William Terriss (20 February 1847 – 16 December 1897), born as William Charles James Lewin, was an English actor, known for his swashbuckling hero roles, such as Robin Hood. He was also a notable Shakespearian performer and father of the Edwardian musical comedy star Ellaline Terriss and the film director Tom Terriss.
Athletic as a child, Terriss briefly joined the merchant service and tried several professions abroad before returning to London. Adapting the stage name William Terriss, he made his first appearance in the West End at the old Prince of Wales's Theatre as Lord Cloudrays in Tom Robertson's Society in 1871. The same year, he had major success in Robin Hood and Rebecca and quickly established himself as one of Britain's most popular actors. In 1880, he joined Henry Irving's company at the Lyceum Theatre, appearing in Shakespeare plays.
In 1885, he met 24-year-old Jessie Millward, with whom he starred in The Harbour Lights (by G. R. Sims and Henry Pettitt). They became lovers and toured Britain and America together. Terriss played the hero parts in Adelphi melodramas from the late 1880s, among other roles. In 1897, he was stabbed to death by a deranged actor, Richard Archer Prince, outside the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre, where he was appearing. Terriss's ghost is supposed to haunt the Covent Garden tube station and the Adelphi Theatre.
Life and career
Terriss's real name was William Charles James Lewin. He was born in London and educated at Bruce Castle School, Tottenham, where he was a friend of J. Comyns Carr and Frederick Selous. Carr later wrote of Terriss's school days that "if he gained but little learning, he at any rate acquired a perfect mastery in the art of tree-climbing". Terriss then studied at Jesus College, Oxford, without taking a degree. He loved the adventurous, outdoor life. He married Isabel Lewis (stage name Amy Fellowes) in 1870 and had a daughter, Ellaline, who became a very well known actress in Edwardian musical comedy, together with her husband, the actor-manager Seymour Hicks. He also had a son, Tom, who became an actor and then a well-known film director.
After trying the merchant service, silver mining in America, medicine, sheep-farming in the Falkland Islands, and tea-planting in Bengal, he returned to England and took to the stage, adopting the stage-name William Terriss, where his handsome presence, fine voice and gallant bearing made him popular. Because of his swashbuckling style, he became famous in hero parts and was known as "Breezy Bill". His first appearance in London was as Lord Cloudrays in Tom Robertson's Society, in 1871, at the old Prince of Wales's Theatre.
In 1871, also, Terriss had a major success in Robin Hood and in Rebecca, based on Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Over the next few years he established himself as one of Britain's most popular actors. In 1880 he joined Henry Irving's company at the Lyceum Theatre, playing such parts as Cassio in Othello and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and in 1895 he acted there with Mary Anderson, for example, as Romeo to her Juliet. Terriss and Irving became close friends. Terriss also became close with his neighbor, George Bernard Shaw.
In December 1885, Terriss met 24-year-old Jessie Millward, with whom he starred in The Harbour Lights (by G. R. Sims and Henry Pettitt), and the pair established themselves as romantic leads together. They became lovers and toured Britain and America together for some years. Terriss was then engaged to take the hero parts in Adelphi melodramas, such as in The Bells of Haslemere (1887), and it was in this capacity that for the rest of his career he was best known, though he occasionally acted elsewhere, notably with Irving at the Lyceum Theatre. In 1895, Terris starred in a drama called One of the Best, inspired by the famous Dreyfus Trial. Terriss's son-in-law, Seymour Hicks, wrote the piece at the suggestion of the playwright W. S. Gilbert. Terriss's last appearance was in the play Secret Service.
