Ellen Terry

Ellen Terry books and biography


Ellen Terry

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, (1889).
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, (1889).

Dame Ellen Alice Terry GBE (February 27, 1847 – July 21, 1928) was an English stage actress. Born into a theatrical family, Terry played her first role opposite Charles Kean at London's Princess' Theatre at the age of nine. She continued acting and entered the company at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 1861.


Early life

Charles Kean and Ellen Terry in 1856 as they appeared in The Winter's Tale
Charles Kean and Ellen Terry in 1856 as they appeared in The Winter's Tale

Born Alice Ellen--she reversed her names by the time of her first marriage--Terry was born in Coventry, England in 1847 into a theatrical family headed by actors. Of Benjamin Terry and Sarah Ballard's eleven children, five Inlcuding Ellen) became actors: Florence, Fred, Kate and Marion. Two other children, George and Charles, were connected with theatre management. Charles was the father of two daughters who would also appear on the stage, Minnie and Beatrice.[1]

Ellen's first appearance onstage came at the age of seven when she played the Duke of York in Shakespeare's Richard III at the Princess Theatre. She had been trained under Charles Kean and his wife, Ellen.[2] At the age of nine she appeared under Charles Kean as Mamilius in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Her older sister Kate, who had begun acting in London in 1852, also played at the Princess. She continued acting at the Princess Theatre until the Kean's retirement in 1859.[3] In her autobiography she described herself during those years as "a very strong, happy and healthy child."[4]

For the next two years, Ellen and Kate began travelling as strolling players, accompanied by their parents and a musician. They travelled to a different town almost every day and slept in small inns. The family returned to London in 1861.

The Royalty Theatre, Chute's Stock Company and the Haymarket

Between 1861-1862, Ellen was engaged by the Royalty Theatre, managed by Madame Albina de Rhona.

In 1862, she joined her sister Kate in Bristol and began working with J.H. Chute's stock company where she played a wide variety of parts. When first cast for a burlesque role, Ellen pointed out that she was unable to sing or dance, was told that she had to do it anyway, and grew to enjoy burlesque as much as Shakespeare. In 1863, Chute opened the Theatre Royal in Bath, where Ellen appeared at the opening as Titana in A Midsummer's Night's Dream.

Marriages, relationships, career

Ellen Terry at 16.
Ellen Terry at 16.

Ellen Terry married three times, and was involved in numerous relationships during her lifetime. In London, during an engagement with the Haymarket Theatre, Ellen and Kate had their portrait painted by the eminent artist, George Frederick Watts, and was impressed with the music, art and elegance of his lifestyle. She married him on February 20,1864, shortly before her 16th birthday, when Watts was 46. Ellen gave up acting during her marriage to Watts and she felt more like a timid child bride than a hostess when eminent visitors came to call. Neither she nor her husband were faithful, and they separated after 10 months of marriage.

The birth of her son, Edward Gordon Craig, in 1872, was the result of a liaison with the progressive architect-designer Edward William Godwin, with whom she retreated to Hertfordshire, again temporarily retiring from acting. The liaison cooled in 1874, and she returned to her acting career.

From 1874 she became the leading Shakespearean actress in London, and in partnership with Henry Irving became successful in England and the USA. She married 21st December 1877 Charles Clavering Wardell, an actor/journalist. In 1903 she formed a theatre management business with her son, abandoning her business partner Irving. She struck up a friendship and a famous correspondence with George Bernard Shaw during this time, and divorced from Wardell. 22nd March 1907 she married American actor James Carew. She became a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire (GBE) in 1925.

Her son, Edward Gordon Craig, became an important actor, designer, and director; her daughter Edith Craig became theatre director, producer, and early pioneer of the women's suffrage movement in England; her grandnephew, Sir John Gielgud, also became an actor. The singer Helen Terry, and illustrator Helen Craig are also descendants of hers.

Her ashes rest at St Paul's, Covent Garden, London.

Ellen Terry should not be confused with Charles Dickens' mistress Ellen Ternan, also an actress, who was a few years her senior.


Late in her life Ellen Terry appeared in several films.

  • Her Greatest Performance - 1917
  • The Invasion of Britain - 1918
  • Pillars of Society - 1918
  • Potter's Clay - 1922
  • The Bohemian Girl - 1922


Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
Dame Ellen Terry
  • The Story of My Life (autobiography)
  • Ellen Terry: Player in Her Time by Nina Auerbach

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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