Quest for Missing Ellen Terry Letters By John H.B. Irving

The drive from Ansford to Ottery St Mary takes about an hour.  Lord Coleridge’s letter stipulated that I was expected at 9.30am. 

To the left of the church a narrow lane between high walls led under a brick archway to the first view of Chanters House. The building was four stories high and brick built. .  The lane ended at a five-barred gate. At one side a notice asked you to press a large brass bell button. A large shaggy sheepdog in the courtyard  bounded towards me with echoing barks.

Moments later the front door opened and a tall man in jeans and a sweater came towards me. He smiled, I said ‘Lord Coleridge?’, he smiled again. .  We approached the entrance with Coleridge attempting to calm the dog.   He was a tall good-looking man in his early sixties of a military bearing and a pleasant manner.  He conducted me into a vast and chilly formal library.  Would I please excuse him. His brother would come and look after me. He disappeared into the gloom of  a darkly panelled corridor.

The library was about one hundred feet long and forty wide;  the ceiling  fory feet  above me. There were four bays jutting out into the room from each side. They were lined with bookshelves rising two thirds of the total height.  Every shelf was filled with leather-bound volumes in serried series. Each bay end was crowned with black ornamental woodwork capped with a yellowing portrait bust heavy with accumulated dust .    I heard muffled footsteps.  A shorter man in his socks appeared and introduced himself as ‘Bill’s brother Sam’. He was holding my letters in which I had written asking permission to search the library and a lumber room for the fourteen bound volumes of letters written by Ellen Terry to a Coleridge family member between 1879 and 1928, the year of Ellen Terry’s death.  The recipient was Stephen Coleridge and no one has seen these volumes since his death in 1936.

The acquisition and development of Chanters House was carried out by John Duke Coleridge, the first Lord Coleridge. Born in 1822, he became  a lawyer whose career led him into politics. In 1865 he was elected as MP for Exeter. He rose to eminence in both his professions and  was appointed to the post of Lord Chief Justice in the cabinet of William Gladstone.  In 1874 he was created Baron Coleridge of Ottery St Mary. He had married in 1846 Jane Fortescue Seymour, a talented painter. They had three sons and a daughter. Their second son was Stephen Coleridge, the young man whose good looks caught the eye of Ellen Terry and began the fifty years of intimate correspondence which Stephen stated were contained within the fourteen bound volumes. He wrote several books and in one of them, titled ‘Memories’, he announced that such ‘intimate’ items were to be passed on intact to his family.

My search started by contacting Stephen’s descendants alive today. None had heard of these letters and I was advised to contact the present Lord Coleridge. Hence my visit to Chanters House.

Sam Coleridge explained that he was in his socks since he had been outside in the garden that morning and his shoes were muddy. We sat either side of a large desk set between two library bays. I explained why I was interested in the missing letters. He accepted the validity of my quest and in a military manner looked at his watch and announced that he could assist me in my search for a period of three hours. We talked about Stephen Coleridge. He told me that Stephen was a minor character in the history of his family.  In the house were two portraits of him painted by his mother and some of his books were on the library shelves. 

We then decided to take a first look at the lumber room. He led me up a series of staircases to the third floor.  On the third landing a door opened into an narrow ante-room with walls lined with large storage cupboards. Beyond was the doorway into a further room. This was indeed filled with lumber.  Furniture, black tin boxes, suitcases and cabinets formed chaotic piles, which seemed to have grown spontaneously over the last one hundred and fifty years. After a brief perusal we returned downstairs to the library.

I asked about the cataloguing system.  He led me over to some card index files. He told me that the books had been listed twice;  the first time in 1910 and again in 1950. There were two indices, one under book titles and the other under authors.  From the author side he found about six cards for Stephen Coleridge. This represented only a small part of his total output. We moved to Bay 18 and I spotted Stephen’s ‘Memories’ which he published in 1908. I had found this book in a Glastonbury book store. I climbed up the library step ladder and brought the volume down.

At fourteen he was sent to the public school Bradfield. This seems to have rankled since his father, grandfather and elder brother were all educated in the more prestigious Eton. However things got better afterwards. His university course was at Trinity College, Cambridge where he graduated in 1878. . At this time his mother painted his portrait which now hangs on a wall at Chanter’s House. He was a rather beautiful young man. A copy of this painting appears in ‘Memories’.  This was also the time when Stephen caught the attention of Ellen Terry. The following year he set off on a voyage round the world. Ellen wrote to him;

‘Pretty boy, I’m very happy even without you. Still you see you are in my thoughts, or how should I be talking to you in pencil at this moment … little dear, take care of yourself. Think how dear you are to very many  and if the knowledge will only make you more prudent know that you are a dear in a guise to ‘Livie’ too.’  

