Neilson, born in 1848, was the child of a strolling actress, named Brown, and was born, out of wedlock, at 35 St.Peters Square Leeds in the West Riding of Yorkshire. In childhood she bore the name of Elizabeth Anne Bland, her mother having subsequently become the wife of a mechanic and house decorator named Samuel Bland. Her girlhood was passed in the town of Guiseley (near Leeds), where she worked in a factory and as a nursery maid.When she had become well known as an actress it was said that she was the child of a Spanish father and an English mother; born at Zaragoza, reared in affluence; educated in France and Italy; taught seven languages; and, finally, embarked in a theatrical career, because of impoverished fortune combined with irrepressible genius. Such stories were completely untrue. The Boston Evening News, January 1914, reported excerpts from actor J.H. Barnes “An Intimate View and a Frank Estimate of Adelaide Neilson – The Mighty Phelps and His Influence – Tales of Mathew retold,” in which Barnes wrote of Adelaide: “She became such a tremendous fact in theatricals on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in the United States, she was almost a religion.”
When she was about 15 years old Neilson left her home and made her way to London. Soon after she reached London, she obtained employment, because of her beauty, as a member of the ballet at one of the theatres, and in that way she began her professional career. Various romantic tales were printed concerning her way of life and her ethnicity at that time.
According to the actor/author Barnes, Adelaide’s real name was Elizabeth Ann Brown: “Undoubtedly she had great beauty, wonderful eyes and an expressive mouth,” he wrote in his aforementioned novel. “fine coloring of complexion and hair, and a rather spare figure. Her appearance suggested a woman of Spanish or Italian type. When she became famous all kinds of romantic stories were told of her Spanish origin. Indeed, I have heard her allude to her mother of Saragossa.”
In Spring 1865, after having received some instruction from the veteran actor, John Ryder, she appeared at Sarah Thorne’s Theatre Royal (Margate), long a training-school for novices, where she made a favorable impression. In 1865, at Theatre Royal (Margate), she appeared as Julia in The Hunchback, a character with which her name was long to be associated.
For the next few years, she played at London and provincial theatres in various roles, including Rosalind, Amy Robsart and Rebecca (in Ivanhoe), Beatrice, Viola and Isabella (in Measure for Measure). In July 1865 she was brought out at the New Royalty Theatre, London, in the character of Juliet. Her achievement was not considered extraordinary, but it attracted some favorable attention, and she was thus enabled to proceed in practice of the art to which she had determined to devote her life.
She was a part of a production of The Hugenot Captain by Watts Phillips given by the Princess Theatre on 2 July 2, 1866. Neilson played the role of Gabrielle de Savigny, the heroine of the story. In November 1866 she received favorable reviews for her portrayal of Victorine, another character in The Hugenot Captain. This time the play was performed at the Adelphi Theatre. She also played Nelly Armroyd, in Lost in London. Phillips was pleased with her acting; so was the critic Joseph Knight and the dramatist, Dr Westland Marston; and all of them exerted a friendly influence to promote her professional advancement. Dr Marston, in particular, was able to offer her much practical advice and guidance.
In 1868 she had become an experimental travelling star, acting Rosalind, Bulwer’s Pauline, and Knowles’ Julia; but she was not at first successful in her ambitious endeavor, and during the next three or four years she strove with circumstance as best she might, sometimes acting in metropolitan stock companies, and sometimes taking a position of more prominence. One of the expedients that she early adopted was that of a dramatic recital, given at St. James’ Hall, London. Long afterward she repeated that recital in America, with brilliant effect. Some of the parts that she played, at various London theatres, were: Lillian, in Dr Marston’s Life for Life; Madame Vidal, in A Life Chase, by John Oxenford and Horace Wigan; and Mary Belton, in Uncle Dick’s Darling. In 1870 she gained a conspicuous success as Amy Robsart, a part that admirably suited her, in a play based on Sir Walter Scott‘s novel Kenilworth; and in 1871 she obtained critical admiration as Rebecca, in a play based on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
By 1872 she had gained great popularity and, after making a successful tour of British cities and giving a series of farewell performances in London, she came to America, making her first appearance in that country on 18 November 1872, at Booth’s Theatre, New York, as Juliet. She was praised by American critics who echoed the acclaim she had received from London theatrical audiences.
She made subsequent American tours through the 1870s. She played Amy Robsart, heroine of Sir Walter Scott, in May 1873. She is noted for a fine engagement staged in Brooklyn, New York the same year. Her farewell at Booth’s Theatre came on May 2, 1874. Neilson accepted an engagement at the Lyceum in the autumn of the same year. She performed in Cymbeline by William Shakespeare at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York on May 14, 1877. She not only achieved distinction on the American stage, but accumulated a considerable fortune. The parts that she acted in America included Juliet, Rosalind, Viola, Beatrice, Imogen and Isabella, from Shakespeare and Amy Robsart, Julia, Pauline and Lady Teazle, from other authors.
In 1877 she obtained a divorce from her husband and did not marry again. The story told some time later of her marriage to Edward Compton, an English actor, proved to be untrue.
Neilson was on the stage for about fifteen years. She died suddenly whilst riding in in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, France on 15 August 1880, aged 32. A subsequent post-mortem stated death was caused by blood loss due to a rupture in the broad ligament near the left fallopian tube. She is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London, where a sculptured cross of white marble bearing the inscription “Gifted and Beautiful—Resting.” marks her grave.