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Ellaline Terriss & Lena Ashwell – Entertaining Troops On The Front Line: Stories From The Great War Part 12

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  • The actress Ellaline Terriss poses with a broad smile for a photo postcard issued in London, England, 1910. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

Ellaline Terriss

Whilst looking through a selection of British magazines from World War One, I came across a fascinating editorial written by actress and singer Ellaline Terriss (1871-1971). The article (see podcast below) appeared in the December, 1915, issue of Leach’s Lady’s Companion and details her experiences performing to troops on the front line, Christmas, 1914. Another performer who caught my eye, whilst researching this topic, was Lena Ashwell (1872-1957). More about her later on.

Ellaline Terriss was an English actress and singer who had a long career on both stage and screen. Born on 13th April, 1871, to William and Amy Lewin, in Port Stanley, the Falkland Islands. Ellaline’s father tried a number of different occupations, including a merchant seaman, tea planter in Assam, silver miner and sheep farmer. In the 1870s, he returned to Britain with his family and took-up work as an actor using the stage name, ‘William Terriss’.

Unfortunately, William’s acting career was cut short. On 16th December, 1897, he was murdered by a deranged, unemployed actor, Richard Archer Prince who had recently fallen-out with William. The incident took place outside the Adelphi Theatre’s stage door where William was appearing in a play called Secret Service. Richard waited for William in the theatre’s Maiden Lane entrance and stabbed him repeatedly in a fit of jealous rage. William died shortly afterwards from wounds sustained in the attack. Richard was defiant and unrepentant upon arrest:

He has had due warning, and if he is dead, he knew what to expect from me. He prevented me getting money from the [Actors’ Benevolent] Fund today, and I have stopped him!

(December, 1897)

Richard’s trial was a media sensation. Following the verdict, he was sent to Broadmoor Criminal Asylum for life, living out his days entertaining inmates and conducting the prison orchestra. Richard died in 1936. It is thought that because his victim had been an actor, Richard had got-off lightly. If William had been of ‘nobler profession or birth’, he would almost certainly have been hanged. Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) remarked: “Terriss was an actor, so his murderer will not be executed.” The ghost of William Terriss is said to still haunt Covent Garden tube station and the Adelphi theatre.

Ellaline’s mother was an actress (stage name Amy Fellowes). Her younger brother, Tom Terriss (1872-1964), also had a successful career as an actor, screenwriter and film director. Tom worked at Vitagraph Pictures, an American company famous for producing many films during the silent era. Vitagraph was brought by Warner Bros. in 1925. Ellaline herself acted in a number of silent films, Scrooge (1913) and David Garrick (1913). She also managed the transition from silent films to ‘talkies’ with Blighty (1927).

Ellaline made her stage debut, aged sixteen, in Cupid’s Messenger at the Haymarket and henceforth became a regular on the London stage. She worked with some of the top theatre impresarios of the day: Charles Wyndham (1837-1919); Sir Henry Irving; W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911); George Edwardes (1855-1915) and Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917).

In 1893, Ellaline married fellow performer, Seymour Hicks (1871-1949), a partnership which proved to be a strong creative alliance. For Ellaline, 1897, turned into her Annus horribilis. Besides losing her father in the December she also lost a son in infancy and shortly after her father died, her mother passed away.

Ellaline, picked herself up after these personal tragedies and her career continued from strength-to-strength. In 1904, she gave birth to a second child, Betty, a sibling for her daughter Mabel, an Irish girl adopted by Ellaline in 1889. During the Edwardian era, Ellaline was a music hall star, an audience favourite and a bit of a ‘celebrity’. She concentrated on giving music hall tours from 1910.

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  • Ellaline Terriss with her children c.1908. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images) 

During World War One Ellaline continued to perform on the London stage, of particular note is her appearance in the musical comedy, Cash on Delivery, 1917. At the start of the war, she also travelled with her actor husband, Seymour Hicks (1871-1949), to France giving concerts to troops stationed on the front line. Seymour was the first actor to perform on the front line. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his services to entertainment.

National Theatre at the Front. A tent, a roadside, a hospital – anywhere. The price of admission is our gratitude to you.

(Programme header for Ellaline and Seymour’s concert tours along the front line in France, December, 1914)

During World War Two, Ellaline and Seymour joined the newly created Entertainments National Service (E.N.S.A.), entertaining, once again, troops on the front line, this time in the Middle East.

