Frances Maria Kelly: Founder of England’s First Drama School

Frances Maria Kelly (1790-1882) was born to Mark Kelly and Mary Singleton in 1790. Despite being an actor and master of ceremonies at Dublin Castle, Mark Kelly accumulated more debt than theatre roles. He abandoned Frances and his wife in 1795. Frances had a generous heart, because when she became financially independent, she helped support her father until his death in 1833. 

Frances was the niece of the tenor, composer, and theatre manager Michael Kelly, who placed her on stage at the age of seven in his opera, Blue-Beard, at Drury Lane Theatre. The following year she was added as a chorister at the theatre. She also took on several acting roles at Drury Lane, her last performance being in 1835. 

Frances Maria Kelly by Thomas Uwins, c. 1822.
Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Performing in various productions, including taking on men’s roles where she dressed in breeches, she became a popular actress in her time. So popular, she received various marriage proposals, including one from a stalker named George Barnett. George, however, disapproved of Frances wearing men’s breeches on stage and appeared at her 1816 performance in Modern Antiques, or the Merry Mourners at Covent Garden with a pistol. His bullet missed Frances and landed in the lap of a woman named Mary Lamb. Her brother, Charles Lamb, would later write a sonnet for Frances and also proposed marriage—but unlike George Barnett, he did so without a gun to underscore his offer. She refused him soundly, adding him to her string of dejected suitors. 

Frances made friends with many famous personages of 19th century England, such as Charles Dickens, the Duke of Devonshire, and the Earl of Essex. She also had a daughter, Mary Ellen Greville. It isn’t clear from sources whether Mary Ellen was adopted or born out of wedlock. 

Miss Kelly dressed for the role of a fish-wife, print made by Francis William Wilkin, c. 1830s-1840s. Credit: Public Domain, The British Museum

In 1833, Frances established a drama school at the Royal Strand Theatre, which is the oldest recorded school of its type in England. Her income from the drama school and Drury Lane performances allowed her to open yet another school to train young women. She used £20,000 of her own money to fund the endeavor. 

Later on, she constructed a theatre attached to her house and named it Miss Kelly’s Theatre.  She changed the name to The Royalty and opened it in 1840, hosting the first amateur theatre company in England. However, the theater had to be demolished and reconstructed when a friend of hers convinced her to use newly invented machinery to move the stage within. When it opened its doors again in 1841, Frances was in poor health with heaps of debt. She was fortunate in being given a royal allowance in her old age, which helped her survive for a short time until she died in 1882 at 92 years old. 


Frances Maria Kelly on Lord Byron and His Times

Frances Maria Kelly, Charles Dickens, and Miss Kelly’s Theatre and Dramatic School by Robert C. Hannah, The Dickensian, available through ProQuest

Frances Maria Kelly Papers: Finding Aid on Online Archive of California (OAC)

Regency Women of Character: Frances Maria Kelly on Regency Reader

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