Terriss, William [real name William Charles James Lewin] (1847–1897), actor
by Richard Foulkes

Terriss, William [real name William Charles James Lewin] (1847–1897), actor, was born on 20 February 1847 at 7 Circus Road, St John's Wood, London, the youngest of the three sons of George Herbert Lewin, a barrister (a connection of Mrs Grote, the wife of the historian of ancient Greece, and a grandson of Thomas Lewin, private secretary to Warren Jenkins), and his wife, Mary, née Friend. He began his formal education at Christ's Hospital in April 1854, and remained there for two years before transferring successively to a school at Littlehampton, Windermere College, and Bruce Castle School, Tottenham, from the last of which he ran away. At the age of sixteen he embarked on a career in the merchant navy, the duration of which, though greatly expanded in his recollections in later life, was only a fortnight. He did, however, retain his uniform, and was thus attired when he arrived aboard a private carriage at Weston-super-Mare Station on the last day of February 1865. The manner of his arrival, combined with his appearance and bearing, resulted in Lewin being mistaken for Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred. Alert to the advantages of the error, Lewin sustained his role until he left the town to the cries of ‘Long live Prince Alfred!’ Brief though they both were, Lewin's experiences at sea and ‘role-playing’ as Prince Alfred prefigured his career as an actor specializing in nautical melodrama.

Lewin, who had been only ten when his father died, swiftly disposed of his small inheritance; his elder brothers set about finding a career for him, and he tried tea planting in Assam, where Thomas Lewin was deputy commissioner of Chittagong, and medicine at St Mary's Hospital, where Friend Lewin was a houseman. Neither career lasted, but at St Mary's he took part in a programme of amateur dramatics held at the Royal Gallery of Illustration in Regent Street (27 April 1867). Encouraged by this experience, he secured engagements in Birmingham, the first—unpaid—as a necessarily acrobatic double for the leading man in Boucicault's Arrah-na-pogue and the second—paid—as Chowser in the same author's The Flying Scud. Now intent on a theatrical career, Lewin—in consultation with his brother Friend and a London street directory—lighted upon Terriss as his stage name and set about securing an engagement with the Bancrofts, opposite whom the Lewins had lived in St John's Wood. Not for the first—or last—time Terriss used his disarmingly frank manner to good effect, and emerged with the part of Lord Cloudwrays in the forthcoming revival of T. W. Robertson's Society at the Prince of Wales Theatre (21 September 1868). The Bancrofts did not retain Terriss's services for the next production (Robertson's School), and the actor took the only offer available to him, at Astley's Amphitheatre, to which his accomplishment as a horseman made him well-suited. It was at Margate that Terriss's prowess as a swimmer so impressed the young Isabel Lewis (d. 1898), who acted under the stage name of Amy Fellowes, that she effected an introduction, as a consequence of which the couple were married, at Holy Trinity Church by Portland Road Station on 15 September 1870. The sparsity of representatives from both families may have been indicative of their lack of enthusiasm for the match, but, undiscouraged, the newly-weds set off for their honeymoon—a bus ride to Richmond.

Before long Terriss took his young bride on a far more ambitious expedition, to the Falkland Islands via Montevideo, which was in a state of revolution. The final leg of the journey to the Falklands was fraught with difficulties (a water-logged vessel, 200 miles off course, without operational pumps) and might have ended in disaster but for Terriss's remarkable powers of leadership in a crisis. During a sojourn of only five months in the Falkland Isles, Terriss busied himself with sheep farming, breaking in horses, and building and sailing a raft, and became a father—to a daughter, , who began her long life at the Ship Hotel, Stanley, on 13 April 1871. The return voyage aboard a whaler was not lacking in incident, with the crew mutinying and electing Terriss as captain.

