What follows is merely an introduction to Master Betty and his first appearance before London audiences. For a much longer treatment of his career, see Jeffrey Kahan’s excellent book cited below.
Master William Henry West Betty is arguably the first child celebrity of the modern era. I say arguably because much depends on how you define celebrity and modernity. However, if you accept (as I do) cultural historian Simon Morgan’s argument that one of the necessary conditions for celebrity culture is the existence of “a sufficiently large audience […] interested in [an individual’s] actions, image and personality to create a viable market for commodities carrying their likeness and for information about their lives and views” then Master Betty certainly qualifies as a celebrity (98). Indeed, Jeffrey Kahan’s book Bettymania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture makes a very strong argument in favor of seeing Master Betty as an important precursor to child stars of the twentieth and twenty-first century. So when we think of celebrated and/or fallen child stars such as Shirley Temple, Michael Jackson, Drew Barrymore, Macaulay Culkin, Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan, or Quvenzhane Wallis, we should also remember the boy who drove Georgian audiences wild with delight – and who sparked as much controversy as many of our favourite (or most reviled) child celebrities do today.
Throughout his relatively short career (at least in comparison with other stars of the era), Master Betty drew huge crowds to the theatres in Scotland and England, sparked the production and circulation of numerous commodities bearing his image, including fans, snuff boxes, and coins, and provided ample critical fodder, not to mention gossip, for theatre critics, journalists, and pamphleteers.
Born in September 1791 in Shrewsbury, Master Betty first attracted notice in the summer of 1804, at the age of twelve, for his portrayal of (as one supporter wrote) “the higher and more difficult characters in the tragic walk…in a stile seldom or rarely exhibited by the most celebrated theatrical veteran.” (“The Young Roscius”). His roles included Romeo, Hamlet, Young Norval in Douglas, and Richard III. After appearing in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Liverpool, where audiences greeted him with explosive rounds of applause and declared that he was a “Young Roscius” (a reference to the great tragic actor of the Roman stage), Master Betty traveled to London with his family for scheduled performances at both licensed theatre houses – Covent Garden and Drury Lane.
In the lead-up to Betty’s London debut, several authors released pamphlet accounts of the actor’s career-to-date, detailing “the birth and commencement of this theatrical career” and sang his praises through description and poetry (“Young Roscius”). In fact between 1804 and 1805, Betty was the subject of at least twenty pamphlets, not to mention numerous other newspaper articles and reviews. Some authors fashioned themselves bard-like figures, giving their tributes such names as “The Bettyad,” “The Infant Roscius” and “The Young Rosciad.” Such publications allowed audiences who had only heard of the child to become acquainted with his life and others’ perceptions of him before he arrived in town. Not surprisingly, some Londoners queried whether audiences in Sheffield or Liverpool were capable of judging talent when they saw it and implied that Master Betty was a grand hoax. Others eagerly waited to judge for themselves.
On December 3, 1804, Master Betty made his debut at Theatre Royal Covent Garden in the role of Achmet (Selim) in the play Barbarossa, John Brown’s tragedy about the Algerian ruler. A huge crowd gathered outside the theatre hours before the doors opened waiting impatiently for admittance to the house. The situation went from bad to worse, as the following journalistic account reveals:
It was in vain that at a very early hour yesterday evening, we took our station at the door, in order to procure admission. But so intense and so violent was the crowd of persons assembled with the same intention, that it was impossible to pass very far beyond the entrance, nor could we perceive, by any advance or diminution of numbers, that the inner doors were ever opened for admission. In this state, the heat and pressure, after a time became so intolerable, that a variety of persons fainted, and others were in danger of suffocation, and other injuries, from the weight and force of the numbers from without, who could not be prevailed upon, by the representations or the shrieks of the people confined within, to desist from attempting to force their passage.
The danger at last becoming extreme, the guards were almost unanimously called for, by the terrified persons who were included between the inner and outer doors, and who could not make good their retreat. (“Covent Garden Theatre”)
The crush outside the Covent Garden theatre was but a prelude to the chaos that erupted in the theatre itself. As another journalist recounted:
At five the outer doors of the box passage were forced open, and the boxes were occupied by an immense crowd, who forcibly ejected the persons stationed to keep places. The numbers still poured in with such rapidity, and pressure, that some hundreds leaped from the Boxes, into the Pit, which was so crowded by this accession, that numbers must have perished, but for the humane attentions of some Ladies in the Boxes, who assisted in raising and passing them to the Lobbies. The number outside the House, and in the passage, still continued to increase, though every effort was made to assure them that their exertions must be unavailing. We have not heard of any fatal accident, but the fainting, bruises, and minor contingencies are beyond all enumeration. (“Theatre: The Young Roscius”)
I don’t have space here to detail the many critical responses that followed Betty’s first performances -suffice to say that most London critics praised his technical skill, his expressive capabilities, and his convincing portrayal of strong emotion. Eager to see the child wonder for themselves, crowds continued to flock to the theatre to see him in other roles – including Young Norval in Douglas, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Frederic in Lover’s Vows, and Hamlet – the diversity of which served as a testament to his uncanny virtuosity.
Betty was an attraction outside the theatre as well. According to one account, “The attraction of the young Roscius is not limited to the stage, for he cannot walk along the streets without drawing crowds, who naturally press after him to see the most extraordinary pick-pocket that the Theaters ever knew” ([Untitled] 13 Dec. 1804). This intense interest in Betty – the actor and the boy -, especially when he grew ill and had to withdraw from the stage for several days, anticipates what would become by mid-century a full-fledged “cult of the child.”
Collectanea: Or, A Collection of Advertisements and Paragraphs from the Newspapers, Relating to various Subjects. Vol. 1. Printed at Strawberry-Hill by Thomas Kirgate, for the Collector, Daniel Lysons. Folger Shakespeare Library. Print.
“Covent Garden Theatre,” 1 Dec. 1804, 72. Collectanea. Print.
Kahan, Jeffrey. Bettymania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2010. Print.
Morgan, Simon. “Celebrity: Academic ‘Pseudo-Event’ or a Useful Concept for Historians?” Cultural and Social History 8.1 (2011): 95-114. DOI 10.2752/147800411X12858412044474.
“Theatre: The Young Roscius,” 1 Dec. 1804, 72. Collectanea, Print.
[Untitled entry], 13 Dec. 1804, 74. Collectanea, Print.
“The Young Roscius.” 30 Aug. 1804, 70, Collectanea, Print.
“Young Roscius,” 1 Dec. 1804. 71. Collectanea, Print.
 The Houghton Library at Harvard holds many of these pamphlets.