On 16 December 1897, as he was entering the Adelphi Theatre to prepare for the evening's performance of Secret Service, Terriss was stabbed to death by a deranged and disgruntled actor, Richard Archer Prince. He had helped the struggling younger actor to find work in various productions that he had a hand in. However, Prince had, over the years, increasingly abused alcohol and become mentally unstable. During the run of The Harbour Lights, in which Prince had a minor role, Terriss took offence to something that Prince had said about him and had Prince dismissed. Terriss, however, sent small sums of money to Prince, via the Actors' Benevolent Fund, and continued to try to find him acting work. By the end of 1897, Prince was destitute and desperate for work, but he had become unemployable. On 13 December, Prince was forcibly ejected from the foyer of the Vaudeville Theatre, and he and Terriss were seen to argue the next night in Terriss's dressing room in the Adelphi Theatre. On the day of the murder, Prince asked for money at the Fund's office but was told that his request could not be considered that day. Apparently, he crossed the street and waited for Terriss at Terriss's entrance to the Adelphi.
The murder became a sensation in the London press. The trial was not satisfactory, as Prince made the most of his new notoriety. Prince was found guilty but insane and sent to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where he died in 1936. His relatively mild sentence was met with anger by the theatrical community, and Sir Henry Irving was later quoted as saying that "Terriss was an actor, so his murderer will not be executed."
Memorials and references in popular culture
Terriss is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London. A lifeboat house was built in 1898 on Eastbourne seafront in memory of Terriss. It still stands there with a memorial plaque. There is also a plaque on the wall by the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre recording the event of the murder.
A portrait of William Terriss hangs in the stairwell of Denville Hall, the home for retired Actors and Actresses in Northwood, London, England. The home is run by The Actors' Charitable Trust. Henry Irving was the first President of the organization until his death in 1905.
Legend has it that Terriss's ghost haunts the Covent Garden tube station and the Adelphi Theatre. A 2005 Channel 5 documentary in the UK on ghosts on the London Underground reported that a ghost has been seen many times, at the Covent Garden tube station, identified from a photograph as Terriss. This ghost is reported to have been seen many times, though sightings have lessened over the years. A 2008 documentary, Ghosts on the Underground produced by The History Channel, mentions a recent sighting of Terriss at the Covent Garden Underground station.
- Foulkes, Richard. Terriss, William Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed 8 January 2012
- "Terriss, William (William Charles James Lewin)", Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2008, online edn, Oxford University Press, December 2007, accessed 8 January 2012
- J. Comyns Carr, Some eminent Victorians: personal recollections in the world of art and letters (Duckworth & Co., 1908), pp. 3-4
- Smythe, p.29
- The New York Times, 26 April 1884, p. 21
- "Murder of William Terriss", Actors' Benevolent Fund website
- De Young, Jim, John Miller and Nathan Silver. London Theatre Walks, p. 222, New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books; Hal Leonard Corp. (2003) ISBN 1-55783-516-0
- "Obituary, Mr. Robert Courtneidge", The Times, 8 April 1939, p. 14
- Article referring to the Adelphi melodramas and Terriss
- The New York Times, 17 December 1897, p.3
- The New York Times, 9 January 1898, p.16
- Goodman, p. 70.
- Prepolec, Charles. "The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Reviewed". The Singular Society of the Baker Street Dozen, 2002, accessed 31 March 2011
- List of cemetery residents, Brompton Cemetery, accessed 11 January 2012
- City of Westminster green plaques
- Watts, Peter. "City of the Dead", Timeout London, 25 October 2005]
- Ghosts on the Underground, The History Channel, at 43:45 of the video, 5 November 2008
- Goodman, Jonathan. Acts of Murder. Foreword by Richard Briers (London: Harrap Ltd., A Futura Book, 1986), pp. 1–71. ISBN 0-7088-3603-8.
- Rowell, George. William Terriss and Richard Prince: Two Characters in an Adelphi Melodrama (1987; London: Society for Theatre Research) ISBN 0-85430-042-2
- Smythe, Arthur J. The Life of William Terriss, Actor (Westminster: Archibald Constable, 1898). OCLC Number: 253652912
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Information about Archer
- Final Performance, 2009 book about Terriss and his relationship with Jessie Millward
- great great granddaughter with Theatrical archive