The wearing of gold bangles in the late Victorian era and into the first three decades of the 20th century seems to have been an Australian phenomenon. I am talking about plain bangles, sometimes tubular, sometimes solid. They might be hinged or unhinged. They were not thin, ranging from around 0.5 cm upwards in thickness. Their popularity arose because of singer and actress Nellie Stewart. Nellie was an Australian singer who, from the age of five, started acting and singing in pantomimes, musicals and operettas. She became the leading lady in numerous Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, including Patience, the Mikado and HMS Pinafore. One of her notable roles was in Sweet Nell of Old Drury. Born in 1858, she was to remain a popular actress for almost fifty years. She spent a few years in London and America but most of her success was in Australia.
Nellie was once as well known as Dame Nellie Melba. She was called the ‘Idol of the Melbourne stage’ and the ‘Rose of Australia’. She was famous for her beauty, fashion sense and her charitable works. She sang the memorial anthem at the opening of the first Federal Parliament at the Melbourne Exhibition Buildings in May 1901. She has featured on two Australian stamps. Unlike Nellie Melba, she made only one sound recording and starred in one movie, which has been lost.
Nellie had an enduring relationship with theatre producer, George Musgrove, from mid 1880 until his death in 1916. They had a daughter, Nancye. They were unable to marry as Musgrove was already married and his wife refused to agree to a divorce. In 1885, George gave Nellie 26 gold sovereigns (comprised of 22ct gold) and asked her to have them made into a bangle of his own design, a simple round but heavy bangle, Nellie was to wear the bangle for the rest of her life, never removing it. This bangle began to be copied by Australian jewellers and worn by women hoping to be seen as fashionable. It was an early celebrity object before the days of celebrity branding. Nellie made no money from the bracelets and did not promote them.
Nellie Stewart bangles became a popular gift from men to their fiancees and to their brides, and also became a common gift from the groom to the bridesmaids. There are numerous examples of reports of weddings in Australia (and a few from New Zealand) from the early 1910s up until the mid 1920s in which a Nellie Stewart bangle is mentioned. The bangles were also given as christening presents and were given to small girls. Like hers, most of these bangles were unhinged and had to be cut off as the child grew.
Nellie died in 1931. She had asked that the bangle be buried with her but this was not permitted. An angel with her facial likeness was erected over her grave and it wears a bangle. A memorial containing her picture was erected in the Sydney Botanic Gardens in 1938 and it also has a depiction of her bangle.
Nellie Stewart bangles became less popular after her death and her association with them became lost. Nowadays, round bangles are often described as golf bangles. I have been unable to locate why they became so called but one person (see https://www.ohmygiddyaunt.com.au/blog/why-a-golf-bangle) suggests that the name arose because the bracelets were common prizes for women at golf tournaments.
An interesting article on Nellie Stewart was written by Annita Boyd, ‘The Private and Public Life of Nellie Stewart’s Bangle’, http://jprstudies.org/2014/10/the-private-and-public-life-of-nellie-stewarts-bangleby-annita-boyd/.