Ellaline Terriss, December 1915.
Ellaline Terriss, December 1915.
  • Listen to Emma, Editor of Come Step Back In Time, read an article by actress and singer, Ellaline Terriss (1871-1971), which featured in the December, 1915, issue of Leach’s Lady’s Companion. In this article, Ellaline reminisces about entertaining troops on the front line in France, December, 1914 with her husband, actor-manager, Seymour Hicks (1871-1949):

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  • Actress Ellaline Terriss with her actor-manager husband, Sir Edward Seymour Hicks, c.1910. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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  • Ellaline Terriss in the role of Duc de Richelieu in ‘The Dashing Little Duke, London, c. 1909. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Silent comedy film featuring Seymour Hicks, Ellaline Terriss and Stanley Logan.
    An Off Moment Of Well Known Folk (1922). Uploaded to You Tube by British Pathe, 13.4.2014.

Lena Ashwell OBE

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  • Lena Ashwell, early 20th century. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Lena Ashwell (born Lena Margaret Pocock 1872-1957) was an actress and theatre manager.  Lena studied music at the Lausanne Conservatoire, Switzerland and subsequently the Royal Academy of Music, London. In 1891, she began acting professionally. Her first job as an actor-manager came in 1906 when she worked at the Savoy theatre.

In 1908, Lena married Royal Obstetrician, Sir Henry Simson (1872-1932) who was actually her second husband. Her first had been Arthur Wyndham Playfair (1869-1918) but he divorced her on grounds of adultery, she had been having an affair with actor Robert Taber (1865-1904). Lena supported the women’s suffrage movement.

When World War One broke-out, Lena fought hard to persuade authorities to allow her to provide entertainment for the troops. In 1915, she finally won support for her plans from the Women’s Auxiliary Committee of the YMCA. The first concert party took place in February, 1915. Companies of singers, musicians and actors were soon being sent to France, Malta, Egypt and Palestine.

In 1917, Lena was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her work. In 1918, there were ten permanent concert parties and seven repertory theatre companies touring and entertaining the troops. Lena recalls her experiences entertaining on the front line in her memoirs Modern Troubadours: A Record of the Concerts at the Front (1922):

I found myself in a tent which seemed in the darkness to be far away from everything and everybody. I stood on a table and recited all the poems that I knew, but wished with all my heart that I had learnt many more, as the audience grew and grew, and they sat silently around like hungry children. It was a quaint, gentle, peaceful evening, and curious that on that night I should have been nearer the firing line than at any other moment…the whole experience was so overwhelming, so moving, so terrible that one’s littleness was stunned and could find expression.

In a crowded hut or tent filled with smoke and packed to suffocation, one felt the hunger of the souls of men, the aching, wondering query in their hearts. Many have found some answer now, and “when the barrage lifts,” perhaps we too shall see, “no longer blinded by our eyes.” But we could find no words or tongue to express the suffering of our hearts, the aching sympathy, to see great battalions moving up to the line, and welcome a few men back, to have a concert interrupted with the sudden roll-call of the men who were to join their regiments at once, to see the men respond to their names and go out and up the line, to hear a whole massed audience singing as their last experience before going up to the blood and horror, “Lead, kindly light”; these are not experiences which can be described, they cut too deep into the soul.

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  • Lena Ashwell, actress, c.1900. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

The Concert Party

by Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

(Written in Kantara, April, 1918, based on a Concert Party at an Egyptian Base Camp, 1914, attended by Siegfried Sassoon, given by Lena Ashwell and her Concert Party)

They are gathering round …

Out of the twilight; over the grey-blue sand,

Shoals of low-jargoning men drift inward to the sound,—

The jangle and throb of a piano … tum-ti-tum …

Drawn by a lamp, they come

Out of the glimmering lines of their tents, over the shuffling sand.

O sing us the songs, the songs of our own land,

You warbling ladies in white.

Dimness conceals the hunger in our faces,

This wall of faces risen out of the night,

These eyes that keep their memories of the places

So long beyond their sight.

Jaded and gay, the ladies sing; and the chap in brown

Tilts his grey hat; jaunty and lean and pale,

He rattles the keys … some actor-bloke from town …

I hear you catting me”; and “Dixieland” …

Sing slowly … now the chorus … one by one

We hear them, drink them; till the concert’s done.

Silent, I watch the shadowy mass of soldiers stand.

Silent, they drift away, over the glimmering sand.

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  • Lena Ashwell, c.1904.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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