Behind the curtains – Ellen Nye Chart, the pioneering manager and spirit of Brighton’s Theatre Royal

black and white photograph of Ellen Nye Chart. Full length she is sitting sideways to the camera, she is wearing a full bustle dress with long sleeves and buttoned down the front. It has stripes across the skirt. Her hair is up, with a strong mid parting.
Ellen Elizabeth (Nellie) Nye Chart by Louis Bertin, 1870s

Ellen Nye Chart (1839-1892) was a giant of the Brighton Theatre scene.  Already a talented actress, it was her management of the city’s Theatre Royal from 1876 that has gone down in local legend.  

Ellen’s beginnings were humble.  Born Ellen Rollis in Islington, she was a builder’s daughter who paid her way by going on stage.  An appearance with a touring company at the Theatre Royal led to marriage in 1867 with the theatre’s actor-turned-manager Henry Nye Chart.  Sadly, Henry died just nine years later, leaving Ellen a widow – and now, single mum – with a young son.  At this point it would have been normal and acceptable for Ellen to sell the theatre and fade into the background, a respectable widow.  Instead, Ellen, bucking the norm for women to stay out of the cut-throat world of business, decided that she was not only going to keep the theatre, but manage it herself.  Whatever doubts people had about the suitability of this course of action for a woman, Ellen quickly proved herself an astute businesswoman and creative theatre manager, launching a plethora of new ideas to grow the audience, and increase its accessibility and appeal.  Not only did she extend the season, offering not only holiday entertainment for well-heeled summer visitors but a year-round programme that she knew the locals would enjoy, she also introduced more romantic comedies and social dramas.  Touring companies joined the bill and popular actors such as Lily Langtry, Sarah Bernhardt, Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Henry Irving all trod the theatre’s boards.

No one was left out.  Ellen introduced annual pantomimes to Brighton, with lavish, all-singing, all-dancing performances of the likes of ‘Aladdin’, and ‘Dick Whittington’ proving to be highly profitable.  Perhaps remembering her own humble background, Ellen made a point of inviting the entire inmates and staff of Brighton Workhouse to watch special performances of the pantomime for free. 

modern color photograph of the theatre royal exterior taken from the pavilion gardens. The building is seen through a tree and branches to the left of the photo.
Theatre Royal Brighton

Another great idea Ellen pioneered in 1883 was the ‘matinee performance’, and, going one step further, the ‘flying matinee’, whereby the entire production, crew, actors, props and costumes of a London show would catch a train to Brighton in the morning, set up and perform in the theatre, before dismantling and catching the train back to reach London ready for the evening performance, meant that Brighton was never going to be considered a provincial back-water where theatre was concerned. 

‘There is scarcely a London novelty running that would not come to Brighton during the present year,’ Ellen said in 1891.  As early as the 1880s, Ellen had made the Theatre Royal a highly profitable business and paid off the £6,000 mortgage that her husband had left on the Theatre and the house that she owned next door.  In fact, she’d turned a £6,000 debt into a £38,000 asset.

Locally Ellen was extremely well-liked.  When she died in 1892 after being taken ill on a train to London, her funeral was the largest the town had ever seen with many hundreds lining the streets to say their last farewells.  The Brighton Herald reported: ‘That so busy and bustling a spirit should have been extinguished at so early an age is a source of deep regret to all those connected directly or indirectly with the Theatre, to a number of poor persons in the town whom she was want to befriend, and to a wide circle of friends, both in and out of Brighton, and in and out of the theatrical profession.’

Find out more about Ellen and other local pioneering women with Louise Peskett on her walking tour of the Royal Pavilion Estate, Saturday 7 March, 12 – 12.45. Meet in Brighton Museum’s foyer. Free to all, part of our International Women’s Day celebrations.

Written by social historian, Louise Peskett. Part of our 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog series, published to celebrate the current exhibition 100 First Women Portraits, by Anita Corbin.

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