A Great Jerseyman:
Seymour Hicks in typical theatrical pose
Edward George Seymour Hicks was born at La Fontaine, Queen's Road, St Helier on 30 January 1871. Major Edward Percy Hicks, his father, of the Black Watch, 42nd Highlanders, married Grace Gertrude Seymour in St Helier at the Church of St Mary and St Peter on 9 February 1870.
The introduction to his autobiography Seymour Hicks, Twenty-four Years of an Actor's Life, published in 1910, begins as follows:
- "When a man sits down to write a book about himself, generally he does so from one of four reasons: sheer impertinence; a lack of humour; the hope of advertisement; or because he knows that while writing little about himself, it gives him an opportunity to say a great deal about other people. I frankly plead guilty to the last two; and having gone this far on the road of truth, let me push on yet another milestone.
- "You know my face, no doubt. I am not extraordinarily proud of it. Is it possible that I know yours? How often, I wonder, have you paid good money to see me make a fool of myself. How often have I seen you do the same thing in the stalls for nothing. Perhaps we have never met, pictorially or otherwise; well, whether we have or not, Seymour Hicks is now yours for two-and-six; but in surrendering myself to you, you must not imagine I am going to lay bare a great soul for thirty copper tokens."
He lived comfortably with his parents, two brothers and a sister. He wore patched clothing and had little pocket money.
- "Personally I did not mind my Joseph-like appearance, and was content not even to notice that other lads were similarly adorned. But, of all the cruel things, give me a schoolboy who is bent on hurting another. His is the very refinement of cruelty. He can and does not hesitate to put the salt of sarcasm into the open wounds of sensitiveness. My patches and lack of funds were an admirable target for some of my schoolfellows' endeavours, and the childish tears I shed in those days took many a year to dry ."
- "Jersey in 1880 was a dear little place. The island was full of poor ladies and gentlemen. I will not say that the absence of duty on tobacco and brandy must have proved the attraction, but everything else was so cheap that retired Army officers found it a kind of India, where money went farther and appearances were not so difficult to keep up. It was here that I first knew that most delightful and beautiful of ladies, Lillie Langtry, whom no one admires more than I do in all those lovely islands. How often has her old father, Dean Le Breton, walked with me to school down the old hill of Sr Saviour's, on the top of which nestles the church of the same name, where he was Dean for so many years, and in whose quiet little churchyard sleeps one of my dearest friends, and one of the greatest gentlemen I have ever met, dear Henry Kemble.
"I have returned to Jersey in later days, but I doubt if it is ever wise to renew acquaintance with the places that have given us deep emotions and great pleasures."
At school Seymour Hicks studied little and was looked upon as a joke. He was always bottom of the form, always in trouble and regularly caned - the outcome of high spirits. Since early childhood he had always longed to become an actor, and at the age of nine appeared as Buttercup in HMS Pinafore. The first actor he remembered was Wybert Rousby of the Theatre Royal in Jersey, whom he regarded as splendid. Of the playwright Frederick Londsdale, a Jerseyman born on 5 February 1881 at 15 Old Street, St Helier, he comments:
- "His comedies formed almost an epoch of the Between-War Theatre. He had got to the front before that, breaking in as a writer of musical comedy libretti - and very good they were, too. The Maid of the Mountains broke records. His comedies had wit, observation, epigram and bite. We could do with another playwright like him to-day. Lonsdale was a first-class dramatist and I should not be surprised if some of his plays, which were as well constructed as they were written, became standard examples of their period."
Frederick Lonsdale died on 4 April 1954, walking in a London street. His name, before he changed it to Lonsdale, was Lionel Frederick Leonard. John Henry Leonard. his father, was a tobacconist at 3½ Beresford Street, St Helier.
Seymour Hicks, who was so eager to go on the stage, was destined for the Army. He was, however, eventually employed as a wine merchant's clerk in London. He received no salary, but was given an allowance of 1s 4d per day for his train fares and lunch. He loathed the office and cellar in which he worked. For only six weeks did he endure this nightmare and was finally dismissed as a boy who could never hope to succeed. He had signed bills of lading to get quantities of champagne out of bond instead of port. "I wonder," he writes, "if it has ever occurred since to the kind-hearted wine merchant, in whose employ I then was, that his young clerk had done it purposely." Discharged with ignominy.
