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‘A fairy, elfish thing’ – Ellaline Terriss

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Musical star Ellaline Terriss captured the hearts and minds of late Victorian audiences with her beauty, celebrity marriage and personal suffering, writes Steve Bartlett

At the turn of the 19th century British audiences embraced their musical theatre stars like no period before or since. Before other mediums would muscle in on the national psyche, the stars of late Victorian musical comedies were beloved of critics and public alike.

The picture postcard craze of the early 1900s combined with the coverage in the emerging theatrical periodicals to propel the leading practitioners of the form into the popular culture stratosphere. The actresses of musical comedy, then a frothy concoction of singing, dancing, romantic storylines and expansive sets – quite apart from the lowbrow music hall – were akin to the screen sirens of the latter 20th century. And none more so than Ellaline Terriss.

In 1894, aged 23, Terriss became George Edwardes’ leading lady at the Gaiety. Already popular, this was Terriss’ stepping stone to greater success.

But her star credentials were indelibly secured when she married actor, writer and producer Seymour Hicks. The pair become one of the most enduring theatrical partnerships of the age. However, like the many celebrity couplings that would follow and provide salacious fodder for the postwar popular press, their success was tinged with a tragedy that would only add to their allure.

Before their union, Hicks and Terriss’ paths had crossed in a producer’s office when he was 17 and she a year younger. Hicks recalled: “I saw one of the prettiest and most gentle women I had ever looked upon. It seemed to me that I was in the presence of some fairy, elfish thing.”

That ‘fairy, elfish thing’ would weave a similar spell over audiences and when they met again, five years later, she was already an established actress in her own right.

Terriss was born on April 13, 1872 in Stanley on the Falkland Islands, the daughter of William and Amy Lewin. Her father had been a merchant seaman, a tea planter in Assam, India, and an actor before taking up sheep farming in the Falklands. After she was born they returned to Britain, where the renamed William Terriss, a stage surname she too would adopt, become a well-loved actor, known to his fans as ‘Breezy Bill’.

Terriss followed him on to the stage, making her stage debut at 16 in Cupid’s Messenger at the Haymarket in February 1888. The pretty young ingenue was soon given a three-year contract with producer Charles Wyndham, founder of Wyndham’s Theatre.

She was then reintroduced to Hicks, back home after touring America with the Kendals and now hailed as one of the greatest actors of his generation, in 1893. Within eight days of that second meeting Hicks had proposed and three weeks later they were married at Brentford Register Office.

Terriss had huge success with the Oscar Barrett pantomime Cinderella at the Lyceum in December 1893 and the following April saw both her and Hicks take the production to Broadway. When Terriss returned to London she landed her superstar-making three-year contract with the Gaiety.

This was a golden period, with the Gaiety the undisputed home of British musical theatre, many of its hits penned by writer/composer Lionel Monckton, husband of actress Gertie Miller. Terriss was paid £25 a week, rising to £35. Hicks was also contracted by Edwardes but only received £15 a week for his efforts. During this period Hicks co-wrote material as well as acting, providing him with the grounding to emerge as a theatre impresario in his own right.

But in 1897 they were stuck by a double tragedy. Their first child, a son, died in infancy and then, famously, her father William Terriss was murdered outside the Adelphi Theatre on December 16 by unemployed actor Richard Prince. The events made headlines, as did the subsequent trial of Prince. But just months later Terriss returned to the stage – greeted by an emotional standing ovation.

The couple adopted an Irish girl called Mabel and their own daughter Betty was born in January 1905. As the public became hungry for celebrity pictures, they starred in mass produced family postcards together.

By this time Hicks was a highly regarded author of light comedies, regularly co-starring Terriss, notably Bluebell in Fairyland, which debuted in December 1901 and was a favourite for more than 30 years. Financially secure, he partnered investors to open a string of West End theatres – the Aldwych in 1905 and the Seymour Hicks (renamed the Globe, then the Gielgud) and the Queen’s in 1907. Memorable roles for Terriss in this period included Angela in The Catch of the Season at the Vaudeville and the leads in The Beauty of Bath and The Gay Gordons at the Aldwych.

During the First World War the pair gave concerts to the troops in France and while Terriss formally retired in 1917 she made occasional appearances after that, sometimes, as Hicks ventured into Hollywood, in movies directed by her husband and later, in the twenties and thirties, by her younger brother Tom Terriss.

When Hicks was knighted in 1934, Terriss became Lady Ellaline Hicks. He died in 1949, while she enjoyed a quiet retirement, passing away in 1971 at the age of 99.

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