Bettymania … “and the Prime Minister Wept Uncontrollably”
William Henry West Betty
‘Bettymania’ is a term coined by the author Nick Smurthwaite to describe the immense popularity of a young actor which swept through early 19th century Ireland, and beyond. At the height of his career Master Betty was met with adoring fans and enthusiastic crowds wherever he went. He certainly appears to have had the ‘X-factor’.
William Henry West Betty was born on 13th September 1791 at St Chads in Shrewsbury. His father William Henry Betty was Irish. The family owned a large farm and bleach green near Ballynahinch, and his father was Dr Betty of Lisburn. His mother was a Miss Mary Staunton of Hopton Court, Shropshire. On the birth of their son the couple returned to Ireland and set up home near Ballynahinch, where Mr Betty acquired a lease of a farm on the estate of Lord Moira.
William Betty – Early Days
Both Mr and Mrs Betty seem to have had a fondness for literature and the theatre. Young Betty was introduced early to the works of Shakespeare and other playwrights.
“After the child was able to read he heard his father one day reciting Wolsey’s speech from Henry VIII, and learnt it with his mother’s help, as she had strong literary and dramatic tastes”Belfast Telegraph 14th September 1899
At the age of 10, William was taken by his father to Belfast, to the Theatre Royal. Here he saw the famous actress, Mrs Siddons, perform in the role of Elvira in the play Pizarro, written by Irishman Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan. The performance obviously had a profound effect on the boy, as he is recorded as saying to his father “I shall certainly die if I may not be a player!”
Master Betty on Stage
At first young William’s parents were not enamoured with the idea of their son ‘treading the boards’. However, the lad was persistent and eventually they agreed.
The Betty’s were a well-off family and so had the luxury of encouraging their son’s artistic aspirations. William was introduced to Michael Atkins, the proprietor of the Theatre Royal on Arthur Square (see post on ‘Belfast’s Theatre Royal Built Three Times, Destroyed Three Times‘ ). He was very impressed with the lad’s abilities and subsequently, Master Betty was mentored in diction and theatrical direction by Thomas Hough.
These were troubled times in Ireland, both in political terms following Robert Emmet’s idealistic but failed rebellion, and economically due to poor harvests. It would take a ‘big attraction’ to lure people out of their homes and into the city, and Michael Atkins believed he had found it, in this young prodigy.
“The times had been very much depressed for a lengthened period, and Atkins was glad of a chance whereby his exchequer might possibly be replenished if the lad happened to turn out a success”Belfast Telegraph 14th September 1899
Growing Reputation of Master Betty
A month before his 11th birthday Master Betty debuted on Friday 16th August 1803 in the Theatre Royal in the centre of Belfast. News of his appearance had been advertised in the local newspaper and the house was packed with many having to be turned away.
“A Young Gentleman, of this Neighbourhood (only 11 years of age) having given such striking proof of a wonderful genius in theatric oratory, critical judges have pronounced him a Phenomenon of Drama”Belfast Newsletter 16th August 1803
The lad took on the role of Osman in Zara, Aaron Hill’s version of Voltaire’s play Zair. The large audience was enthralled. Wiliam was described in the newspaper –
“The young gentleman’s person is handsome. His deportment majestic, and his voice bold and melodious”
While on stage William also read a prologue by another local child prodigy, Thomas Romney Robinson (see Thomas Romney Robinson link below to the post ‘Four Lives to Remember’).
“The singularity of the exhibition drew together a great crowd of people, who were equally astonished and enraptured at the performance of the young actor”London Times, 3rd December 1804
Following this success, Betty was engaged to play the part of the Young Norval in the tragic play Douglas.
Then Rolla in Pizzaro and subsequently Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Atkins’s daughter played the role of Juliet.
This proved such a sensation in the town, that the military authorities agreed to extend the nightly curfew by an hour to allow theatre-goers to attend the shows and return home without breaking the law.
A Growing Reputation
News of Master Betty’s theatrical prowess soon spread. In November 1803 he was wowing audiences at the Crow Theatre in Dublin with his performance in the Lovers Vow by English novelist Elizabeth Inchbald.
He then went on to play the challenging role (especially for one so young) of Hamlet. The Dublin theatre manager, Mr Jones, was so impressed that he offered young Betty a three-year engagement. However, Betty senior had other plans and the offer was turned down.
Betty went on to make appearances in Cork, Waterford and Derry to huge crowds of exuberant fans.
