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.