5. Apr, 2015


As I'm writing this and putting together all the research I've found, there are moments where everything seems to become fragmented and too difficult to manouevre; at those points I have to stop and leave it for a while until I've gathered enough momentum to start again.


Thinking about it though, why should this research, these stories be straightforward and easy to tell? They are the stories of people's lives. They don't follow an easy pattern of a happy childhood, marriage, secure job, peaceful old age and then drifting off into endless sleep. No, these are the lives of feisty, strong men and women who followed a turbulent and precarious profession so why should they be easy to tell? And I want to tell them so I've come to accept that it won't always be easy but it will sometimes be exciting, frustrating and even difficult to believe.  


Recently, I've been attempting to put together an account of the lives of my first cousin three times removed: Kate Hastings Bullen or Miss Kate Hastings as she was known on the stage. She is Fred and Frances' daughter and her aunt was the celebrated Martha Cranmer Oliver who played Black Eyed Susan hundreds of times and once delivered over ninety choruses of it in one evening. There are pictures of her in the National Portrait gallery showing her as dark and striking but there are no pictures that I can find of Kate or her mother. There are playbills and articles in the press. Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, I know that Kate played Desdemona and Ophelia and played a great deal at the Leicester Theatre Royal but I don't know what she looked like. Did she resemble us Bullens or was she more like her mother and aunt, the famous Olivers? It was while looking for a picture of her amongst the endless cartes de visite and publicity photographs of Victorian actors that I found something that left me stunned.


I found a book entitled 'The Invisible Woman,' written by Claire Tomalin who is a fantastic writer and one I have long admired so i was amazed when I found a link telling me that there was a reference to the Bullen acting family in her book. I immediately downloaded it - it was about 12.30 on a Saturday morning and I was just about to go to bed but I had to read it. (I eventually went to sleep at 4a.m. so excited was I by my discoveries and deductions). Her story is that of Ellen Ternan who was the mistress of Charles Dickens between around 1857 and his death in 1870. I had already found one connection with Dickens to the Bullen family which should be enough for anybody when he was revealed as the benefactor to the Elton family after the death of their father, the actor Edward Elton. His son married Louise Emma, my great great aunt, but here was something else - even more incredible.


Ellen Lawless Ternan was the daughter of two actors: Frances Jarman and Thomas Ternan. She had two sisters Fanny and Maria and all three daughters were child actors in the same tradition as my own relatives. In fact it's virtually certain that they knew my relatives - the question is, how strong is the connection? The book tells the story of Thomas Ternan's decision to establish a theatrical company in Newcastle in 1839. In the company was Mr. F. Bullen, my 3xgreat grandfather, his wife and at least two of the children, who I believe to be Louise and Fred junior. I found this to be absolutely accurate by checking Newcastle papers of the time and I'm going to add this section to Fred and Catherine's story. Again, according to Claire Tomalin, the Bullens and the Ternans had a falling out (apparently Thomas Ternan was irrascible and difficult), resulting in the Bullens' return to the East Anglian circuit. It was amazing to read this but I realised that as far as our links went, things didn't stop there.


Thomas Ternan died in an asylum in 1843, probably as a result of syphillis. His widow and daughters came up to London where they began acting and it was here that my connection was re-established. At this stage, I must say that reading the book was like switching on a light. CT's descriptions of what it meant to be a C19th actress clarified so many issues and answered so many questions about my aunts and cousins' lives. While reading, I remembered seeing the name Ternan in company with the name Oliver on bills and in reviews and sure enough, a little more looking revealed that Martha Oliver had played the lead in a production of Atalanta or The Three Golden Apples in 1857. She also played at The Haymarket with Maria, Ellen's sister and with Ellen under the direction of J.B. Buckstone. According to CT Ellen was uncomfortable in her role in Atalanta as she had to wear tights - a difficult proposition for Victorian actresses who were only too aware of the consequences of displaying their bodies in public while at the same time as playing the roles that were asked of them as well as they could.


Ellen had met Dickens in 1857 when she acted in a play he had written. She appeared in it in Manchester with her mother and sisters. It was entitled, 'The Frozen Deep,' Dickens had been recommended the family for the role and he quickly became deeply smitten with Ellen; in turn as she gradually became more involved with the great novelist, she withdrew from the stage and the last recorded performance I can find for her is at The St. James Theatre with Martha Oliver in a charity production of Planches 'Knights of the Round Table. While Ellen and eventually her sisters Maria and Fanny withdrew from the stage as their lives changed, Martha did not. She carried on acting, becoming a bigger and bigger star, seeming to revel in the theatrical life.