‘Livie’ was one of Ellen’s nicknames. It was derived from her part of ‘Olivia’ in a dramatised adaptation of ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’, first produced in 1878.

As their friendship developed her marriage with Charles Kelly (Wardell) fell apart. She needed help with Ted, her seven-year-old son Edward Gordon Craig by the architect Edward Godwin.  She turned to Stephen. He became Ted’s nominal guardian. He tried to fulfil this role but in doing so won the enduring hatred of his difficult charge. In his book ‘Index to the Story of my Days’ Craig describes how Stephen was called in when Ted, aged forteen, was expelled from his first school, Southville Park. He had heard a dirty comic rhyme and was passing it on by letter to his sister, Edy. Total pupil censorship was in place and the headmaster saw the letter and decreed Ted’s expulsion. Ellen was horrified and called in Stephen. This is Ted’s later account.

My guardian was a  tight-lipped piece of leather.  He used to advise my mother about stocks and shares and losts much of her money. He did this while confusing his and her minds with a lot of talk about poetry. (Ted was summoned to Stephen’s house)  I was met by the guardian and taken inside the house and up into his bedroom. He produced the letter with the verse in low  language and a birch.  He implored me to remove my breeches, which I did most unwillingly; he then begged me to kneel down as though saying my prayers at his bedside; and then gave me one,  two,  three big switches of the birch, and three more.’

Later Ted was sent to Bradfield School, no doubt on Stephen’s recommendation, where  he must himself have experienced further corporal punishment delivered with a cane.

Sam Coleridge said that he knew very little about Stephen’s life. . The next hour we spent combing the library shelves , but without success. There was an upper gallery on the north side served by a narrow staircase. This was our last section to search. From below it looked as though the shelves contained more miscellaneous items. Many of these turned out to be bound volumes of the magazine ’Country Life’. No luck.

We spent the final two hours of my allotted time in the lumber room. This involved quite a lot of manual labour – moving heavy boxes set on top of large black tin trunks. Other containers lurked beneath heavy rejected items of Victorian furniture. Several trunks were stuffed with bundled documents which once belonged to the first Lord Coleridge – legal letters, family letters etc. Other trunks were easier to move. A lifted lid would display folded naval or army uniforms. Sam would speculate on which of his ancestors had once worn them. It seems that many intervening Coleridges had chosen military careers. Nowhere could we find anything connected with Stephen’s branch of the family.

My time was up. Lord Coleridge joined us. He had with him a recent edition of the Coleridge family tree.  We spread it out on a table. Since the first Baron they had multiplied greatly. Sam had told me that they had been fortunate in both the twentieth century world wars. Few Coleridges had been killed, though many had served their country. I traced Stephen’s branch and my hosts advised whom next I might usefully approach in my continuing quest. I thanked them both for all their help and Sam saw me to my car. The sheepdog barked again and the gate was closed behind me.

The following week I went up to London  to get a copy of Stephen’s will to see if the disposal of his effects might lead me somewhere. I also wanted to find a copy of his 1928 book ‘The Heart of Ellen Terry’ which her biographer Roger Manvell had stated contained the only published set of letters from the missing collection. There were only twenty five, but it seemed worth the effort to see them.

Stephen’s will was a surprise. It is a single hand-written sheet of paper.

This is my last will and testament of me Stephen Coleridge of The Ford, Chobham, Surrey.

I give and bequeath all my property real and personal, not the subject of trust, to my wife Susan Coleridge.  I appoint my brother in law Ralegh Phillpotts executor of this my will dated this 29th of July 1921.

The will is witnessed by Mary M Stewart and Ella F Chapman. At one side is the signature of Ralegh Phillpotts and underneath comes the signature which looks like ‘William Astaire, a Commissioner of Oaths’.  Susan was Stephen’s second wife. His first wife was an heiress, Geraldine Lushington, niece of the 1st Earl of Iddesleigh. They had three sons, of whom the eldest was badly wounded during the First World War.  Geraldine had died in 1910 and Stephen married Susan in 1911. There were no children from the second marriage. The strange thing about this will is that there is no mention of the three sons from the first marriage. Perhaps the ‘trust’ element was for them, but this is not stated. The mystery of  the missing fourteen bound volumes remained unsolved

Next day I went to the new British Library next to St Pancras station and ordered. ‘The Heart of Ellen Terry’. It was a slim volume of about sixty pages, tastefully produced with  a framed Ellen Terry letter extract on the right hand side of each double page. The rest of the space carried notes and comments.  The title page carried merely the title’s five words with the publisher’s name at the bottom – Mills & Boon.  That in itself was a surprise, but much more odd was the total absence of any mention of the name ‘Stephen Coleridge’.  There was an initial introduction told in the first person singular. The work ended with a personal epilogue. Both were anonymous.

