Cormelina Virgilio Pelossi known on stage as ‘Nelly Daley’ was born in about 1846, in Palermo according to her marriage certificate and her last husband’s memorial notice placed in the newspapers. But, the British Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages has an entry for a Virgilio Cormelina Pelossi born in Wandsworth, Surrey in 1846; it is an odd entry as the masculine first name is followed by a feminine second one, so I wonder how this mix up occurred.
Her father was the sculptor Virgilo Pelossi, a native of Ticino, on the Italian-speaking Swiss side of Lake Como, who came to England, placing an ad in the ‘Morning Post’ of London seeking clients to whom he could teach the art of sculpting. Cormelina’s mother was Martha Elizabeth Baker (a native of Ovington, Essex), and there is not an extant marriage entry for her and Virgilio, so I do wonder if they married on the continent, or indeed, if they married at all.
There was a son born in 1848 named after the father, and who appears to have died young in 1851, the year of the census, which did not include the father Virgilio Senior; where was he? The only record I can find of Virgilio Pelossi is of a sculptor who migrated to Lima, Peru, and there practiced painting and sculpting until his death, in ‘reduced circumstances’ in 1888. It appears that he hadn’t married Martha, and that he left after the birth of his son. Perhaps he intended to send for them, but whatever happened, he left them and the ties were cut. Martha had no breadwinner, and three children (she may have been pregant with a third). She had little choice but to take what oppurtunity she could, and whilst in Suffolk, for reasons I cannot find, she found just that.
In 1853, the ‘Calabar’ arrived in Australia, the passenger list noting the places from which the passengers were ‘sourced’ which meant that the ‘Calabar’ had been a labour ship, bringing out part of the workforce needed to build the colony of Adelaide, and all sought a new life. Martha was listed as the ‘Matron’ in charge of the single women, and with her was her young daughter, Cormelina Ellen Pelossi. Clearly Martha had changed the middle name to Ellen, shortened, of course in English, to ‘Nellie’ the orgin of her stage name.
Mrs. Pelossi then settled in Adelaide with her daughter and scraped by for three years, but on the 24th of March 1856, at the Wesleyan Chapel in Pirie Street, she married a Polish emigrant named Wilhelm August Przygoda. Przygoda (pronounced p’shee-go-da) had intended to be a miller, at least that what the family believed, and they lived at Flinders Street, Adelaide next to the Presbyterian Church. Cormelina and her baby sister, Ellen, were now about to have three step-siblings, as Martha gave birth over the next few years to three children.
Sometime in Cormelina’s late teens she met Frederick William Digby, a young man who arrived from England by the ‘Orient’ in 1857; he was educated, athletic and found work quickly as an assistant school master at the newly founded Collegiate School of Saint Peter, where he was involved in athletics, and was on the rowing team for several years running. He was also noted as being among the ‘Honorables’ at the Queen’s Levée in May each year, as he was the cousin of Lord Digby of Dorsetshire. Frederick’s father was the Hon. John William Digby, but of particualr interest was his mother, Elizabeth Daly, daughter of Dominic Daly.
Frederick’s eventual own obituary in the New Zealand Papers mentions that when a young man, he travelled overland from Adelaide to Melbourne, settling at Wood’s Point as a ‘miner’, and that he had dabbled in the stage, and I do think that Cormelina Pelossi had accompanied him and that both took Fred’s mother’s surname as their theatrical name, ‘Daley’. In St. Kilda on the first of June 1865, Cormelina married Frederick; she had no bridesmaid sign the record, but rather two men, once a relative of the groom. She apparently had no friends or relatives in Melbourne, and was 19 years old. The marriage was by special licence.
In 1873, a daughter, Nina Kathleen Digby was born. Later records mention her surviving her mother but we have no record of what happened to her. In the following year, a John and Frances Daley were in the Frank and Rosa Towers Company that had arrived in Melbourne from Sydney. I think may have been Frederick and ‘Nellie’. The years follwing are blank until 1876.
In that year, after having lived in Christchurch, New Zealand with her husband and daughter she left the house in March, and never returned. Nellie eventually joined the Charles Wheatleigh Company in Adelaide [?] making her first appearance as ‘Mina Daley’ on July the fourth at White’s Rooms for the July the Fourth Celebrations. The critics were pleased with her talents:—
“Miss Daley, who is a very pleasant singer, tendered two ballads — one sentimental and the other buffo— with good taste and expression. She is possessed of a soprano voice of fair quality, and will be a welcome addition to the company.”
