Breezy Bill: the neglected star of the Victorian age

William TerrissLast week I was asked for resources on the actor William Terriss. Not much came up in the Library catalogue and other databases. When you type William Terriss into Google the entries, beyond the initial Wikipedia entry, are all to do with the celebrity of his ghost appearing at Covent Garden tube station and the Adelphi Theatre; uncannyuk, real-british-ghosts, blackcablondon, paranormal database, etc. reads the root titles to those web sites. Yet Terriss, or Breezy Bill as he was affectionately termed, was one of the most highly regarded and beloved actors of his generation.Ellen Terry described Terriss as ‘one of those heaven-born actors who, like kings by divine right, can, up to a certain point, do no wrong’ and mentions that he ‘always commanded the love of his intimates as well as that of the outside public’ (Ellen Terry’s Memoirs, 1908: 143) – which begs the question, why has so little been written about him?

A merchant seaman (for a fortnight!), silver miner in America, sheep farmer in the Falkland Islands, tea planter in Bengal; his career before becoming a major light on the London stage reads like a boy’s own adventure story.

The remarkable Terriss joined Henry Irving’s company at the Lyceum Theatre in 1880 and till 1897 was one of the principal actors who played second-lead to Irving and Ellen Terry in roles such as Edgar, Cassio, Mercutio, Bassanio, Don Pedro, Henry II in Becket, Captain Absolute in The Rivals and Squire Thornhill in Olivia. According to Terry he was one of the few men who could get away with teasing ‘The Governor’, as Irving was deemed. However, it was for his appearance in melodramas at the Adelphi that Terriss became best known, starring in the likes of The Harbour Lights, The Bells of Haselmere, The Silver Fall, Boys Together and The Union Jack.

Terriss as Romeo

Terriss as Romeo

Terriss was also a keen supporter of many good causes. He regularly contributed to the Actor’s Benevolent Fund, and was secretary of the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund from 1880 to his death. He spoke at an event for St. Mary’s Hospital in 1887 (where he’d previously ventured into the medical profession!). It’s notable that after his violent murder Terriss and his case features several times in the medical journal, The Lancet. The first entry, written in high Victorian style, was published only 9 days after the event, and indicates the standing in which Terriss was generally held:

The murders of Miss Camp in a railway train and of a servant girl near Windsor still remain undiscovered. These crimes caused universal horror and dismay, but their effect upon the public mind must pall before the tragedy which has lately removed from our midst a man universally admired, respected, and beloved – we refer to the melancholy death of Mr William Terriss.

The murder of William Terriss appears to have overshadowed his achievements in the annals of the history of performance. Of the two books written about Terriss his murderer gets equal billing. George Rowell’s William Terriss and Richards Prince: Two Characters in an Alephi Melodrama (Society for Theatre Research, 1987) examines the lives of those involved in that notorious crime in the structure of one of the melodramas in which Terriss acted.

Terriss was 49 when in 1897 he was stabbed outside the Alephi Theatre. The year after his death, Arthur J. Smyth published his biography. To those he left behind Smyth consoled:

William Terriss
Go back to your life, strengthened in the sense that this dead man’s kindly life has made a deep impression, not only upon all of you who have been his partners in the work, but has sunk deeply into the hearts of our English people.

There’s a tendency for melodrama to be labelled as an unrealistic exaggeration of real life. In Terriss’s case, the events of his life would be thought an ‘improbable fiction’ and they are indeed the very stuff of melodrama. His is a story worth further investigation – ‘had I but time…’.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

Books about William Terriss:

Smythe, Arthur J., The life of William Terriss, actor / with an introduction by Clement Scott (Westminster : A. Constable & Co, 1898) SIL (PN 2598.T26)

Rowell, George, William Terriss and Richard Prince: two players in an Adelphi melodrama
(London : Society for Theatre Research, 1987) SIL (PN 2598.T26)


Mentions of Terriss in:

Bingham, Madeleine, Henry Irving and the Victorian Theatre (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978) PN2598.I7

Fitzgerald, Percy, Sir Henry Irving: a biography (London: T Fisher Unwin, 1906) PN 2598.I7

Hughes, Alan, Henry Irving: Shakespearean (Cambridge University Press, 1981) PN2598.I7

Irving, Laurence, Henry Irving: the actor and his world (London: Faber & Faber, 1951) PN 2598.I7

Robertson, W. Graham, Time Was: the reminiscences of W. Graham Robertson / with foreword by Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson (London: Hamis Hamilton Ltd., 1931) PN 2594

Rowell, George, The Victorian Theatre 1792-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 1978) PN 2594

Shaw, Bernard, Plays and Players: essays on the theatre (London: Oxford University Press, 1963) PN 2594

Stoker, Bram, Personal reminiscences of Henry Irving, Vol.1 & 2 (London: Heinemann, 1906) PN 2598.I7 S8

Terry, Ellen, The Story of My Life

Terry, Ellen, Ellen Terry’s Memoirs / with a preface, notes and additional biographical chapters by Edith Craig and Christopher St. John (i.e. C. Marshall) (London: V. Gollancz, 1933) PN 2598.T3

Victorian Theatre, ed. Russell Jackson (London: A&C Black, 1989) PN 2594


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