Friday, October 29, 2010

Master Betty, A early 19th century teen idol

William Henry West Betty by John Opie oil on canvas, 1804

Master Betty born William Henry West Betty (13 September 1791, Shrewsbury – 24 August 1874, London) was by far the most popular child actor of the nineteenth century, billed as the "Young Roscius" (reference to the first century B.C. Roman actor), for his performances in adult roles like Hamlet, Romeo, Rolla in Pizarro and Norval in Douglas for two seasons from 1804 to 1806 at Covent Garden Theatre. It is said that in three hours of study he committed the part of Hamlet to memory. Born to a financially comfortable family in Shrewsbury, England, Betty delivered dramatic recitations and displayed a strong impressive, retentive memory as a small child. After seeing his first play, Pizarro, starring Sarah Siddons as Elvira, he announced to his parents that he wanted to be an actor.

William Henry West Betty as Norval Douglas and Harriet Litchfield (nee Hay) as Lady Randolph in a scene from "Douglas"  Date 1806

Mr. Hough of Belfast became the boys tutor and manager. Mr Hough's was like a English P.T. Barnum In promoting Master Betty in city's before the boys arrival, causing hysteria . In August 1803, the prodigy made his public debut in Belfast as Osman in Voltaire’s Zaire. Reports indicate that he delivered the lines without error. Undertaking the roles of Young Norval and Romeo, he performed in Dublin, Glasgow, and Edinburgh to rave reviews. Betty’s tour was wildly successful. The hype by press, word of mouth, and strategic notices, preceded the boy actor into English Histery. After numerous highly-touted performances in Birmingham and other locations, William Betty entered London.

Betty, William Henry West - Kippen

On December 1, 1804, the day of his London debut, crowds gathered outside Covent Garden Theatre early in the day, and by mid-afternoon, guards were called in and stationed outside to control the strong throng.

Betty, was greeted by thunderous applause, He portrayed Selim in Browne's Barbarossa, an imitation of Voltaire’s Merope, during that first evening. Some audience members fainted, perhaps because of the overcrowded conditions. Critics competed for superlatives in their reviews and described his premiere as a “remarkable epoch”. Some said that the boy was Garrick returned, while others suggested that he might have excelled Kemble.

William Henry West Betty watercolor on ivory 1806

Violence erupted among excited patrons on the second night of Betty’s appearances at Covent Garden. People were injured and considerable damage was done to the property. The “young Roscius” played to an orderly, very large audience at Drury Lane Theatre December 10, but the masses waiting to enter on the 11th broke many of the theatre’s windows. His popularity was so great that famous adult stars like John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons went into a brief retirement rather than compete with him and Pitt upon one occasion adjourning the House of Commons that members might be in time for his performance.

The Young Roscius and Don John on the Theatrical Pegasus.

The boy was favored among the English elite. George III himself presenting him to the queen, and he was invited to dine with royalty, and besieged by crowds at his hotel. Famous Artists of the day captured his likeness on canvas, and medals, and various memorabilia appeared in shops.  Two large portraits of him hung in the Royal Academy's 1805 exhibition. One of the tributes is British Historical Medal #558: "The Young Roscius" "Not Yet Mature Yet Matchless". A source of the period recalls how after each performance groups of male fans used to watch admiringly as Master Betty's farther rubbed oil into the boys naked body.

William Henry West Betty as Young Norval in 'Douglas' by James Heath, after John Opie line engraving, published 1807

When he fell sick of exhaustion, Betty was subject of great concern. Daily bulletins describing his condition (customarily the privilege of royalty) were issued to the worried public.

Pug. A Favorite Dog of Master W.m H.y West-Betty. Dedicated to the Friends of the Young Roscius by their much obliged humble Servant, H.ry Barnard Chalon.


The public frenzy created frustration and embarrassment for established performers who received hisses and/or little notice. Sarah Siddons and her brothers John and Charles were among those treated shabbily by the William Betty admirers. Mrs. Inchbald wrote that the multitude's rage for the young actor was so strong that even a new Shakespeare play would not be able to contend with it.

The Actor William Henry West Betty 1791-1874, a painting by Andrew Geddes.


Audiences soon tired of the novelty and returned to welcome and enjoy their great actors and actresses. By 1806, William Betty did not draw large enough audiences to earn money for the theatres. His performance of Richard III was a complete failure. he was hissed off the stage.

Engraving of William Henry West Betty by James Northcote, R.A.

After he left the London stage and successfully toured the provinces, Master Betty entered Christ’s College, Cambridge. Later, unsatisfied with retirement on the fortune he gained as a youth, he unsuccessfully attempted to renew his acting career. His unsuccessful attempt to return to the stage led him to attempted suicide at the age of 30. Following his 1824 complete retirement from the stage, Betty was involved in a variety of charitable organizations, and lived to age 83 and died on Ampthill Square, London. His son Henry Thomas Betty (1819–1897) was also an actor.

The Young Roscius, Aged 13. Willm. Henry West Betty, Born at Shrewsbury. September 15, 1791. ca 1803

Master Betty, the celebrity phenomenon, earned a unheard of 100 pounds each night while the average working men were fortunate to receive 1 pound per week. The question about William Henry West Betty remains. Was he the most talented actor of his time, or was Betty mania simply the result of super hype?

William Henry West Betty as Hamlet by James Heath, after James Northcote line engraving, published 1806


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