In the early 1800s there was a boy whose name was William Henry West Betty. He was born in Shrewsbury in 1791. He started his professional career when he was 11 years old, because his father, a notorious spendthrift, had squandered most of the family’s money. When he realised that his son had a talent for acting and that people would actually pay to see him, then he exploited the boy to the full.
The child was very successful and was soon making a great deal of money, which naturally pleased his father so he sent him on a nationwide tour. He quickly became known as “Master Betty” or “The Young Roscius”. The name Roscius was taken from a very popular actor in Roman times.
By the age of 12 he had arrived in London, playing Hamlet at Drury Lane Theatre. He was an absolute sensation, even patronised by King George Third and the Royal Family. He was so popular that troops had to be called out to control the crowd whenever he was billed to appear, and people would fight to get a ticket.
Such was his fame that managements did not wish to employ any other leading actor. Even Sarah Siddons, the queen of the stage at the time, could not get a London engagement between the years 1804/1806 when the lad was at the height of his popularity.
It was alleged that the Prime Minister of the time - William Pitt the Younger – actually adjourned Parliament one afternoon so that all the Members could go to a matinee at Drury Lane to watch the boy play Hamlet.
When you read about famous actors from the past, such as Kean and Garrick etc., the writer, whether a contemporary author or a modern one, will always comment on the public perception of the performance and tell you what the critics thought, but it never seems to occur to them to write about what it must have been like to be an actor in that particular company. In the case of Master Betty all the other actors were adults.
So, just imagine, you are at Drury Lane, trying to give your Gertrude or your Claudius, and there is this awful little twelve year old in the middle of the stage, showing off, waving his sword about, and squealing at the top of his voice “The play’s the thing…..” Think of the sword fight between Laertes and Hamlet – a bit like Tom and Jerry I should imagine. Apparently, when he played Romeo, his Juliet had to go down on her knees to give him a hug!!
Now I realise that I have got a bit of mileage out of making fun of him, but in all seriousness he must have had a prodigious talent. He retired from the stage at the age of 15, I suppose his voice having finally broken by then, and he went to Cambridge University to take a degree.
He tried to make a come-back when he was 21, but sadly no-one wanted to know. He was no longer Master Betty. The critics who once had praised him were now laughing at him. As his father had died he was able to keep his huge fortune and he lived out the rest of his days as a very affluent country gentleman. He himself died at the age of 82 in 1874.
When I read that date I thought that Master Betty the actor can have no connection with our Betty Fund because the ABF wasn’t founded until eight years later in 1882, but I think I was wrong. You can imagine my delight when I discovered that Master Betty had a son, whom he called Henry, and who became an actor.
In our archives we have the handwritten minutes of the first meetings when Henry Irving was in the Chair, and listed are the Members of the Council present. Amongst them you will see the name “Mr. Henry Betty”.
Now, surely, though I have not been able to prove it, they must be one and the same person, because there would not have been two actors with the same name on the London stage at the same time.
So I like to think that Henry Irving invited Henry Betty onto the Board of The Actors’ Benevolent Fund and that it was young Henry who endowed The Betty Fund in memory of his father who was, and I quote:
“the most celebrated child actor of all time”.