Boy Wonder Conquers Theatreland

by Ray Setterfield

Event Date: March 14, 1805
Location: London, England, United Kingdom

The House of Commons was adjourned on this day so that Members of Parliament could head across London to see the theatrical sensation of the age, "Master Betty," playing Hamlet. He was just 14 years old and it was a part that he is said to have learnt by heart in just three hours.

"Sensation" was an apt description. Three months earlier, in December, 1804, the Covent Garden Theatre employed guards to control the crowd waiting outside to get a glimpse of the boy wonder. Some had waited in line for hours.

Inside, policemen stood ready for trouble, but once the doors were opened a stampede for seats began. One journalist wrote:

"Shrieks and screams of choking, trampled people were terrible. Fights for places grew; constables were beaten back, the boxes were invaded. The heat was so fearful that men, all but lifeless, were lifted and dragged through the boxes into the lobbies which had windows."

It all began in 1802 when "Master Betty" – William Henry West Betty – was taken by his father to a theatre in Belfast at the age of 11. It was the first time he had seen a stage performance and William was so captivated that he declared: "I shall certainly die if I may not be a player."

His father introduced him to the theatre manager who, apparently, instantly detected thespian talent in the child. After a few weeks of training and direction William was ready to make his debut on stage.

People in the audience were astonished by his performance and reacted with thunderous applause. News of Master Betty began to spread. He performed in Dublin, Glasgow, and Edinburgh to rave reviews. Then having become a sensation in Ireland and Scotland he was ready for London.

There, he was feted by high society and invited by King George III to dine at the palace. Mobbed by crowds at his hotel, Betty soon found that paintings of him along with medals and other memorabilia, quickly appeared in the shops. One of the medals was inscribed “Not yet mature but matchless”.

His Shakespearean conquests included Hamlet, Romeo and Macbeth and a cartoon published in one magazine showed the young upstart walking over the bodies of famous adult actors with blithe disregard. He was earning an unheard of 100 pounds a night while the average working man was lucky to receive one pound a week.

But the fame and adulation were to disappear as quickly as they had arrived. Audiences soon tired of the novelty and returned to welcome and enjoy their great actors and actresses.

By 1806, Betty could not draw large enough audiences to earn money for the theatres. The collapse in support must have hurt and his performance of Richard III was a complete failure. He was hissed off the stage.

He quit acting in 1808 to attend Christ's College Cambridge, after which he lived with his family, financially secure, in the country.

There was a comeback in 1812 when he was invited back to Covent Garden, but critics derided his performance. Nine years later a second comeback attempt failed, as did an ensuing suicide bid at the age of 30.

Betty's complete and final retirement from the stage came in 1824 after which, still rich, he devoted himself to charitable causes. He died, unsung, at the age of 83.

Published: March 4, 2018

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