Clothing and Costumes Worn by Child Actors: William Henry Betty (England, 1791-1874)

Figure 1.-- This dramatic portrait shows Willim Henry Betty. I'm not sure when it was painted, but he looks to be an older teenager, so it was presumably done about the time of his retirement in 1808. The artist was James Northcote, R.A. (1746-1831) as engraved by James Ward (1769-1859).

An English readers mentions a child actor at the turn of the 19th century, William Henry Betty. William was born in Shrewsbury. We have no information about his parents or early childhood. We have no informatin on how William dressed as a boy. The portrait here shows him as an older teen ager at about the time he retired from the stage. William began acting in Belfast when he was 11 years old. I'm not sure why he was in Ireland. His first role was Osman in Aaron Hill's "Zara". This was an English version of Voltaire's "Zaire". (Authors of the day were none to shy at plagerism." His success was immediate. He was prodigy. Not only was he an extrodinarily gifted actor, but had a progigal memory. His next performance was in Dublin which at the time was part of the United Kingdom. William reportedly memorized the role of Hamlet in only 3 hours. He made several appearances in Glasgow and Edinburgh, often in Shakesperian tragedies. There are several boy roles in Shakesperian plays which he presumably played, such as Prince Arthur in "King John". Contemprary accounts describe him as one of the most respected Shakesperian actors of the age. He was enormously popular. He had the status of a modern rock star. His performances created public sensations. At his first performance in Convent Garden (London teater district), toops reportedly had to be deployed to control the crowds who came to see him at the theatre (1804). His performances at Drury Lane were normally delivered to sold out houses. William's performances were so admired that he became known as "the young Roscius". Roscius was one of the most famed actor of ancient Rome. William was one of the most important actors of his day. He was as a boy the tost of Roman society. King George III personally presenting William to the queen. William's performances were major London events. Primeminister Pitt once even adjourned the House of Commons so that the MPs could attended an anticipated performance. It was his boy roles for which William was most esteemed. As he began to grow out of these boyish roles, his popularity declined. Like many child actors, he was unable to bridge the gap from boyish to adult roles. As a resut, as an older teenager he decided to retire and instead began studies at Christ's College, Cambridge (1808). He attempted a comeback (1812), but apparently the magic of his earlier performances was gone. This was quite a different experience than many 20th century child actors whose parents are they themselves squandered the money they earned and had difficult adult lives. William had, however, amassed a considerable fortune as a result of his boyhood appearances. He thus lived out his long life in comfort. We have no information on his marriage, but his son Henry Betty (1819-97) also acted. This is interesting because acting at the time was a socially low-status occuption. Actors and actresses generally came from working-class families. It is interesting that even having made a fortune, William allowed his son to act. Betty is buried in Highgate Cemetery.Highgate cemetry


Anonymous. "William Henry Betty", Encyclopedia Britannica 11th ed., Vol. III, (Cambridge: University Press, 1910), pp. 832-23.


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Created: 9:14 PM 8/20/2004
Last updated: 8:14 AM 8/22/2004