Russell Thorndike: Happy Days at Windsor

The actor and writer Russell Thorndike proudly believed he could rewrite most of Shakespeare’s texts from memory. This, he felt, might be useful should all copies of the Bard’s works be consumed in a fire. Bardic memory feats apart, he is probably best remembered today as the brother of the much-loved actress Dame Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976). Also, readers of a certain age may recall reading his Dr Syn novels, which chronicle the smuggling-related adventures of The Revd Dr Christopher Syn, in and around Romney Marsh.  Less well-known are the six years or so at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign which he spent at Windsor, as a pupil at St George’s School and a chorister at St George’s Chapel. These were some of the happiest years of his long life.

Arthur Russell Thorndike was born on 6 February 1885 in the city of Rochester, west of the River Medway, so he was a true “Kentish Man” (as opposed to “Man of Kent” as the tradition goes).  His father, the Revd Arthur John Webster Thorndike (1853-1917) was a minor canon at the cathedral. His mother was Agnes Macdonald Bowers. He had two sisters, Eileen and Sybil, and one brother, Frank, who also became an actor, but sadly died on active service in France in 1917. Eileen Thorndike (1891-1954) was also an actress, known for her appearances in the BBC’s Sunday Night Theatre, which ran from 1950 to 1953.

Russell Thorndike arrived in Windsor in 1895.  Coming from an ecclesiastical background in a cathedral city, he might not have felt too daunted by the move, but during the train journey to Windsor he shed lots of tears of homesickness. On arrival at the GWR station, he gazed up at the castle, which seemed large and looming, and felt “very lonely”. Luckily, things were soon to change for the better as we learn from his remarkable memoir, Children of the Garter, published in 1937.  The book is subtitled Being the Memoirs of a Windsor Castle choir-boy, during the last years of Queen Victoria, and he dedicated it to the choristers of Windsor, especially the sixteen who lost their lives in the Great War.

His memoir runs to more than 200 pages and gives us  a vivid and often humorous account of his time at Windsor. His keen interest in ceremonial events and history in general comes across strongly. So, for example, we have entire chapters about the wars of Queen Victoria’s reign, and the sea journeys she undertook as monarch, plus detailed accounts of the Kaiser’s state visit to Windsor, and the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1897.

During young Russell’s time at Windsor there were two strong and charismatic (as we would now say) personalities in the St George’s community.  One was the formidable Sir Walter Parratt (1841-1924), the organist and choirmaster since 1882, and also the Master of the Queen’s Musick. He was clearly in awe of Sir Walter and describes him in his memoir as “the most musiciany-looking person imaginable.”  For his part, Sir Walter said his new choirboy reminded him of David Copperfield.  Sir Walter was a stickler for the highest standards of choral singing, and could strike fear into the hearts of choristers who failed to meet his high demands.  Yet there was a kindly side to him too.  On one occasion, as related by Russell Thorndike, he posed a riddle to his boy choristers: “Why am I like the Sea of Galilee?”.  None dared to reply so he answered his own question in these words – “Because our storms are sudden, but don’t last long”.

The other remarkable personality was of course Canon John Dalton (1838-1931), who was then the chapel’s precentor.  Canon Dalton has often been portrayed as a man of fearsome reputation, who made life very difficult for his fellow clergy.  However, in his memoir, Russell Thorndike gives us a much more rounded and nuanced view of the man. Apart from Sir Walter Parratt, “there was no more electrical personality in the Castle”.  He goes on to say:

life was never dull when he was in residence.  His unbeatable scholarship, his devotion to religion, and his wild enthusiasm for all good things, were tempered with an irresistible whimsicality and a grim humour that kept every one in the Castle on tenterhooks

In addition to all this, he was “a magnificent orator”.  So, Russell Thorndike’s view rather accords with that of Maurice Bond, who in 1956, referred to Canon Dalton as “a man of stalwart character, great learning, and unflagging devotion to the chapel”. We might even say the Thorndike opinion of Canon Dalton conveys the sheer Falstaffian immensity and complexity of the man.

As regards St George’s School, Russell Thorndike seems to have enjoyed a largely contented time there, although he always looked forward to the school holidays, when he could return home and spend time with his siblings. Also, in his memoir, he captures well the rituals and routines of schoolboy life in the late 19th century. He acquired the nickname “Thorney”, which itself indicates a broad acceptance of a talented boy by his classmates.

His time as a scholar and chorister at Windsor came to an end just before Christmas 1900. He was very sorry to be leaving but his parents wanted to send him to The King’s School, Rochester to complete his education. As he says in his memoir, “ I had experienced lovely times”.  But it wasn’t quite the end. Not long after he left, in January 1901, Queen Victoria died, and a lavish funeral was planned to take place in Windsor. At Sir Walter’s instigation, Russell Thorndike was invited back to take part as a chorister in the funeral service.  It was a very emotional occasion for him, as he recounts in his memoir. And there was more to come to make his day. After the service he was presented to Queen Victoria’s greatest actor Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905), and the two enjoyed a conversation about acting. For the teenage chorister, “the privilege of that conversation was the most thrilling thing that happened to me at Windsor”.

After leaving The King’s School, Rochester, Russell Thorndike attended Ben Greet’s Academy (along with his sister Sybil) to train as an actor.  In 1904, he made his stage debut in The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Theatre Royal, Cambridge. A few years later he toured North America with Ben Greet’s academy. In November 1907, he wrote a long letter to the editor of the St George’s Magazine, in which he relates a midnight visit which he and Sybil paid to New York City’s Chinatown. At the end of the letter, he says, “I think a great deal about my happy Windsor days. I would love to come and see dear old St George’s School again.”

During the Great War, he served with the Westminster Dragoons, but was badly wounded at Gallipoli and was invalided home.  In August 1918, he married Rosemary Benvenuta Dowson (1894/5-1970), daughter of a well-known actress. They had five children, the eldest of whom, Daniel, also became an actor, who appeared in many television series from the 1950s to the 1990s. Russell Thorndike’s career as an actor on stage and screen spanned more than five decades. In 1922, he played the title role in a silent film of Macbeth, and later had minor parts in Laurence Olivier’s three great Shakespearean films.  But his deepest fulfilment came through writing. As his 1937 memoir shows, he had a mastery of the English language which could have led him to be a great writer.

Russell Thorndike died in London on 7 November 1972, at the age of 87. His health was fragile in his last years, added to which he had severe financial problems.  Despite all this, he remained a proud member of a great theatrical clan.  As Sheridan Morley put it in his Oxford DNB entry, he was “devoted to his wife, sister, and overacting, in approximately that order, across more than half a century of greasepaint touring”. He now lies buried in St Peter and St Paul churchyard at Dymchurch in Kent, the stamping ground of his old fictional character, Dr Christopher Syn.

Russell Thorndike may have been overshadowed and outshone as an actor by his famous sister, but he well deserves remembrance as an actor of decent ability, a talented writer, and a man of wide cultural enthusiasms, which were nurtured during his happy, late Victorian days at Windsor.

Simon Harrison, Archives volunteer

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.