 Martha Cranmer Oliver in The Bonnie Fishwife

There is an interesting part in the book however when CT says that Ellen Ternan did not care for Thackeray who, like Dickens, had a huge interest in the theatre which he visited regularly. CT suggests that Ellen disliked him because his descriptions of actresses were a little too close to the bone. She says that one of his characters, a dancer turned governess ' allowed herself to share the stage with ladies who had allowed themselves to be installed in cottages in Regents' Park by rich men.'  Sound familiar? It stopped me in my tracks when I read it. At one point in my recounting of cousin Kate's early life, I suggested that Martha must have done terribly well as an actor to be able to afford her own well-appointed cottage on ....Regent's Park. It now seems that I may well have to bow to Thackeray's first hand and superior knowledge but if Martha had been installed in her appartment by a rich man then who was he? I think I have to accept that I may never find the answer to this - there is also the possibility that it may not be true and that Martha did obtain her rewards as a result of her theatrical work. At this stage I don't know but I'll keep trying to find out. 


Is that the end of the Dickens' connection then? Well it should be but I can't resist this bit of conjecture. In the 1861 Census, Martha is named as living at Park Cottages but so is Kate; across the park at Ampthill Square is Ellen and her mother and sisters. They acted together and I believe it to be higly likely that they also socialised together and I believe that Kate, then aged 9 or 10 made a connection with 20 year old Ellen and not only that, I believe it lasted because of what follows. Maybe Ellen recognised her younger self in Kate or maybe kate admired someone she could look up tp perhaps as an older sister?


Claire Tomalin writes at some length about how difficult it was for female actors to sustain an independent life, with many looking for the respectability of a wealthy husband. Ellen was unable to marry Dickens but her relationship with him changed her life. In 1876, after over 30 years on stage, it seems that Martha found her guarantee of future wealth and happiness when she married William Charles Phillips who was over 10 years her junior. He came from the New Bond Street auctioneering family, had written a book about porcelain and china with William Harcourt Hooper, a wood engraver who worked with William Morris. Marriage to him meant that she no longer had to follow a gruelling acting routine and as an actress who was growing a little older, allowed her to follow a more leisurely pace of life.

Ellen Ternan c1875

Ellen and her sisters must have known about the marriage; maybe they even attended it on Boxing Day 1876? Who knows? But by this time Dickens was dead and Ellen was no longer constrained by the subterfuge and secrecy associated with being the mistress of the most famous man in England. Indeed, perhaps Martha's decision to marry William was somewhat influenced by Ellen's own marriage to George Wharton Robinson who was also some 10 years her junior. She was married and settled in Margate where she and George opened a school which enjoyed some success.


Linking Ellen's decision to marry with Martha's and vice versa may of course be total speculation but is it possible to regard what followed in the same way? Martha died in 1880. The cause of death was named as breast cancer and from the tone and content of the obituary, William was heartbroken. However, by 1881, he is listed in the Census as still living at Grove End Road, his home with Patty (as he called Martha) but with him is his niece, Katherine along with his mother-in-law. Kate is listed as being 21 (she was 29). Actors were ever thus! If I accept Claire Tomalin's premise that life for a Victorian actress was so tough, that her main aim was to make a new one away from the theatre, then this was Kate's opportunity. Indeed, a couple of years later, she is being referred to as Mrs. Phillips, though I can find no record of a marriage, however was not unusual especially in the Victorian acting, artistic and literary worlds.

In the meanwhile, Ellen Ternan gave birth to a son whom she named Geoffrey shortly after her marriage and he was followed by a daughter, Gladys. In 1884, Kate also gave birth to a son in Margate where Ellen was living. One of the things that has constantly puzzled me throughout all this searching and researching has been this. Why Margate? She didn't seem to know anyone there or did she? Stranger still, she, like Ellen, named her son Geoffrey. In a family with innumerable Henrys, Fredericks and Alfreds why choose Geoffrey? He became Geoffrey W. Phillips while Ellen's son was Geoffrey W. Robinson. Both later dabbled in acting. Both had unsuccessful marriages


Is that a coincidence? It could be I suppose but to me it doesn't feel like one.


Geoffrey's story is still to come.