The extracts from letters were dated and spanned the whole forty nine years during which the correspondence lasted. The introduction mentioned that the twenty five letters included came from ‘hundreds’. There was one dated 16th July 1883.  This interested me since it was just a week or two after the fiasco when the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, had inadvertently offered Henry Irving a knighthood only later to find that this offer had been vetoed by his aristocratic cabinet on the grounds that Irving had left his wife and had a questionable relationship with his leading lady. The solution to this problem was put in the hands of the Lord Chief Justice, who happened to be none other than Stephen’s father, Lord Coleridge. Stephen at the time was just back from his world tour and filling in the time as an assistant to his father. It fell to him to propose to Irving that, if he pretended that the offer was unacceptable to him, everybody else would  be taken off the hook. That, in fact, is what happened and all relevant government documents and Stephen’s own personal diary were altered to support the ‘refusal’ scenario. All, that is, except one. This was the diary of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Edward Walter Hamilton . The diary was first published  in 1972. Three years ago the relevant entries were spotted by Professor John Pick. He wrote a paper on the whole affair and sent a copy to me. Hamilton wrote on June 27th 1883, ‘ …The idea of knighthood for Irving abandoned. Lord Granville and others threw cold water on it.’

A few nights later Henry Irving was the chief guest at a formal dinner chaired by Lord Coleridge. The dinner was a celebration of Irving’s Lyceum company’s impending departure on their first tour of the United States. The speeches were fulsome. Stephen’s diary describes the occasion.   ‘Ellen Terry was in the gallery. In his speech my father spoke of her genius as having not a little helped Henry to his present success and at her name there was an outburst of cheering.  Henry’s reply was short, quite simple, and from the heart.’       What  was really  going on in those two performers’ hearts?

Ellen’s July 16th letter to Stephen quoted in ‘The Heart of Ellen Terry’ is as follows;

I pray you not to blame Mr ——-. Really ‘twas my fault since he understood and naturally expected I  should write.

Why my dear friend, I require such very hard hits to be hurt by any outside the wee circle of  folk I love. Its only when my perfect faith in that small ring is shaken that I can suffer. That  would go nigh to kill me, so dont you, or a few others I know, try experiments…..  Your loving dead-beat  Nell.

The only other clue we have to this strange episode comes in a letter written by Edward Gordon Craig to my father on 20th June 1949 from his home in Southern France.

‘Grafton Street  and I wish you would look for any letter of his (maybe of hers) of that date or Dear Laurence,  I have a very strange letter (HI to ET) dated 18th June 1883 from  around it – close – and see if any event of the 17th or 18th or 19th strikes you as – I dont know what – but a bit inexplicable ..
and tragic.  

My father found no relevant letters and the matter remained a mystery to him.

Stephen’s anonymous epilogue to ‘The Heart of Ellen Terry’ ends with this paragraph.

The trials and sorrows of her youth are no concern of the public and will not, I  trust,  be exposed to the insatiable curiosity of the vulgar.  The dignified reserve, gentleness and kindliness shown in these letters … should close the door against further intrusion.

This was written in 1928. Stephen died eight years later. The questions are – did he pass the fourteen bound volumes on intact to his family?  Or did he, for some strange personal reason, decide to destroy them?

At Ottery St Mary Lord Coleridge had shown me the large family tree.  Tracing the Stephen Coleridge line I had spotted a great grand daughter Geraldine Coleridge. Her name I had seen already as Gill Coleridge, a partner in a London literary agency.  I wrote to her and we had an interesting telephone conversation. She had been unaware of Stephen’s correspondence with Ellen Terry, but was immediately intrigued. Later she gave me the name of her cousin Paul Coleridge, who had recently been appointed a High Court judge. She also refered to his mother who lived in London. I rang her number and left a message on her answering machine. A few days later she returned my call. She told me that she and her son had discovered a quantity of bound volumes of letters put together by Stephen Coleridge, which had come back to London following the recent death of her husband in Majorca. Her son now had the volumes and he would be getting in touch with me.

Paul Coleridge was undertaking his new duties in the North of England. We spoke on the telephone and he told me that he and his family were to spend the Easter break at their house in Dorset. He would bring down the volumes. We could then look at them and discuss their future.

The house is quite near my Somerset home. I drove over there with mounting excitement. Paul was most welcoming. Together we perused the volumes.  There were twenty three. They varied in size. All were bound in red leather with natural brown edgings. Each was titled in gold lettering. It soon became clear that eleven of the volumes were those mentioned in Stephen’s book ‘Memories’

‘I have eleven volumes of letters from persons distinguished in all walks of life, a few of which I have produced in this book. They include letters from Byron, Coleridge, Nelson, Charles Lamb, Tom Hood, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Newman, Ruskin, Watts, Gladstone, Leighton,  Meredith  and very many others who are still alive.’

