Historical

Nellie the Elephant

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This is a late 1940’s Ford Prefect. This is an elephant…not sure what year!

You might think they have absolutely nothing in common but the body of one and the heart of the other inspired an eccentric Englishman to create…Nellie the mechanical elephant…a darling of our annual Christmas Pageants for more than 60 years.

Nellie was one of 4 power-driven pachyderms made by Englishman Frank Stuart who planned to sell them to tourism operators at the English seaside.

Each mechanical elephant had about nine thousand parts…they were driven along by the motor from the Ford Prefect and ingeniously, the trunk became the exhaust.

Christmas Pageant creator, Sir Edward Hayward, saw the first of these on a trip to Margate on the English coast in the middle of 1950 and convinced Stuart to sell it to him for 15-hundred pounds. And here’s a bit of trivia – British Comedian Peter Sellers also fell in love with Stuart’s elephants and added one to his eccentric automobile collection.

There had already been a Nellie in the pageant in the 1930’s and 40’s, but she was mechanically quite primitive only capable of moving her head, this new Nellie was a technological marvel and arrived here with much fanfare and publicity.

From the moment the pageant set off on November 4th 1950 the tens of thousands who lined the streets were dazzled and dumbfounded. Nobody had seen anything like Nellie the Elephant.

As you’d imagine with some nine thousand parts, there were almost nine thousand reasons why Nellie could be unreliable.

Pageant Manager Brian Gilbertson: People keep asking is Nellie going to be in the pageant this year I think she’s also a fighter, she’s a fighter, one of those characters that sometimes gets through sometimes doesn’t and the public are waiting… Is she? Is she not? So yes, the public just love Nellie.

Sometimes she had to be pushed into side streets, the crowd would part, Nellie would be pushed off to the side and she’d be picked up afterwards so she’s got an incredible history in the pageant!

It was that history which inspired one Adelaide family to resurrect the legend of Nellie they wanted her back in the pageant and decided to do something about it.

In 1981 Alby Hill and his son Ross convinced pageant organizers to give Nellie to them, and in return, they’d get her up and running and ready to return to the pageant.

Very quickly they worked out that one of the main reasons she broke down was that our summer heat was simply too much for an old English car motor that didn’t have a water pump.

She means a fair bit to us because my Dad and Pop got her going again and my mother made the covers for her so we’ve done a lot with her since we’ve had and I’ve been with her all that time.

About this time of the year we get her out and take all the covers off to see if any problems need fixing and then give her a general service and she’s ready to go.

As we get closer to this year’s Credit Union Christmas Pageant the Hill family will be giving Nellie the kind of tender loving care and attention that you would give to a living creature because in the hearts of the young and the young at heart, on pageant day…she is.

Brian Gilbertson: I think there are core elements of the pageant people remember. Father Christmas is probably at the top of the tree, everybody’s waiting for Father Christmas, Nipper and Nimble if we shift them around in the pageant people get antsy about that, they like to see them in their traditional roles. Nellie is another one; if Nellie were to go missing we’d get emails, what happened to Nellie and why wasn’t she in the pageant? Everywhere I go the first question however I get is “will Nellie be in the pageant this year?” Maybe she’s more important than Father Christmas? I hope he didn’t hear me say that!

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