In the summer of 1871 the Terriss family settled into a house on Barnes Common, which was to be their base for the next twelve years. Terriss resumed his stage career at Drury Lane, where his roles included Silvius in Adelaide Neilson's benefit performance of As You Like It, but the wanderlust reclaimed him, and he took his family to Lexington, Kentucky, where he was involved in a short-lived horse-breeding venture. By the autumn of 1872 the Terriss family was back in Barnes, where Tom was born on 28 September, his father having begun his third assault on the stage a week earlier at Drury Lane as Master Graeme—resplendent in tartan kilt—in Andrew Halliday's The Lady of the Lake, in which Clement Scott commended his natural and manly declamation. Other successes during the 1870s included Doricourt in The Belle's Stratagem (at the Strand Theatre, 29 November 1873, for 250 performances), Captain Molyneux in Boucicault's The Shaughraun (at Drury Lane, 4 September 1875, and the Adelphi, 18 November 1876), and Squire Thornhill in Olivia, W. G. Wills's adaptation of Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (at the Court Theatre, 28 March 1878), with Ellen Terry in the title role.

The connection with Ellen Terry was maintained when Terriss joined Henry Irving's Lyceum company to play M. de Château Renaud in The Corsican Brothers (20 September 1880). During his first engagement Terriss's roles included Sinnatus in Tennyson's The Cup, Cassio, Mercutio, and Don Pedro (in Much Ado about Nothing). At the Lyceum, Terriss, who ranked second only to Ellen Terry, enjoyed a unique relationship with Irving, who would countenance remarks and agree to suggestions ‘to put the lime[light] on me’ (Rowell, 27) which would have been unthinkable from any other actor. Well proportioned, his face blessed with handsomely regular features, gallant of bearing, and forthright, if sometimes uncomprehending, in his delivery of Shakespearian verse, Terriss was the perfect foil and contrast to Irving. In 1883–4 he accompanied Irving on his American tour, but in 1884–5 he remained at the Lyceum Theatre during Mary Anderson's tenure. As Romeo, whom he had already played to the Juliet of both Ellen Wallis (Drury Lane, 1874) and Adelaide Neilson (Haymarket, 1879), Terriss was again the perfect physical embodiment, though judges seeking the soul and the poetry of the young Montague found him wanting. On 27 May 1885 Terriss and Ellen Terry, with Irving now playing Dr Primrose, appeared in a revival of Olivia.

At the end of 1885 Terriss entered into a new phase of his career, when he moved to the Adelphi Theatre to play Lieutenant David Kingsley in Harbour Lights, by G. R. Sims and Henry Pettitt, which enjoyed an uninterrupted run of 513 nights. His performance was hailed as the most perfect impersonation of a British sailor since T. P. Cooke—an achievement which must have been enriched by Terriss's own adventures at sea. There followed a succession of roles—Frank Beresford in The Bells of Haslemere (25 July 1887), Jack Medway in The Union Jack (19 July 1888), and Eric Normanhurst in The Silver Falls (29 December 1888)—in which Terriss could display his personal accomplishments to advantage, sometimes in scenes which paralleled episodes in his own life. In 1889 he toured the United States with Jessie Millward (1861–1932), his leading lady and constant companion since the mid-1880s. Their repertory included Othello and a Shakespeare recital, as well as contemporary works.

After a revival of Harbour Lights at the Adelphi Theatre, Terriss returned to Irving's Lyceum company, where his most important roles were Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing (5 January 1891), the King in Henry VIII (5 January 1892), Edgar in King Lear (10 November 1892), and Henry II in Tennyson's Becket (6 February 1893). During 1893–4, together with Jessie Millward, who had joined the Lyceum company (where she too had served an apprenticeship), he accompanied Irving on a lengthy North American tour.

Terriss and Jessie Millward returned to the Adelphi Theatre on 6 September 1894, when he was the original Gerald Austen in The Fatal Card, by Haddon Chambers and B. C. Stephenson. The English première of The Girl I Left behind Me, by Franklin Fyles and David Belasco, was staged on 13 April 1895, to be followed by One of the Best, by George Edwardes and Terriss's son-in-law, Seymour Hicks, on 21 December 1895. G. B. Shaw, whose review was headed ‘One of the worst’, wrote: ‘Mr Terriss continues to retain his fascination even in tartan trousers; and he rises fully to such heights as there are in the trial scene and the degradation scene’ (Saturday Review, 28 Dec 1895). Shortly afterwards, Shaw wrote The Devil's Disciple as a vehicle for Terriss, who, having dozed during Shaw's reading of his work, dismissed it as unsuited to Miss Millward and himself. Instead, on 23 December 1896 Terriss and Jessie Millward appeared to great acclaim in a revival of Douglas Jerrold's prototypical nautical melodrama Black-Eyed Susan. The Adelphi Theatre then played host to William Gillette's Secret Service, initially with an American company, then with an English cast including Terriss as Lewis Dumont, a northern spy in the Confederate capital of Richmond, and Jessie Millward as a loving and protective, though not completely unsuspicious, southern belle.

