Ellen Terry, the fifth and third surviving child of the actors Benjamin Terry (1818–1896) and his wife, Sarah Ballard (1819–1892), and sister of Fred Terry, was born in Coventry on 27th February 1847. Ellen never went to school and at the age of eight appeared as Mammilius in The Winter's Tale at the Princess's Theatre in London.
Charles Kean, the manager of the theatre, was very impressed with her acting ability and she also appeared in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1856), King John (1858), and Macbeth (1859). As her biographer, Michael R. Booth has pointed out: "Her salary was initially 15s. a week, rising to 30s. during A Midsummer Night's Dream. Mrs Kean gave her further training, concentrating especially on the child's voice so that she could easily be heard in the gallery of the theatre. During the summer, when the Princess's was closed, her father successfully organized a drawing-room entertainment of two short plays, which she acted at the Royal Colosseum, Regent's Park, London, and then on tour."
In 1861 Ellen Terry joined the company of the Royalty Theatre in Soho. The following year she became a member of stock company at the Theatre Royal in Bristol. She stayed until 1863, when she went to London where she performed in several plays at the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket.
At the age of seventeen she married the well-known artist, George Frederic Watts. They went to live in Little Holland House, Kensington. Watts was forty-seven and the disparity between their ages caused serious problems. The marriage lasted less than a year she found herself back with her family. Terry appeared in several of Watts' paintings and as a result she became a cult figure for poets and painters. Her biographer has argued: "Tall, slender, with beautiful flaxen hair, grey eyes, full red lips, finely framed features, graceful of carriage and movement, fresh and always young, Ellen Terry was as much an art object as an actress."
Ellen Terry returned to the stage and in 1867 joined the company at the Queen's Theatre, under the management of Alfred Wigan. This included acting with Henry Irving in The Taming of the Shrew. In 1868 she left the stage once more, to live with the architect, Edward William Godwin at Gusterwood Common. Edith Craig was born on 9th December 1869. After her daughter's birth, Godwin designed and built a house for his new family at Fallows Green, Harpenden. Terry separated from Godwin in 1875 and she became the primary carer for Edith and her brother Edward Craig.
Once again Terry returned to the stage. She soon developed a close friendship with the playwright Charles Reade. He recruited her to act in his play, The Wandering Heir, at the Queen's Theatre. Such was her reputation that she was paid a salary of £40 a week. After touring in a trio of Reade's plays she appeared in The Merchant of Venice at the Prince of Wales Theatre.
On 21st November 1877, having received a divorce from George Frederic Watts, she married the actor Charles Clavering Wardell at St Philip's, Kensington. They went to live, with the children, at 33 Longridge Road, Earls Court, but the marriage lasted less than three years.
In July 1878, Henry Irving, who had taken control of the Lyceum Theatre, offered her a contract at a salary of 40 guineas a week and an annual benefit performance. Her touring salary was £200 a week. Her first part at the Lyceum was Ophelia, on 30th December 1878. As Michael R. Booth points out: "Ellen Terry was to remain with Irving for twenty-four years, undertake frequent provincial tours and seven tours to America with the Lyceum company, and play a total of thirty-six parts. Eleven of these were in Shakespeare; she also acted in plays by Tennyson, Bulwer-Lytton, Reade, Sardou, and other contemporary playwrights, such as W. G. Wills, who were commissioned by Irving to write for the Lyceum. Irving's repertory consisted mostly of Shakespeare and Victorian romantic melodrama, with the occasional comedy, and of course Terry did not have, since Irving was an absolute if benevolent dictator, a free choice of parts."
Ellen Terry's daughter, Edith Craig, was also an actress and she also worked for the Lyceum Theatre company, designing costumes and acting under the stage name of Ailsa Craig and in 1895 appeared with Henry Irving in The Bells and Bygones, a play by Arthur Wing Pinero. Her performances were praised by George Bernard Shaw and later that year she made her first tour of America. In 1889 her son, Edward Craig, also joined the company.
In 1900 Ellen Terry purchased Smallhythe Place in Tenterden. However, she retained a London residence at 215 King's Road, Chelsea. In 1902 she appeared in The Merry Wives of Windsor with Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The production was a great success and the play ran for 156 performances. In 1903 Terry lost a lot of money when she moved into management when she took control of the Imperial Theatre.
Terry was a supporter of women's suffrage. So was her daughter, Edith Craig, who joined the Women's Social and Political Union. In 1908 two members of the WSPU, Bessie Hatton and Cicely Hamilton formed the Women Writers Suffrage League. Later that year the women formed the sister organisation, the Actresses' Franchise League. Both Terry and Craig joined this group that at this time included Elizabeth Robins, Kitty Marion, Winifred Mayo, Sime Seruya, Inez Bensusan, Lillah McCarthy, Sybil Thorndike, Lena Ashwell, Lily Langtry and Nina Boucicault.
The first meeting of the Actresses' Franchise League took place at the Criterion Restaurant at Piccadilly Circus. The AFL was open to anyone involved in the theatrical profession and its aim was to work for women's enfranchisement by educational methods, selling suffrage literature and staging propaganda plays. The AFL neither supported nor condemned militancy.
In 1911 Edith Craig established the Pioneer Players. Under her leadership this society became internationally known for promoting women's work in the theatre. Ellen Terry agreed to become president of the Pioneer Players. Later, Craig, Clare Atwood and Christabel Marshall, moved into the house next door, to Terry at the Priest's House in Tenterden. The three women formed a permanent ménage à trois. Her biographer, Katharine Cockin, has pointed out that Marshall wrote they "achieved independence within their intimate relationships... working respectively in the theatre, art, and literature, drew creative inspiration and support from each other."
On 21st July 1928 Helen Terry died at Smallhythe Place of a cerebral haemorrhage. Edith Craig converted the barn in the grounds of her mother's house into a theatre and directed performances every year on the anniversary of her mother's death.