‘Nelly’ then appeared with principals George D. Chaplin and Clara Stephenson in a proper role in ‘Rob Roy, playing the Scottish lass, Diana Vernon the teenage daughter of the Jacobite, Sir Frederick Vernon. She is billed as ‘for one night only’ so she may have been a last minute replacement, or contracted for one night from the Wheatleigh Company. Either way, this was her introduction to serious stagework, and she could sing and act well enough that the critics said:—
“Diana Vernon was impersonated by Miss Nelly Daley, who was advertised to appear for one night only. It is to be hoped that Miss Daley may be induoed to appear for many more nights. Though evidently suffering from nervousness, she succeeded in rendering very pleasantly the sweet old Scottish musio, which is delightful even to those to whom it conveys no old-time associations, and with which the play abounds.”
For the rest of 1876 she appeared in weekly performance of plays, pieces and burlesques like ‘Ixion’ and finally sailed to Melbourne where she appeared with Flora Armstead and Mr and Mrs. G.B.W.Lewis, big names in the Theatre world in Melbourne.
Then in 1877 she travelled to Sydney with the F.M.Bates Company, then headed off to New Zealand with the American, Charles Wheatleigh and his stock Company. By 1878 she was still in New Zealand, this time with Charles Dillon and Edith Pender in ‘The Queen’s Diamond’ where she had an affair with the baritone, Mack Alexander (né Mack Alexander Macdougall). The two of them then passed into the ‘Vaudeville Company’ under Borthwick Reid. By May of 1878 she had abandoned Mr. Alexander who she had supported and paid for (and reminded him of that fact in public). She then joined the Company of William Hoskins and John ProctorHydes. 1878 was a very busy year as she jumped from company to company.
The open affair with Mack Alexander was the impetus for her husband, Frederick—to whom she was still married — to initiate a divorce. She did not appear, and the divorce was granted after three very good witnesses testified to the intimate goings on that left no doubt that grounds for divorce were solid. Why did she leave him? We may never know. Perhaps she had too much of her father: artistic, mercurial, unable to settle, and with no qualms about leaving her spouse. Perhaps it may have been the mentla state of Digby himself, who died early in life shortly after his second marriage in 1879 to ‘Solange Novarro’ (Leonida Maude Vickery and a client of Robert Sparrow Smythe’s). Fred too, wandered, settled in New Zealand some years earlier with Cormelina, having left teaching, droving, mining and a string of other occupations, his penulrtinate being ‘journalist’ (aka ‘Sinbad’ and ‘Loafer in the Street’) and the ongoing post of Secretary of the Christchurch Jockey Club. He spent three years in an asylum before dying in 1886.
In 1879, Nelly left the stage and—at thirty years old— bought a Public Hotel, the ‘Lady of the Lake’ in Moray Street, South Melbourne, advertising her Hotel as having ‘Best Liquors Only’. She kept the Hotel until 1880 when she obtained the ‘Garrick Club Hotel’ in Little Flinders Street, but only held the license a short time. She left hostelry to be married; this time she married a Merchant that divided his time between, Singapore, Sydney and Melbourne. Francis William Xavier Heanchain was the English educated son of Wee Chue, a Chinese Merchant based in Sydney (but who had once been in business in Ballarat) and his wife Ding Gee.
In 1883 Heanchain sold his Singapore residence to settle permanently in Sydney with Nelly, whom he called ‘Nina’. There quickly followed a series of deaths for poor Nelly: in 1881, her step-father died in Adelaide; in 1882, J.Proctor Hydes died; in 1885, Mack Alexander died in Liverpool; in 1887 her father Virgilio died, leaving so much debt that the Government in Peru sold what paintings he had to pay them, and in 1886, Frederick H. Digby died.
Heanchain still travelled in and out of the Far East for business, and ‘Nina’ regualrly weng to Adelaide to visit her mother. In 1886 she travelled by train to Sydney to be with her husband once again where he had been running a trading store at 1, Change-alley, Sydney (trading as C. Y. Lee and Co.) but which ultimately went bankrupt, and at Newingotn in Parramatta, on July the 15th ‘Nelly Daley’ died, only thity-eight years of age. Poetically, her mother, died the following year on the 15th of September, at 84 Flinders Street, Adelaide. William Heanchain died in 1902 while running his grocery business at 253 Kent Street, Sydney.
And there, the Cormelina Virglilio saga ended.