Adelaide Neilson (1848-1880)
The poor Yorkshire mill girl who made it to the New York stage.
It’s hard to know the true story of Yorkshire-born actress Adelaide Neilson, as so many colourful versions exist. However, there’s no doubt that her life was short and dramatic. The poor Yorkshire mill girl became a successful and wealthy actress in London and New York, but she died suddenly in Paris, aged just 32.
Adelaide was born Elizabeth Ann Brown, the illegitimate daughter of a strolling player called Ann, in Leeds. Adelaide did not know who her father was, but later claimed he was a Spanish nobleman. Another story said she was of gypsy stock, and born in Spain! But Adelaide spent her childhood in Skipton, then worked at a mill in Guiseley and as a nursemaid. While still in her early teens, she ran away to London.
There she found work as a seamstress and in a bar, first appearing on stage in Margate in 1865. Her beauty and ability caught the eye of the critics, and she began acting in the London theatres. Adelaide was highly regarded – and well paid – for her heartfelt performances, including notable Shakespearian roles. She then worked for several seasons in New York, where she was widely feted.
In 1880, on returning from her latest trip to America, Adelaide began to complain of feeling unwell. She travelled to Paris and, while visiting the Bois de Bologne park, was suddenly taken ill and died later that day. She was just 32 years old.
Adelaide’s body was brought back to be buried in Brompton Cemetery, and thousands came to her funeral. She left an estate worth around £25,000, which was used to create a theatrical charity, the Adelaide Neilson Fund.