Russell Thorndike

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Russell Thorndike
Russell Thorndyke 1925.jpg
Russell Thorndike aged about 40
Born (1885-02-06)6 February 1885
Rochester, Kent, England
Died 7 November 1972(1972-11-07) (aged 87)
London, England
Education King's School, Rochester
St George's School, Windsor Castle
Occupation Actor, novelist
Notable work Doctor Syn novels
Spouse(s) Rosemary Dowson
Relatives Sybil Thorndike (sister)
Christopher Casson (nephew)
Ann Casson (niece)
Military career

World War I

Arthur Russell Thorndike (6 February 1885, Rochester, Kent – 7 November 1972) was a British actor and novelist, best known for the Doctor Syn of Romney Marsh novels. Less well-known than his sister Sybil but equally versatile, Russell Thorndike's first love was writing and, after serving in World War I, he devoted himself to it.


He was born in Rochester, Kent, where his father had recently become a canon at the cathedral. He was a student at the King's School, Rochester and at St George's School, Windsor Castle and a chorister of St George's Chapel, an experience he later recounted in his book Children of the Garter (1937). Thorndike married Rosemary Dowson, a daughter of the well-known actress Rosina Filippi, in 1918.


At his suggestion, both he and Sybil (who once aspired to be a concert pianist) tried acting as a career in 1903. They became students at Ben Greet's Academy and two years later accompanied fellow members of the company on a North American tour, which included New York City. He remained three-and-a-half years with the company, once giving three performances as Hamlet in three different versions of the text on the same day. He also toured in South Africa and Asia.

In 1914 he enlisted. His brother Frank, who once performed on stage, was killed in action. Russell was severely wounded at Gallipoli and discharged. He rejoined Ben Greet's theatre company and his sister at the Old Vic in 1916, where he played in Shakespeare's King John, Richard II, and King Lear. Thorndike also acted with Sybil and her husband, Lewis Casson, in their touring repertory performing melodramas. In 1922 he was applauded for his performance in the first professional production of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt at the Old Vic.

In film, Thorndike's appearances were infrequent. He played Macbeth (1922) in a silent version of the play opposite Sybil's Lady and also played leads in silent versions of other classic plays, including Scrooge (1923) as Old Ebenezer, and The School for Scandal (1923) as Sir Peter Teazle. He ended his film career in minor priest roles for Laurence Olivier in Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955). Although Thorndike appeared on the stage over four decades (including playing his own Dr. Syn character and entertaining audiences as Smee in ten revivals of Peter Pan, including the famous Scala Theatre version where Donald Sinden doubled the roles of Mr Darling and Captain Hook), he felt a deeper fulfilment in writing, which would include the later work The House of Jeffreys.


Published in the Dymchurch Day of Syn programme from 1985 is an apocryphal biography of Thorndike that indicates it was during the period of touring with Ben Greet's theatre company, that Russell and his sister Sybil came up with the idea of Dr Syn. The story goes, both were with the company in Spartanburg when a man was murdered on the street outside their hotel. The article suggests the corpse laid there for some time while "... his glazed eyes seemed to stare right up into Sybil's bedroom". Sybil was unable to sleep, so she asked Russell to sit up with her. She made a pot of tea while they talked, and the character of Dr Syn was born. As the night went on, "They piled horror on horror's head and after each new horror was invented they took another squint at the corpse to encourage them." Around this time he completed his first novel of romantic adventure on Romney Marsh entitled Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh.

Selected filmography[edit]

Selected Writings[edit]

External links[edit]