby league club.
Bill (top) & Viv Farnsworth played in Newtown team that beat University in 1908 premiership final. They later joined Newtown Jets/Bluebags rugby league club.

Despite feigning indifference, Sydney’s Australian rules weekly newsletter, asked:

IS IT A JOKE? Our friends behind the English game are making much of a letter sent by Miss Nellie Stewart, the actress, to the Newtown Club, in which she talks vaguely about her loyalty to her native land. THE FOOTBALLER does not comment upon it, because of the fact that the club which has made her patroness is more English than Australian. This publication only wonders whether the thing is not a joke.

Established in 1900 as one of the new Sydney clubs under the district scheme, the ‘Royal Blues’ of Newtown found all their premiership title triumphs came after Nellie became club patron, winning the first grade competition in 1908, 1910 and 1911. Nellie had indeed become their ‘lucky charm’.

At the June 1909 opening night of Stewart’s latest triumph, Sweet Kitty Bellairs at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney, the Newtown club presented her with a special gift (Sunday Times):

Amongst the many beautiful floral tributes presented to Miss Nellie Stewart last night was an elaborate cake, forwarded by the Newtown Rugby Union Football Club of which Miss Stewart is the lady patron. The device was a miniature stage with Miss Nellie Stewart figuring as ‘Sweet Nell of Old Dairy’ shaking hands with a player in Newtown regalia. This unique gift caused some stir behind the scenes.

The following month Newtown undertook a pioneering 6-match tour of far North Queensland, in what was a great boost to Rugby in the region. It took the team a week by ocean-going steamer to travel from Sydney to Townsville. The ‘Royal Blues’ won every game, defeating Townsville, Charters Towers, Cairns, North Queensland and Mount Morgan (twice).

On the way home they broke their long sea voyage with a stop-over in Brisbane to play against Valleys. Billed as ‘Sydney Premiers vs Brisbane Premiers’ it drew a great crowd to the Exhibition Ground. Newtown hung on to take victory 16-10 and claim an unofficial crown as club champions of Australian Rugby.

Opening of the 1911 season: Newtown vs Balmain

In a busy season for the club, Newtown then met Ponsonby on the Sydney University Oval for what the Evening News called “the club championship of Australasia” as “Ponsonby is the premier club of Auckland, and Newtown (which holds the Sydney premiership) has this season beaten Brisbane’s champion club.” Perhaps the hard schedule and travelling had finally taken its toll, as Ponsonby raced out to a 9-0 lead and won 14-6. The Royal Blues were then upset by South Sydney in a semi-final ‘boil over’ that surprised even the Rabbitohs supporters.

Looking back after Newtown won the 1910 and ’11 competitions, the extracurricular matches in 1909 probably robbed them of four premierships in a row.

Rugby in Newtown stretches back to the suburb’s first club in 1878, founded just four years after the NSWRU. While this first Newtown club was long-living, it was only in the mid-late 1880s that it occupied a place in the Sydney first grade competition. In 1886 the club jersey was maroon. blue and gold.

During these years the club embraced many very capable players. In 1886 Alexander Wisehart and Percy Allan represented NSW against New Zealand and Queensland. John Gee, rated by the Saturday Referee as “one of the finest forwards in the colony” came to the fore in 1888, playing against Robert Seddon’s British Lions. Other Newtown men to appear for the colony included Dr George Sedgwick (1885) and Percy Allan (1886).

Newtown dropped out of the Senior ranks in 1890, but the borough provided excellent Junior teams during the next ten years, the principal being Newtown and Buccaneer clubs, the former winning the First Junior Premiership in 1896. In 1899 the Buccaneers joined the Senior (first grade) ranks, and performed with credit considering the powerful combinations they were compelled to meet. When the Newtown District Rugby Club was founded in 1900, its allocated area was far bigger than the suburb it was centred upon.

Long forgotten too is that the President of the Newtown District Club is credited with having devised the Aboriginal war-cry used by the Wallabies on their early tours.

Apparently having some basis in the local ‘Illawarra tribe’, the Newtown players trialled the pre-game ‘battle shout’ in a game against Newcastle in the winter of 1908.

William Tasker wearing Newtown’s new playing strip for 1912 that included a newt (salamander). Tasker first came to prominence while playing for the local Newington College (located in Stanmore). Newington’s rugby emblem is a griffin. 

In 1909 the Rugby (Union) columnist for Sydney Sportsman began referring to the first grade clubs by names based on their jersey colours, including Newtown as ‘the blue-bag’ team, apparently a play on Reckitt’s Bag Blue laundry dye.

Western Suburbs similarly were the ‘bottle green brigade’, and the paper had long used ‘the dirty reds’ for Glebe.

The following season the same journal also began calling the district’s league team as ‘the Blue Bags from Newtown’ [which in time became the Newtown Bluebags]. 

At the start of 1912 it was reported by The Sydney Morning Herald:

The Newtown Club has decided to alter its uniform. The same colours (Royal blue) will be used, but on the jersey a rampant “Newt” will appear, instead of the letter “N.” There will be ample justification now for the followers of the present premiers using the word “Newts.” in supporting the club matches.

During World War One the Newtown club, as with many other Rugby clubs, endured great difficulty in finding enough players to carry on. The team played non-competition games under the NSWRU in 1915, but the following season could only continue by combining forces with St. George. The latter club could not go on, so Newtown found a new ally in Eastern Suburbs for the 1917 and ’18 seasons.

While Glebe-Balmain joined together in 1916 during the war, and continued under that name until changing to Drummoyne in 1931, it isn’t immediately clear what happened to the Newtown-Eastern Suburbs team.

It is true that Eastern Suburbs were one of the teams in the 1919 premiership, and on that basis it has always been presumed that, unlike Glebe-Balmain, the Newtown-Eastern Suburbs joint arrangement was brought to an end, and with it the Newtown club became defunct.

Intriguingly, the Arrow (9 May 1919) stated:

There is a desire that senior clubs shall have local names, although there is no residential qualification. It was also considered wise to abolish titles that, though local, were a combination of more than one district. Newtown-Eastern Suburbs dropped the former portion of the name on the suggestion of the Newtown members, but Glebe-Balmain are adhering to the hyphenated designation.

Maybe there is case to be made that there is still some of Nellie’s “Royal Blues” in the DNA of Easts club of today. 

© Sean Fagan

1908, with good wishes for the new year; Nellie Stewart
1908, with good wishes for the new year; Nellie Stewart