Ellen Terry (1847-1928)

Her years in Harpenden - 1868-1874

Ellen Terry, aged c.25

Information drawn from articles by Eric J Labrum in Local History Society Newsletter 19, April 1979; by Margot Strickland in Hertfordshire Countryside no 135, July 1970; by Vivienne Woolfe in Country Life (on Smallhythe Place, Kent); and by Betty Puttick in Hertfordshire Countryside no.102, October 1967 and in 2004.  Also some details from Dictionary of National Biography, 1937 – copies of all in these articles the Local History archives.

The celebrated Victorian actress Alice Ellen Terry, born in Coventry on 27 February 1847, was the third child of the eleven children of Benjamin Terry, actor, and his wife Sarah Ballard, actress.  Three of her sisters, Kate (1844-1924), Marion (1853-1930), Florence (Floss, 1854-1896) and her brother Fred (1863-1933), were all connected with the stage.

Ellen Terry (Mrs G F Watts), aged 17, photographed by Mrs Julia Margaret Cameron in 1865

At the age of 14 Ellen met Edward William Godwin, an architect, who became fascinated with her and designed costumes for some of her early stage appearances.  His views on art made a great impression on the young Ellen: “I began to appreciate beauty, to observe, to feel the splendour of things, to aspire …”.  But Edward was married – his wife was older and in ill health.

Ellen returned to London and became part of an artistic circle of which the pre-Raphaelite painter George Frederick Watts was a leading member.  He found in her his ideal model, and married her at the age of 16 (he was 47).  Among other subjects, he painted her as Ophelia.  But the marriage was not happy and when Edward Godwin reappeared in London, a widower, it was not long before Ellen turned to him for sympathy.

Elopement to Hertfordshire

In 1867 they eloped to Hertfordshire, first to a ‘cottage’, Red House on Gustard Wood Common (though Major R G Clutterbuck maintained that they first lived at 69 High Street, Harpenden, later the home of Captain Arthur Lydekker).  Here Edward Godwin sketched their house and layout of the furniture. James Bettley (The Hertfordshire Pevsner) found Godwin’s drawing in E. W. Godwin: aesthetic movement architect and designer, ed. Susan Weber Soros (Yale University Press, 1999), p 190. The V&A have kindly granted permission to include images from Godwin’s sketchbook, deposited with them by his son.

Edward Godwin’s sketches of The Red House, Gustard Wood Common, with interior layout

James commented: “Godwin was as much a designer of furniture and interiors as he was an architect, so I suppose it is only natural that he should have made such a careful plan of the rooms.”

Edward Godwin sketchbook – Pigeonwick project



At the Red House, Godwin worked on designs for the house they would build at Fallowsgreen – Pigeonwick.

Happy years

Ellen Terry spent some of the happiest years of her life at Pigeonwick in Sun Lane.  Her actress daughter Edith* was born here in 1869 (or more probably at Gustard Wood) and her son Edward Gordon in 1871.  He and Edith later took the name of Craig, Edward becoming an actor-manager and producer of distinction.  He was made a Companion of Honour in 1956.

Design for Pigeonwick by Edward Godwin, 1868, RIBA 12579

Ellen called herself Mrs Godwin, and kept house, 200 ducks and hens, grew vegetables and learned to cook, ‘cultivating a light hand with pastry’.  The children were given absolute freedom and were terribly spoilt – but Ellen and Godwin were so obsessed with the purity of art that the children were not allowed to play with cheap, brightly coloured toys, but only with plain wooden ones (what would they have made of modern plastic toys!).  However it was a lonely life, with Godwin commuting to London and sometimes not returning home when Ellen went to meet him with the pony trap.  Despite his earlier success, he narrowly failed to obtain several important commissions, which meant no fees.  Often Ellen had only three pounds a week to run the house and keep the children.  She tried to earn a little money by doing copies of elaborate architectural drawings for a guinea a set, working late at night by poor light and thereby damaging her eyesight.

Return to London

Pigeonwick, with Gatehouse – Eric Meadows, LHS 208

Pigeonwick, with its three storeys, high-pitched roof and vast studio, proved too expensive to maintain and more and more of its furniture had to be sold.  Driven by creditors, Godwin mortgaged the newly-built house but debts mounted: the bailiffs were due.  Ellen drove out in her pony trap one day, only to lose a wheel in a narrow local lane.  There a chance meeting with a former friend, Charles Reade, a noted playwright, who was passing through Harpenden on a horseback tour, led to her decision to return to the theatre in London in 1874. There she continued to live with Godwin, until a year later he married a young student.  Ellen herself married twice more, but her most meaningful artistic relationship was with the actor Henry Irving from 1878 to 1902.  She died in 1928 at her home, Smallhythe Place, Tenterden, Kent, her home since 1899.  Her daughter Edith turned it into a museum the year after her death and in 1939 handed it over to the National Trust.

The elaborate gatehouse of Pigeonwick was demolished in 1926 – presumably at the time that Fallows Green and the houses at the corner of Sun Lane and Ox Lane were built.  Pigeonwick was demolished in 1964 but the name was retained for the estate developed on the site.

Note: in Newsletter 81, February 2000, John Carpenter wrote:

There are murals by Edward Godwin in the Midland Grand Hotel, perhaps the best-loved of all of George Gilbert Scott’s creations (now restored at St Pancras International station).  The murals, in the romantic tradition of Sir Walter Scott’s novels or Tennyson’s Morte D’Arthur, illustrate the ideals of chivalry: Chastity, Charity, Temperance and so on.  They were originally designed for Godwin’s ill-fated Dromore Castle, Co. Limerick, but were never executed there.

* Edith had the nickname ‘Bally Williams’ and we speculated whether the name may have been mis-spelt and could be associated with where she was ‘nearly’ born. Donald Preece has suggested that it might be because her father’s middle name was William, and Ellen Terry’s mother’s maiden name was Ballard. ed. 


Comments about this page

  • Following the discovery by James Bettley of Edward Godwin’s sketches of The Red House, Gustard Wood Common, reproduced in a book on  E. W. Godwin: aesthetic movement architect and designer, ed. Susan Weber Soros (Yale University Press, 1999). The V&A have kindly given permission for the inclusion of scans from the original sketchbook in their archives. This page has therefore been revised to include these images, which are restricted in size.

    By Rosemary Ross (05/07/2019)

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