The Ellen Terry Collection

Scope and Content

This collection consists of correspondence written by Ellen Terry, including letters to her daughter Edith Craig and to her third husband James Carew. There is further correspondence with letters addressed to Ellen Terry from her son Edward Gordon Craig and Henry Irving, as well as others. The collection also holds correspondence between other individuals including letters between Edith Craig and George Bernard Shaw and letters relating to the wider Terry family.

Furthermore the collection contains material relating to Ellen Terry's acting career including photographs of her in her stage roles, and press cuttings relating to productions she starred in. The collection also contains autobiographical and legacy material, as well as a selection of Ellen Terry's personal belongings. The careers and lifes of Edith Craig, Edward Gordon Craig, James Carew, and Henry Irving are also represented in the collection.

Other material relating to Ellen Terry in the collection include information on her home Smallhythe Place and documents and photographs relating to the Terry family.

Administrative / Biographical History

Ellen Terry was born on 27th February 1847  in Coventry, where her parents were staying in theatre lodgings. The Terry family were strolling players  who travelled to theatres across Great Britain to perform. Ellen Terry and her eight brothers and sisters grew up in the theatre, and seven Terry children went on to have careers related to the theatre.

Ellen Terry made her stage debut in 1856  as Mamillius in The Winter's Tale. She regularly appeared on the stage as a child and teenager, although at this point her older sister Kate (1844-1924) was considered the better actress. In 1862  Ellen Terry met the painter George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) who painted a series of pictures of her and Kate Terry. When Ellen Terry was 16 she left the stage midway through the run of Our American Cousin and married the 46-year old Watts on 20 February 1864 . The marriage did not last and they separated after just 10 months.

Ellen Terry returned to the stage in 1866  and a year later first acted with Henry Irving (1838-1905) when they were cast as the lead roles in Katherine and Petruchio. Her return to the theatre was brief however, since she began a relationship in 1868  with the architect  and designer Edward Godwin (1833-1886), and moved to Hertfordshire to live with him. For a period her parents did not know what had become of her and she only revealed her whereabouts when the body of a young woman was mistakenly identified as her and her parents believed her dead. Since Ellen Terry was still married to Watts she could not marry Godwin, and their children Edith Craig (1869-1947) and Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) were illegitimate.

With mounting financial difficulties Ellen Terry accepted an offer to return to the stage in 1874  to play Philippa Chester in The Wandering Heir. Her return to the theatre coincided with the breakdown of her relationship with Godwin, and they separated in 1875 . That same year Ellen Terry played Portia in The Merchant of Venice, a role which proved hugely successful for her. Watts divorced Ellen Terry in 1877  and she soon married a fellow Charles Wardell actor  (1839-1885), largely to ensure respectability for her children.

In 1878  she gained further success in the title role of Olivia, and later that year was invited to join Henry Irving's company at the Lyceum Theatre as its leading lady. Her first role at the Lyceum was Ophelia to Irving's Hamlet. Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were soon regarded as the leading Shakespearean actors in Great Britain and they achieved huge success in both Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare plays. In 1888  she gained excellent reviews for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. The Lyceum Company toured extensively in both the UK and America to capacity audiences.

The exact nature of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving's relationship is uncertain. Ellen Terry separated from Charles Wardell in 1881 , although they stayed married until his death in 1885 , and Henry Irving was long separated from his wife. Irving had a strong bond with both Ellen Terry's children and they regularly travelled together. It is likely that Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were romantically involved for a time but had to conceal this due to the damage it would have caused their careers if knowledge of it became known.

Ellen Terry was an avid correspondent, writing several letters a day to family and friends. She began corresponding with George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) in the 1890s , exchanging hundreds of letters with him over the rest of her life. This correspondence was published after her death.

Ellen Terry's partnership at the Lyceum with Henry Irving came to an end in 1901 , although they remained good friends until his death in 1905 . She continued to act, playing Mistress Page in Merry Wives of Windsor in 1902  and Hirodis in The Vikings in 1903 , amongst other roles. She celebrated her stage jubilee in 1906  when she played Lady Cecily Waynflete in Captain Brassbound's Conversion. Whilst on tour in America in 1907  she married the American actor James Carew (1876-1938), 30 years her junior. This marriage reached an end by 1910 , although they stayed friends.

In her later years Ellen Terry gave a series of lecture tours on Shakespeare heroines, travelling to America in 1910  and Australia in 1914 . She was in Australia when the First World War broke out and had to rearrange her travel plans in order to get back to Great Britain safely. Consequently she travelled via America where she had to have an operation on her eyes. In 1925  she was made a Dame of the British Empire.

She suffered from poor eyesight as she got older, as well as other ailments and spent most of her time in Smallhythe Place, the cottage in Kent she had bought in 1900 , with her daughter Edith Craig living close by. Ellen Terry died at Smallhythe Place on 21st July 1928 .

Ellen Terry's daughter Edith Craig had a successful career as a theatre director , producer , costume designer  and established her own theatre company The Pioneer Players which was active from 1911  to 1921 . She also acted on stage during her youth and was a suffragette. From 1899  until her death she lived with her close friend Christopher St John (1871-1960), and they were joined in 1916  by Clare Atwood (1866-1962). After her mother's death Edith Craig became involved in the publication of several books concerning Ellen Terry's life, including the volume of correspondence between Ellen Terry and George Bernard Shaw. She opened Ellen Terry's home Smallhythe Place to the public and bequeathed it to The National Trust as a memorial to her mother.

