Ellen Terry (1847-1928) was an extraordinary, unconventional woman who was ahead of her time in many ways. She is regarded as one of the most eminent English actresses of all time. Born into a family of actors, Ellen had no formal schooling, but was trained by her parents and she rapidly developed into a celebrated child actress. She first appeared on the stage on 28 April 1856 at the age of nine, playing the boy Mamilius in Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter's Tale’ at the Princess's Theatre in London, every night for one hundred and two nights. 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.
It was in Bristol that she met the renowned artist George Frederic Watts, whom she married in 1864 at the age of 16 (while he was 46). The marriage lasted only 10 months (although they were not divorced until 1877) and she returned to her parents. In December 1867 she appeared with the great Henry Irving for the first time. At the age of 21, Ellen eloped with Edward Godwin, an act that estranged her from her family and the acting profession. She enjoyed domestic life and had two children, Edith (Edy) in 1869 and Edward (Teddy) in 1872 with Godwin. Their relation came to an end in 1875 and she returned to the stage.
In 1878 the 30-year-old Terry joined Henry Irving's company at the Lyceum Theatre as its leading lady at a generous salary, beginning with Ophelia opposite Irving's Hamlet. Soon she was regarded as the leading Shakespearean actress in Britain, and in partnership with Irving she reigned as such for over 20 years until they left the Lyceum in 1902. Her remarkable performance of Lady Macbeth in 1888 was immortalised in the painting by John Sargent (1889) which hangs in Tate Britain. Terry stated that she and Irving had been lovers and that: ‘We were terribly in love for a while’ (A Strange Eventful History by English biographer Sir Michael Holroyd). A hard-working performer, she toured the UK and USA with the Lyceum company and later lectured in the UK, USA and Australia on Shakespeare’s female characters. During one of those tours, Ellen secretly married the American actor James Carew in Pittsburgh on 22nd March 1907. It was a reversal of her first marriage, Ellen being almost thirty years the senior of her new husband who was in fact younger than either of her own children. Her daughter Edith did not approve of the marriage and would have nothing to do with Carew. She even went to the extent of planting a hedge between their homes to ensure that she did not see him. Her new marriage broke up after only two years, seemingly in amicable circumstances as they appeared on stage together after the break-up and continued to share the same registered address.
Ellen Terry was also a prolific letter writer, famously corresponding with George Bernard Shaw for many years. Her correspondence with Shaw appeared as ‘Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw’ in 1931. Her warm, generous personality made her a favourite wherever she went, but eyesight and memory began to fail. Belatedly in 1925, she was made a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire. The OBE was instituted by King George V in 1917 initially to recognise the considerable civilian contribution to the war effort during the 1914-18 war. It was a pioneering honour in its day, being the first five-class Order for national distribution and the first to admit women to its membership. Since 1960 the spiritual home of the Order is the OBE chapel in St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London. Ellen Terry was only the second actress to be made a dame for her professional achievements after Geneviève Ward in 1921.
She died in 1828 at her cottage, Small Hythe in Kent, and her ashes are kept in a silver chalice on the right side of the chancel of the actors' church, St Paul's, Covent Garden. Small Hythe became the Ellen Terry Memorial Museum and in 1939 was given to the National Trust by her daughter, Edith Craig. Edith became a prolific theatre director, producer, costume designer and early pioneer of the women's suffrage movement in England. Considered one of the first stars of the modern British stage, Terry’s life was as eventful as that of those heroines whose parts she performed. Few other women ever contributed so much to the stage as Ellen Terry or probably ever will again.