I was delighted to see from a brief look at the ‘still alive’  that they included Ellen Terry, Sir Henry Irving,  H.B.Irving and a number of contemporary theatrical persons including Johnson Forbes Robertson, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Pinero, Mrs Patrick Campbell, Henry Labouchère, George Alexander and Pauline Chase.

The other thirteen volumes were a series containing many letters between Coleridge family members and others devoted to Stephen’s particular literary friends.  Paul and I agreed that I could have the whole collection for the month of August, when he would be taking his summer holiday in Dorset. My August, therefore, was devoted to a detailed listing of two hundred and seventy two of these letters which covered the years between 1880 and 1930.  I excluded the family letters from this list, but reading them I was most moved by several volumes of wartime letters from Stephen’s three sons who were all in the armed services. The eldest, Paul,  grandfather of the present Paul, was hit by shrapnel on the Western Front and only just survived. The letters about his condition and subsequent return to health are very moving  and showed a deeply caring side to the father, which had not been apparent in what I had read of him before.

The last of the fourteen letters from Ellen Terry, written on 20th November 1925 with a very shaky hand, goes thus. ‘The 50th year and I do wish I could be with you on a Celebration, but I cant…’

This Fiftieth Year must have marked the half a century of their correspondence together. So ran Stephen’s comment in the margin surrounding that sad little piece of Smallhythe paper. I believe it to be the funeral bell to toll the fiery end of the 14 bound volumes of her letters to him, which he thought right to destroy after her death in 1928.

When I began this letter quest last year I had a telephone conversation with Sir Donald Sinden. He recounted to me something that happened in the 1950s shortly after he and his family bought a cottage in Kent near Smallhythe. As a fitting coda to my ‘Quest’ I drove down there recently and Donald told me the story again.

As to Olive Terry,  she was the daughter of Ellen Terry’s sister Florence.  Before Ellen died in 1928 Olive had come down to Kent to join the ‘coven’ – the ladies who looked after Ellen.   There was Ellen’s daughter Edy Craig,  Christopher St John, known as ‘Kit’ and Claire Atwood, known as ‘Tony’, and they all lived over at Smallhythe near Tenterden.

Edy gave the house to the National Trust in 1938  When Ellen died, Edy had become curator. Then when she died in 1947 Olive took over.  The two old girls were still alive and living in the ‘Priest’s House’ just up the road next to the church. I was fortunate to meet them when they were both around ninety. Clare Atwood was in a nursing home in Ashford and Christopher St John in the hospital at Tenterden.

We moved down here in 1954. We used our cottage for the children’s holidays.  Each time we arrived my first thing was always to dash across to Smallhythe to see Olive. She was always full of wonderful stories about Ellen Terry, whom she called ‘Nell’ –  ‘Nell would have done this or that’. As time passed the two old girls died. The house they had been living in – they allowed no one to come in through the front door. I never went in. So Olive and her husband, Charles Chaplin, had had the job of clearing  the place up. I came round and she told me,  ‘Oh my darling it was absolutely disgusting !  The washing-up had not been done – floors hadn’t been swept.  You know that  shed in the garden – the one with the thatched roof?’   ‘Yes’ I said. ‘Do you know, when we forced open the door it was full of old copies of The Times – floor to ceiling.’ 

‘What did you do?’, I asked.  ‘We had a wonderful bonfire’.  . Then she said  ‘When we got to the bottom of the pile –  right at the bottom on the earth floor – we found an old tin trunk. Quite a large one. And it was all rusted through. My husband said : ‘Come on, lets throw it away’  I said, no we can’t do that, we’ll have a look in it first. He said there wouldn’t be anything in it , not at the bottom of that pile. Nevertheless I thought we ought to have a look.’‘My husband got a hammer and chisel and broke it open’.  Then Olive said, ‘What do you think was it it?  It was full of letters from Ellen Terry to her last two husbands, Wardell and Carew.

About two months later we all came down to the cottage again for the summer holidays. I popped over to Olive and I said,  ‘By the way, those letters you told me about – the ones from Ellen to her husbands – are they over at the Museum?  Can I see them?    Olive replied,  ‘Oh no, darling…. I burnt them. Nell would have wanted me to.’

That opens a terrifying debate. They were love letters, presumedly – from Nell to her last two husbands. Should they have been burned or, alternatively, should they have been preserved for posterity? That is the story of those particular Ellen Terry letters.

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