Ternan, Ellen

BORN 3 Mar 1839, Rochester, Kent: 11 Upper Clarence Place, Maidstone Road - DIED 25 May 1914, London: 18 Guion Road, Fulham
BIRTH 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 fromt the age of three. Although 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. He asked her to appear together with her mother and her sister Maria with his amateur company in "The Frozen Deep", a play that was written by his friend 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. It is believed that 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 and in 1865 she was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash after they returned from Paris. Dickens didn't take her with him to the USA in 1867 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 that made her financially independent.

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 had become 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
• is brother/sister of Ternan, Maria Susanna

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][Ternan, Maria Susanna]
9/6/1865Charles Dickens is involved in the Staplehurst rail crash. Dickens travelled with his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother Frances Ternan when their train derailed at Staplehurst. Ten passengers were killed and fourty injured. The carriage with Dickens and the Ternans didn't fall in the river bed like other carriages. He helped the Ternans out and tended to the victims. Some of them died in his presence. He was able to retrieve the manuscript for the episode of "Our Mutual Friend" that he was working on before he left for London in an emergency train. He was so affected that he lost his voice for two weeks. [Dickens, Charles]
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]


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
Staplehurst rail crash - Wikipedia

Ternan, Frances Eleanor

Published: 04 Jul 2010
Last update: 04 Jul 2022