Edward Gordon Craig worked as an actor  and director  but became successful as an influential theatre scenic designer . He spent most of his adult life living in continental Europe. He had an extremely complex personal life, having several children by different women.


The original order of this archive had been lost, therefore it has been arranged into a order that would be of the most use to researchers. The archive has been separated into 48 series:

  • THM/384/1-Correspondence from Ellen Terry to Edith Craig
  • THM/384/2-Correspondence from Ellen Terry to James Carew
  • THM/384/3-Correspondence from Ellen Terry to her family and friends
  • THM/384/4-Correspondence from Edith Craig
  • THM/384/5-Correspondence from Edward Gordon Craig
  • THM/384/6-Correspondence from Henry Irving to Ellen Terry
  • THM/384/7-Correspondence to Ellen Terry from various individuals
  • THM/384/8-Correspondence to Edith Craig from various individuals
  • THM/384/9-Correspondence between Edith Craig, Christopher St John, George Bernard Shaw, and Charlotte Bernard Shaw
  • THM/384/10-Correspondence from George Bernard Shaw to various individuals
  • THM/384/11-Correspondence relating to members of the Terry family
  • THM/384/12-Other correspondence
  • THM/384/13-Material relating to Ellen Terry's life and career
  • THM/384/14-Material relating to Edith Craig's life and career
  • THM/384/15-Material relating to Edward Gordon Craig's life and career
  • THM/384/16-Material relating to James Carew's life
  • THM/384/17-Material relating to Henry Irving's life and career
  • THM/384/18-Material relating to George Bernard Shaw's life and career
  • THM/384/19-Material relating to Clare Atwood and Christopher St John
  • THM/384/20-Belongings of Ellen Terry
  • THM/384/21-Photographs of Ellen Terry relating to her stage career
  • THM/384/22-Photographs of Ellen Terry relating to her personal life
  • THM/384/23-Photographs of Edith Craig
  • THM/384/24-Photographs of Edward Gordon Craig
  • THM/384/25-Photographs of Henry Irving
  • THM/384/26-Photgraphs of the extended Terry family
  • THM/384/27-Photographs of friends and other individuals
  • THM/384/28-Photographs of Smallhythe Place
  • THM/384/29-Photographs of places
  • THM/384/30-Negatives
  • THM/384/31-Prints, drawings and illustrations
  • THM/384/32-Press cuttings relating to Ellen Terry
  • THM/384/33-Press cuttings relating to Edith Craig
  • THM/384/34-Press cuttings relating to Edward Gordon Craig
  • THM/384/35-Press cuttings relating to Henry Irving
  • THM/384/36-Press cuttings relating to the Terry family
  • THM/384/37-Other press cuttings
  • THM/384/38-Ellen Terry autobiographical, biography and legacy material
  • THM/384/39-Henry Irving biography and legacy material
  • THM/384/40-Information regarding the publication of Ellen Terry and George Bernard Shaw, A Correspondence
  • THM/384/41-Terry family history documents
  • THM/384/42-Information relating to Smallhythe Place
  • THM/384/43-Music sheets
  • THM/384/44-Materials relating to the Lyceum Theatre
  • THM/384/43-Essays and criticisms relating to plays and productions
  • THM/384/46-Loose diary and budgeting sheets
  • THM/384/47-Papers relating to previous attempts to organise the collection
  • THM/384/48-Unrelated and unidentified material

Access Information

This archive collection is available for consultation in the V&A Blythe House Archive and Library Study Room by appointment only. Full details of access arrangements may be found here:

Access to some of the material may be restricted. These are noted in the catalogue where relevant.

Acquisition Information

This collection was purchased by the V&A's Department of Theatre & Performance in 2010 from a vendor who wishes to remain anonymous.

Archivist's Note

Biographical infromation on Ellen Terry's extended family has been provided at file level.

Conditions Governing Use

Information on copying and commercial reproduction may be found here:

Custodial History

This collection had been in the custody of Ellen Terry's family until its purchase.

Related Material

The following files and archive collections relating to Ellen Terry are also held by the V&A's Department of Theatre & Performance:

V&A Department of Theatre & Performance Biographical File: Ellen Terry

V&A Department of Theatre & Performance Production File: Lyceum Theatre

Godwin Collection (THM/3)

Edward Gordon Craig Collection (THM/60)

Edward Gordon Craig/Lindsay Newman Archive (THM/356)

Sir Henry Irving Speeches (THM/206)

Sir Henry Irving Knighthood Memorial Volume (THM/208)

Sir Henry Irving - Bodleian Library Papers (THM/210)

Laurence Irving Archive (THM/37)

Laurence Irving Archive (THM/39)

The following repositories hold material relating to Ellen Terry:

British Library

Smallhythe Place

Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Selected Publications

Cockin, Katharine. The Collected Letters of Ellen Terry, Volume 1. Pickering and Chatto, 2010, 288p.

Craig, Edith and St. John, Christopher. Ellen Terry's Memoirs. London Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1933, 359p.

Holroyd, Michael. A Strange Eventful History. London Vintage Books, 2008, 620p., ill.

Melville, Joy. Ellen and Edy, a biography of Ellen Terry and her daughter, Edith Craig, 1847-1947. Pandora Press, 1987, 293p., ill.

Melville, Joy. Ellen Terry. Haus Publishing Limited, 2006, 256p., ill.

St. John, Christopher, ed. Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw A Correspondence. London Max Reinhardt, 1949, 434p.

Family Names