- "Home or no home, money or no money, I'm off to be what I have always set my heart on since I was a little child - I'm off to be an actor."
At this there was great indignation. In those days a gentleman was rare on the stage. He was turned out of his home with few clothes and no money - alone in London - but his own master at the age of 15. He successfully sought refuge in the home of an old servant, who had worked for his family, and who then kept a lodging house in Cornwall Road, Bayswater. From here he tried to find someone connected with the theatre, and this he eventually did, appearing as a super on the stage of the Grand Theatre, Islington, for one shilling per night "But if you can do a small part," he was told, "they'll probably give you a bit more." He had made the great plunge. This fact compensated him, to some extent, for the appalling conditions in which he was forced to live. He had health and strength and was in the profession which he regarded as wonderful.
In 1887 he was earning 25s a week and from then on was, with the exception of four weeks, never out of an engagement. At the age of 22 he married the actress and beauty Ellaline Terriss, on which move he was congratulated by women, but frowned upon by men. Poor girl - she was supposed to have thrown herself away, ruined her career and Seymour Hicks was the villain. it did not take their friends very long to discover that they were frightfully unhappy, that he had taken to drink, that he ill treated "the sweetest little creature in the world - poor child".
They said that their separation was about to take place any day. These stories continued for at least five years and caused the couple, at one time, great trouble, sorrow and annoyance. They lost their infant son, but adopted a daughter - Betty. Ellaline Terriss was born at Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Attached to the Ship Hotel, Stanley, is a tablet bearing the words "In this house the great actress Ellaline Terriss was born". At her christening the Governor of the Islands and his Lady acted as godfather and godmother. She was born on 15 April 1871 and died on 16 June 1971.
Henry Kemble, who, as has been stated, lies in St Saviour's Churchyard, was buried - unbelievably - without a stone. He died on 17 November 1907 at Sandown Villas, Havre des Pas. He was a grandson of the famous tragedian, Charles Kemble, and was a comedian. Another friend of Seymour Hicks was Ivy St Helier, née Aitchison, born on 15 November 1886 at 19 La Motte Street. She made a great name for herself in various productions. Her father was David Aitchison, of the Pearl Assurance Company, who had married Matilda Elvina Ball. Ivy St Helier died in London on 8 November 1971.
Sir Edward Seymour Hicks, actor, manager and author, was educated at Prior Park College, Bath and Victoria College, Jersey. He was concerned in building the Globe, Queen's and Aldwich Theatres, and in both World Wars organized entertainments for members of the services, taking out the first company to the front in 1914. With his own company he toured Africa, Australia and Canada, and also acted in the United States. He wrote and produced 64 plays and was a member of three clubs - the Beefsteak, Garrick, and Buck's. He became controller of ENSA, Chevalier of the Legion of Honour and a Member of the Crown of Stuart.
His plays include Under the Clock, One of the Best, Catch of the Season and The Gay Cordons. He wrote ten books, some of which are entitled Twenty-four Years of an Actor's Life, (1910) Between Ourselves, (1930) and Vintage Years, (1943).
In her book, Just a Little Bit of String, Ellaline Terriss writes: "I have never known a more devoted couple than ourselves." They were married for 57 years.
One morning her husband came to her in great excitement and addressed her as 'Your Ladyship'. She then knew that he had received the news that the honour of knighthood was to be conferred upon him. It was the culminating point of his long and distinguished career. He was always regarded as the leader of his profession. He had been on the stage for 52 years and an actor-manager since 1900 - 35 years. He had done so much for his profession, had distinguished it by his acting, written so many plays, played so many more, given so much employment and had been honoured by France before his own country did so. It was at Buckingham Palace, at the hands of King George V, that he received the accolade.
It is a strange fact that the very night that Sir Seymour Hicks died, 6 April 1949, he appeared on television in a recording of one of his films. Requiem Mass was said in the Jesuit Church at Farm Street and a very moving address was given by the parish priest, Father Law, who was also their friend. Sir Seymour Hicks was, beyond doubt, one of Jersey's most gifted sons.