Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Betty, William Henry West

BETTY, WILLIAM HENRY WEST (1791–1874), better known as the Young Roscius, was born 13 Sent. 1791 at St. Chad's, Shrewsbury. His father, William Henry Betty, was son of a physician of the same name, who had made a fortune at Lisburn in Ireland. Dr. Betty's eldest son settled for a time at Shrewsbury, where he married the only daughter of James Staunton, of Hopton Court in Shropshire. His mother, a lady of rare accomplishments, began to instruct him almost in his infancy. His mother (who had meanwhile moved to Ballynahinch, in the county Down, where he conducted a farm and a linen manufactory) having one day recited Wolsey's speech from 'Henry VIII,' the child learnt it with his mother's help, and afterwards learnt 'My name is Norval,' and Thomson's Lavinia. Thenceforth he was encouraged to practise declamation. In 1801 he entered a theatre for the first time at Belfast, to see Mrs. Siddons as Elvira. On his return he said that he would die if he were not allowed to become an actor. Two years later he made his first appearance at Belfast on Friday, 19 Aug. 1803. He was announced beforehand as 'a young gentleman only eleven years old, whose theatrical abilities have been the wonder and admiration of all who have heard him.' His part was Osman in the tragedy of 'Zara,' Aaron Hill's version in English of the 'Zaire' of Voltaire. The house was densely crowded, the success complete. The manager, Mr. Atkins, had engaged him for four nights. He appeared on 24 Aug. as Douglas, on the 26th as Rolla, and on the 29th as Romeo. His first appearance in Dublin was at the Crow Street theatre on 28 Nov. There he added to his repertory the parts of Frederick in Mrs. Inchbald's play of 'Lovers' Vows,' altered from the German of Kotzebue, of Prince Arthur in 'King John,' of Tancred in Thomson's tragedy of 'Tancred and Sigismunda,' and of Hamlet. The last-mentioned part, notoriously the longest in the whole range of the drama, he actually learnt in three hours. After starring in Dublin for nine niphts, he was welcomed with equal delight at Cork and at Waterford. In the spring of 1801 he played for fourteen nights at Glasgow, his first appearance there being on 21 May in the Dunlop theatre as Douglas. At Edinburgh dignitaries of the church and of the universitv, as well as lords of the Court of Session, vied with each other in offering presents and adulation. More than one Scotch critic declared emphatically that the young Roscius, as the boy phenomenon was by that time universally called, completely eclipsed John Kemble. One rash dissentient had to leave Edinburgh. Home declared that his impersonation of Douglas for the first time adequately realised his own imagining. Mr. Macready, the father of the famous tragedian, engaged him at Birmingham, where he appeared 13 Aug. 1804. Soon after this he was engaged for twelve performances at Covent Garden Theatre, at the rate of fifty guineas a night and a clear benefit. On 1 Dec 1804, when he appeared as Selim in 'Barbarossa,' the military had to be called out to preserve order. Many were seriously injured in the crush to obtain admittance. His success was triumphant. His life as 'the celebrated and wonderful young Roscius,' with a portrait of him as a 'theatrical star of the first magnitude,' was published on 7 Dec. p. 96, and helped to spread his repute by passing at once into wide circulation. On 10 Dec. he appeared at Drury Lane in Douglas. There on the boards of Drury the twenty-eight nights of his first season produced the gross sum of 17,210l. 11s., the nightly average being 614l. 13s. During the following season he appeared for twenty-four nights alternately at each of the two great patent theatre, his terms then being more than fifty guineas a performance. He was presented to the queen and the princesses by the king himself. Upon one occasicm Mr. Pitt adjouned the House of Commons in order that members might be in time to witness his representation of Hamlet. He was selected by Charles Fox to listen to his reading of 'Zaphna.' Opie, the historical painter, idealised him as having drawn inspiration from the tomb of Shakespeare. Between his first two seasons in London he acted at Liverpool and at Birmingham, where he received for thirteen nights nearly 1,000l., obtaining 800l. for a less number of nights at Stourbridge, Worcester, and Wolverhampton. At the end of 1805 he again appeared on alternate nights at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, adding to his Shakespearian parts Richard III and Macbeth, and taking Zanga in the 'Revenge,' and Dorilas in 'Merope.' Gradually, however, in the metropolis, the enthusiasm abated, though it survived so long afterwards in the provinces that for three years more Master Betty added considerably to the large fortune he had already accumulated. His final appearance as a boy actor was on 26 March 1808 at Bath. After being placed for a time there under the tuition of the Rev. Mr. Wollaston, formerly one of the masters of the Charterhouse, he was entered in the July of 1801 as a fellow commoner of Christ's College, Cambridge. His father's death nearly three years afterwards, at Pym's Farm, near Wem, in Shropshire, in the June of 1811, led to his premature withdrawal from the university. In the following year he reappeared, 16 Feb. 1812, at Bath, as the Earl of Essex, and in London, 8 Nov. 1812, at Covent Garden, as Achmet, otherwise Selim, in 'Barbarossa.' Mrs. Inchbald observes (Brit. Theatre, xv. 5), 'that though a great majority of the audience thought young Betty a complete tragedian,' yet he failed in 'power over their hearts,' and that bursts of laughter were excited from the audience in parts of this tragedy on his first appearance. At intervals during the next twelve years he drew large audiences together in various parts of the country; but he found it expedient to withdraw altogether from the stage before the completion of his thirty-third year, his farewell benefit taking place on 9 Aug. 1824 at Southampton. He lived for fifty years afterwards in the quiet enjoyment of the large fortune he had so early amassed, and he frankly acknowledged that the enthusiastic admirers of his boyhood had been mistaken. He died 24 Aug. 1874, in his eighty-third year, at his residence in Ampthill Square, London.

[Life of the celebrated and wonderful Young Roscius, 12mo, p. 36, 1804; Genest, vii. 643; Athenæum, 16 Aug. 1874, p. 200. and 29 Sept. p. 291; Era, 30 Aug. 1874, p. 9; Times, 27 Aug. 1874, p. 5, and 2 Sept. p. 8; Illust. Lond. News, 12 Sept. 1874, p. 257; Annual Register, 1874, p. 160; Murdoch's Stage, 1880, 338–41.]

C. K.

BEULAN, a priest, described as the master of 'Nennius.' In the manuscript of the 'Historia Britonum' in the public library at Cambridge (quoted as A in Mon. Hist, History and as L in ed. Stevenson, Eng. Hist. Soc.), which, though not the most ancient manuscript, and though containing evident interpolations, has been used by Gale (Historiæ Brintannicæ &c., Scriptores XV.) and Petrie (Mon. Hist. Brit.) as the foundation of their texts, it is stated that the writer was the disciple of a priest of this name, to whom he dedicated his work, and that he left out the genealogies of the Saxons and of other races because they seemed to be of no use to his master. In this manuscript are given certain 'Versus Nennini' addressed by the writer to Samuel the son of Beulan, for whom he worked. Whoever the author of the 'Historia Britonum' may have been, it is certain that the writer of these verses and of the other references to Beulan lived after his time, and even after 858, the year assigned in the prologue to the work of 'Nennius,' and that he was a scribe who