Annie Elizabeth Kent was born on 28 December 1909 at Eltham, Taranaki, the eldest child of London-born George Horatio Kent, a butter-maker, and his Australian wife, Maude Eleanor Mallard. From an early age she was known as Nancy or Nan. Shortly after her 14th birthday her mother died of tuberculosis, so Nancy left the Catholic School in Hawera to keep house for her father, brother (Jack – who was reputedly killed in the Spanish Civil War) and sister (Patricia). Apart from two periods in the early 1930s spent in Sydney, she lived in Hawera for the rest of her life. There, on 27 January 1940, she married Raymond William Russell, a motor mechanic born in nearby Manaia, with whom she was to have three children.
Nancy Russell developed a deep interest in the use of the English language and, in particular, the spoken word. She studied elocution, gaining her LTCL in 1929 and qualifying in 1930 as a fellow of the Trinity College of Music, London. She worked as a part-time speech teacher at schools in and around Hawera, including Okaiawa School, to which she cycled. She also ran her own speech training and drama studio, at one point teaching some 60 pupils.
In 1940 Russell began a career as a journalist with the Hawera Star. As drama critic, her incisive and knowledgeable reviews of visiting and local shows were also published in other Taranaki newspapers. She maintained an association with the paper for many years, writing a social events column, and continued to have reviews published until 1980. For a period in the 1950s she scripted a monthly Taranaki newsletter for Wellington’s 2YA radio station.
In 1945 Nancy Russell helped establish the Hawera Repertory Society. She served terms as president, and was its patron and first life member. She produced many plays for the society and had a particular affection for the works of Shakespeare. Her first major production was A midsummer night’s dream , staged in 1951. The show’s season was a sell-out, so to satisfy the demand an additional performance was staged in Hawera’s Naumai Park. Russell was also an enthusiastic supporter of one-act play competitions, and was a well-known and respected judge. In 1956 she adapted Alan Paton’s novel about apartheid in South Africa, Cry, the beloved country , to a one-act play. Its performance in Wellington was given an ovation for over five minutes from a moved and emotional audience.
Nancy Russell was one of a small number of New Zealanders to be elected to the English Speaking Board (an examination board for oral English) as an international examiner. In 1974 she was proud to spend time examining for the board in the United Kingdom, and judged the communication skills of such diverse groups as trainee police officers and students of exclusive private schools.
In recognition of her contribution to the New Zealand Association of Teachers of Speech and Drama, Russell was made a fellow and life member. She was also honoured with the title distinguished associate by the New Zealand Speech Board. In 1980 she was made an OBE for her services to speech and drama teaching. She was active in the Hawera Women’s Club, and was made a life member in 1988. A devout but questioning Catholic, she was in the vanguard of women who played a more active role in church ceremonies when this became accepted in the 1960s. Her thespian skills and religious beliefs combined to make her regular readings at Hawera’s St Joseph’s Church convincing performances.
Through her imaginative direction of drama and her insistence on clear oral expression, Nancy Russell made a notable contribution to the development of effective spoken and written communication among her many pupils in Taranaki. Predeceased by Raymond in 1984, she died in Hawera on 10 February 1993, survived by their children.