The following year, William and his father, toured Scotland, again to sell-out theatres. He received both critical and popular acclaim. Every performance was treated with thunderous applause and standing ovations. On 1st July 1804 in Edinburgh, whilst performing in the play Douglas, the author himself, the Rev Mr Home, was in the audience. He is reported as saying
“This is the first time I ever saw the part of Douglas played – that is according to my ideas of the character, as at the time I conceived it, and as I wrote it. He is a wonderful boy”Rev Mr Home, 1804
At some point, Betty was given the appellation ‘Young Roscius’ as a mark of respect for his acting talents. The title originated from the Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus, who died in 62BC. Subsequently his name was used as praise for outstanding actors. Indeed, in 1804, silvered-white metal coins bearing the likeness of William Betty were produced. On one side was the name Young Roscius and on the other ‘Not Yet Mature Yet Matchless MDCCC1V’. These medals or coins can still be seen in museums or purchased collectors pieces.
The young Irish thespian was by now a ‘household name’. He toured provincial England playing in theatres in Birmingham, Sheffield, Chester, Manchester and Liverpool. It is said that demand for tickets was so great, that a lottery had to be held to see who would win admission.
Covent Garden Appearance
Betty’s reputation continued to grow and in December 1804 he was engaged to perform at Covent Garden in London.
Apparently, vast crowds queued for hours in order to see the young performer. From 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the streets and lanes around the theatre, including Russell Street and Bow Street, were thronged with people anxious to see the prodigy. A detachment of guards had to be employed to manage the eager theatre-goers.
“On no occasion has there been a stronger and more ardent desire manifested by all ranks and descriptions of people to gain admittance to the theatre”London Times, 3rd December 1804
Inside the establishment, police were on duty to maintain calm and orderliness, but unfortunately excitement got the better of the enthusiastic throng outside.
“Thousands pressed forward when the doors opened, and the house immediately being filled, the crowd made ineffectual efforts to press back. The shrieks and screams of the choking people were terrible. Fights for places grew; the constables were beaten back; the boxes were invaded….”London Times, 3rd December 1804
Young Roscius’s performance was again met with great acclaim.
“The first appearance of Master Betty, before a London audience, on Saturday evening may be considered a remarkable epoch in the history of the English stage”London Times, 3rd December 1804
In other performances in the English capital, William assumed the role of Selim in the tragedy Barbarossa. Among the audience were several distinguished personages including the Prince and Princess of Wales and Lord Melville, the Lord Chief Justice.
Indeed, on one occasion, the British prime minister, William Pitt, adjourned the sitting of the House of Commons early to allow members the opportunity to reach the theatre on time. Pitt attended one performance himself.
“When watching the boy perform… William Pitt, the Prime Minister of England, wept openly and uncontrollably”Jeffrey Kahan, Bettymania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture, 2010
On Wednesday 5th December, Young Roscius appeared at Drury Lane. Here at the request of the English monarch, George III, he was presented to Queen Charlotte in the anteroom of the royal box.
Growth of Bettymania
Such was his popularity that Londoners would line the streets to see him arriving at the theatre.
The Morning Chronicle reported that during a performance of Betty’s Romeo
“nearly thirty persons were pulled from the pit, in fainting fits”Jeffrey Kahan, Bettymania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture, 2010
On 29th April 1806, Master Betty was introduced to Bath audiences in the role of Orestes in the work ‘The Distressed Mother’.
“In Bath too, the desire to see this ‘Young Roscius’ was so great that it was stated the theatre, had it been double the size, would not have had a seat unoccupied, and nightly numbers were turned away from its doors”Benville Penley, The Bath Stage, 1892
The demand for young William Betty was so high, that theatre proprietors were bidding for his services.
In Scotland he earned £650 for six performances, a vast sum in those days. While in London he was paid £100 per night in Drury Lane, earning the management more than £17,000 in less than a month!
Though not everyone was enamoured with the child actor. We are told that in the town of Bath, two young officers fell to arguing over the extent of Betty’s talent. The disagreement was so fierce that a challenge to a duel was issued! Fortunately, the clerk to the Justices was informed and the principals and their seconds were arrested as they arrived at the agreed location.
However, generally Master Betty was the ‘toast of the town’.
“….but one who created much greater enthusiasm than even Mr Talbot was now acting in London with excessive applause. This was the young Roscius, or Master Betty, who had first played on the Belfast stage in the preceding year”George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast, Vol 2 1880
William Betty Retirement
By the summer of 1808, now aged 17, William Betty retired from professional acting. His final performance was in Bath.
The young man subsequently entered Christ College, Cambridge to study for a degree. He did return to the stage some years later but the allure of the child actor had gone and he retreated from public life.
However, thanks to his ‘glory days’ Master Betty had acquired a large fortune. He spent this money on various theatrical charities.
William Betty died on 24th August 1874, aged 82, at his residence Ampthill Square in London. He is buried with his wife and son in Highgate cemetery.
In 1874 he died – unnoticed and forgottenIrish News 5th February 1965
Conclusion – The Career of Master Betty
While Young Roscius may have had a brief career, it was certainly meteoritic! A young lad from County Down who became a popular star and the ‘darling’ of thespian circles’! He definitely achieved his wish to be a “player”!
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