Private Charles Stuart Nelson
A "female impersonator" in the Kiwis
Soldier concert parties were formed in the First World War to raise troop morale and provide some entertainment for the many men serving in conflicts overseas. These concerts were musical revue acts put on by a dedicated group of soldier performers that drew on the style of entertainment popular at the time. These acts were a mixture of music hall and vaudeville style shows complete with singing, dancing, drama and comedic sketches.
Due in part to a lack of women in the Army, and also in keeping with theatre traditions of the day, male actors or “female impersonators” as they were then called, played the female roles. Sometimes funny, and often glamorous, female impersonators were much admired and considered the stars of the company, garnering praise for their performances, encores and standing ovations.
One of these performers was Charles Stuart Nelson, the ”foremost girl” of the "Kiwis", a hugely popular group during World War I. Nelson thrived in the role as he was a skilled performer, admired for his tenor voice and "fine figure" which made him perfect for playing a range of female characters.
Born on 7 March 1888 in Wellington, Stuart Nelson spent his pre-war years as a bank teller in Gisborne before he enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) in 1915. That year he married Laura Agnes (née Dickenson) in Christchurch before embarking on journeys to what must have seemed like dangerous and exotic places on the other side of the world.
Nelson served as a soldier in Tahiti, Egypt, Belgium and France with the 9th Reinforcements of the Wellington Mounted Rifles, in the B Squadron. After the Battle of the Somme in which New Zealand saw a vast number of casualties and losses, Major-General Andrew Russell requested that the New Zealand Division form an official concert party. It was soon decided that Nelson's particular skills could be better used for the job of entertaining the soldiers.
Nelson and the Kiwis performed on makeshift stages throughout France such as church halls and hospitals, even at times close to the front line, performing under bombs and machine gun fire. This was not an easy job and one that was recognised as serving an important function - performers like the Kiwis and the Digger Pierrots could provide a moment of relief from the strains of active service, boredom, homesickness and the horror of war.
Relief from the "horror(s) of war"
It wasn’t just the New Zealand forces that the Kiwis performed for - many of the allied troops came from far and wide to hear the singing Kiwis too. Ernest McKinlay, who often performed alongside Nelson, recalled his own experience with the show -
Tommies and Aussies would walk miles to see our performances - many came to see and hear Nelson, who made a marvellous girl...and he could always be depended on to take two or three encores” (1939, McKinley).
There could be multiple readings on these kinds of gender-switching performances in the concert parties. To some, the female impersonators could be an object of voyeuristic interest or a comedic parody of femininity, and for others they could be an expression of queer identity. However, their popularity was undeniable and most concert parties had a female impersonator or two who drew in the crowds.
After the war ended, many of the singing Kiwis continued touring and performing for people back home. Nelson, however, returned to civilian life and his job at the Union Bank of Australia. He became head teller at the Wellington branch and was to work there for the rest of his life, until he died on 4 March 1942.
Female impersonation continued on stage after the war and into the Second World War, though to a lesser extent. If you would like to know more, take a look at the Online Cenotaph profiles of some other notable wartime female impersonators:
WW100 feature an article on their website profiling New Zealand's First World War entertainment troupes and concert parties:
Can you tell us about any musicians or entertainers involved in active service? Go to their Online Cenotaph records to add more information.
Bolton, G. D. (1997). Warrior entertainers: The story of the ‘Digger Pierrots’ of the New Zealand Army in World War 1. Sydney, N.S.W: Robyn Ianssen Productions.
Burns, C. (2012). Parading Kiwis: New Zealand Soldier Concert Parties, 1916-1954. (Masters thesis, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand). Retrieved from https://researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/13600.
Downes, P. (1979). Top of the bill: Entertainers through the years. Wellington New Zealand: A.H. & A.W. Reed.
McKinlay, E. (1939). Ways and by-ways of a singing Kiwi : with the N.Z. Divisional entertainers in France. Dunedin, New Zealand: David M. Lister.
OBITUARY, Press, Volume LXXVIII, Issue 23583, 10 March 1942. Retrieved from https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/CHP19420310.2.66
Typescript volume (35 cm) titled "Pierrots in Picardy: A Khaki Chronicle", containing essentially a personal record by a former member of the NZ Divisional Entertainers in the First World War. The author "gratefully acknowledges his debt to Cedric White who very kindly supplied him with a complete itinerary of the Kiwi Concert Party from their formation at Sailly in December 1916 to their departure on leave (from which few returned) from Caudrey at the end of November 1918. This itinerary, which was compiled from a day-to-day diary and may therefore be regarded as correct, was used as a framework into which have been easily and accurately fitted the various details now related." (165 leaves) - Pierrots in Picardy: A Khaki Chronicle. Auckland War Memorial Museum Library. MS-242.
Help us improve Online Cenotaph
Can you tell us more about Private Charles Stuart Nelson's service history, or his civilian life and enlistment? Go to Charles's Online Cenotaph record to share your information.
Add your contribution
Cite this article
Private Charles Stuart Nelson. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 16 January 2017. Updated: 24 January 2017.