Ternan, Nelly

BORN 3 Mar 1839, Rochester, Kent: 11 Upper Clarence Place, Maidstone Road - DIED 25 May 1914, London: 18 Guion Road, Fulham
REAL NAME Ternan, Ellen Lawless
GRAVE LOCATION Portsmouth, Hampshire: Highland Road Cemetery, Southsea

Ellen Lawless Ternan was the daughter of the actors Thomas Ternan and Frances Jarman. She was known as Nelly. She appeared on the stage when she was only ages three. Allthough she was considered to be less talented than her sisters Maria and Frances she caught the eye of Charles Dickens when she was performing at the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1857. Together with her mother and her sister Maria he asked her to appear with his amateur company in "The Frozen Deep" by Wilkie Collins.

She started a secret affair with Dickens who was forty-five at the time. She was young, clever and interested in literature, theatre and politics and this made her far more attractive to Dickens than his wife Catherine. In 1858 Catherine accidentally received a bracelet that was meant for Nelly. Dickens left his wife and continued his affair with Nelly. In 1860 she left the stage and Dickens supported her financially.

Sometimes she travelled with him, but in 1867 he didn't take her with him to the USA because he feared the American press. She lived at houses in Slough and Nunhead that he rented for her. When Dickens suddenly died in 1870 left her 1,000 and an income from a trust fund.

In 1876 she married Oxford graduate Geroge Wharton Robinson, who was twelve years younger than she was. But she subtracted ten years from her own age and he never found out about her time with Dickens. They had a son, Geoffrey, and a daughter, Gladys. Together they ran a boys' school in Margate.

During the last years of her life she lived in Southsea, Portsmouth, where by that time the house where Dickens was born was turned into a museum. Wharton Robinson died in 1907 and Nelly in 1914. They were buried at Highland Road Cemetery in Southsea. Only after her death her son Geoffrey found out that his mother had been an actress and had known Charles Dickens.

Related persons
• was the lover of Dickens, Charles John Huffham

21/8/1857Wilkie Collins' play "The Frozen Deep" is performed three times in Manchester at the Free Trade Hall. Dickens played the main part in the play that was written by his friend and the public was completely under his spell. The second night was attended by 3,000 people. He had hired the actress Frances Ternan together with her daughters Maria and Ellen. Ellen was so impressed by the scene in which Dickens died that her tears fell on his beard and his clothes. The performances were given August 21, 22 and 24. [Collins, Wilkie][Dickens, Charles John Huffham][Ternan, Maria Susanna]
8/6/1870Charles Dickens hits the floor after losing consciousness. He didn't feel good the entire morning but worked as usual. During dinner at six he looked so bad that his stepsister Georgina wanted to take him arm to help him to lie down. Het said 'On the ground' and fell on the ground with his left side. He didn't regain consciousness and died the next day. This was the version of his death as stated by Georgina. Biographer Claire Tomalin suggests that Dickens may have been at his mistress Nelly Ternan's house, broke down and was brought home. If it happened that way it was hushed up to protect their reputations. [Dickens, Charles John Huffham]


The grave of Ellen Ternan at Highland Road Cemetery, Portsmouth.
Picture by Androom (20 Jun 2010)


The grave of Ellen Ternan at Highland Road Cemetery, Portsmouth.
Picture by Androom (20 Jun 2010)


• Tomalin, Claire, The Invisible Woman, The Story of Nelly Ternan And Charles Dickens, Penguin Books, London, 1991
Ellen Ternan - Wikipedia
The Frozen Deep - Wikipedia

Terry, Ellen

Published: 4 Jul 2010
Last update: 20 Apr 2014