Jessie Millward could not protect Terriss from the fate which awaited him at the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre on the evening of 16 December 1897. For some time she had been troubled by nightmares, in particular one in which Terriss was calling out ‘Sis! Sis!’ from a locked room, the door of which she burst open to catch him as he fell. On the ill-fated night Terriss and John Henry Graves left her flat for the theatre where, just before seven o'clock, Terriss was stabbed three times by an out-of-work actor, Richard Archer Prince. Jessie Millward arrived in time to witness the dreadful scene and to hear Terriss's last words: ‘Sis! Sis!’. Terriss's death was as sensational as melodrama; at the ensuing trial, Prince, who had harboured a long-standing sense of grievance against Terriss, was pronounced insane and committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Terriss's death left behind the traditional figure of the bereft heroine, except that in his case there were two: his wife and Jessie Millward. It was Jessie Millward who, in defiance of the custom of the day, whereby women attended funerals only most exceptionally, was present at the funeral service on 21 December at Brompton cemetery, accompanied by Sir Henry Irving. Her wreath was inscribed ‘To my dear comrade’. Mrs Terriss remained at the family home, The Cottage, 2 Bedford Road, Bedford Park. In his death, as in his life, Terriss's loved ones displayed a generosity of spirit to each other. Mrs Terriss did not outlive her husband long, and died the following year; after a period of intense desolation. Jessie Millward resumed her career, and eventually (in 1907) married the Scots actor John Glendinning. Of Terriss's three children, his daughter Ellaline survived her one hundredth birthday on 13 April 1971 by three months.

Terriss was accorded an unusual memorial in the form of a new lifeboat house on the Grand Parade, Eastbourne, built by subscriptions raised by the Daily Telegraph; he also had a theatre at Rotherhithe briefly named after him. On the centenary of his death, a memorial plaque to Terris was unveiled by Sir Donald Sinden at the Adelphi Theatre, where Terriss's ghost is said to haunt the scene of his death. A good-looking and athletic man, gallant in bearing, his performances in Shakespeare were creditable though not outstanding, but in a succession of melodramatic (often nautical) roles he was unsurpassed, the last and probably the finest flowering of a tradition which the theatre was about to cede to the cinema. Whether there would have been a place for Terriss in that new world will remain an unanswerable question.



A. J. Smythe, The life of William Terriss (1898) · G. Rowell, William Terriss and Richard Prince: two characters in an Adelphi melodrama (1987) · J. Millward, Myself and others (1923) · E. Terriss, Just a little bit of string (1955) · S. Hicks, Me and my missus (1939) · C. E. Pascoe, ed., The dramatic list, 2nd edn (1880) · D. Mullin, ed., Victorian actors and actresses in review: a dictionary of contemporary views of representative British and American actors and actresses, 1837–1901 (1983) · G. Rowell, ‘Mercutio as Romeo: William Terriss in Romeo and Juliet’, Shakespeare and the Victorian stage, ed. R. Foulkes (1986) · The Stage (23 Dec 1897) · The Era (18 Dec 1897) · The Era (25 Dec 1897) · The Times (18 Dec 1897) · Era Almanack and Annual · G. B. Shaw, Our theatre in the nineties, 1 (1931) · m. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1898) · DNB


V&A, theatre collections


Barraud, woodburytype photograph, c.1885, NPG; repro. in The Theatre · Bassano, photograph, NPG · A. Beardsley, pen-and-pencil caricature, V&A; repro. in Pall Mall Budget (9 Feb 1893) · Boning & Small, carte-de-visite, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, repro. in Smythe, Life of William Terriss · photographs, repro. in Rowell, William Terriss and Richard Prince · photogravure (as Henry VIII), NPG

Wealth at death  

£18,809 12s. 2d.: resworn probate, Sept 1898, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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William Terriss (1847–1897): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/27144