Athene Seyler

Athene Seyler, CBE (31 May 1889 – 12 September 1990) was an English actress.

Athene Seyler
Athene Seyler.jpg
Seyler in 1950
Born(1889-05-31)31 May 1889
London, England
Died12 September 1990(1990-09-12) (aged 101)
Years active1909–68
Spouse(s)James Bury Sterndale Bennett (1914–?) (1 child)
(m. 1960; died 1972)
Partner(s)Nicholas Hannen (1922–1960)
ChildrenJoan Anne Bennett (1917–2015)

Early lifeEdit

She was born in Hackney, London;[1] her German-born grandparents moved to the United Kingdom, where her grandfather Philip Seyler was a merchant in London. Athene Seyler was educated at Coombe Hill School in Surrey, a progressive co-educational school which disliked petitionary prayer and whose advanced biology classes studied Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Seyler took part in an anti-blood sports demonstration, during which pupils captured the fox from the local hunt.[2]

She was also active in the South Place Ethical Society during the 1920s, where her father Clarence H. Seyler took his family for many years to hear Moncure Conway lecture as an alternative to attending a religious Sunday service.[2] Clarence ran a class for the study of Herbert Spencer, contributed to the South Place magazine on rationalist matters and wrote a treatise on birth control which he circulated privately among his family.[2]


Advertisement for the Seyler Hannen Company

Although better known as a stage actress - she first appeared on the stage in 1909 - she made her film debut in 1921, and became known for playing slightly dotty old ladies in many British films from the 1930s to the 1960s.

In 1933, Seyler together with Nicholas Hannen, took a company which included Hannen's daughter by his first marriage, Hermione Hannen, on a well received tour of the Far East and Australia.[3]

Her most memorable stage credits included Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals, Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and a double-act, with her good friend Dame Sybil Thorndike, as the murderous spinster sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace.

Her film and television career lasted into the 1960s, and included roles in The Citadel (1938), Night of the Demon (1957) and The Avengers (1964, 1965). She was also a regular cast member in screen adaptations of Charles Dickens' novels. Although her silent film appearance in Pickwick (1921) is missing, she played the elderly fiancée in The Pickwick Papers (1952).

She virtually retired from acting after 1970 but continued making public appearances until well into the 1980s, memorably as a guest of Terry Wogan on his eponymous BBC chat show. In 1988, at the age of 99, she was the castaway on radio's Desert Island Discs. In 1990, at the age of 101, she appeared at the National Theatre, talking about her long life and career.

Athene Seyler was President of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) from 1950, and a member of the Theatrical Ladies' Guild.[4] She also wrote The Craft of Comedy.

Honours and awardsEdit

She was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1959. In 1989 she was honoured as "Personality of the Century" by the Grand Order of Water Rats.

Marriages and relationshipsEdit

Seyler and Nicholas Hannen in Winter Sunshine, 1937

On 14 February 1914 she married James Bury Sterndale-Bennett (1889–1941), a grandson of the composer Sir William Sterndale Bennett and had a daughter Jane Ann (1917-2015) with him.

From 1922 she met and started living with fellow actor Nicholas "Beau" Hannen (son of Sir Nicholas Hannen). Hannen was married and his wife refused a divorce. In 1928, Seyler formally changed her name to Athene Hannen, although she continued to use Seyler professionally. In 1960, she and Hannen were married after his wife died.[1] At the age of ninety, Seyler told the interviewer David McGillivray that "she hadn't been made a Dame because for most of her life she lived with a man who wasn't her husband."[5]


The British National Portrait Gallery has numerous photos of Seyler.

The Australian National Portrait Gallery website has a portrait of Hannen and Seyler together.


Athene Seyler died in 1990, aged 101, and her ashes were placed in the Hannen Columbarium in St Mary's Churchyard, Wargrave.

Selected stage performancesEdit


Selected television and radio performancesEdit


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "Seyler, Athene (1889–1990)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/40480. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b c MacKillop, I. D. (1986) The British Ethical Societies, Cambridge University Press, [online] Available from: (Accessed 13 May 2014).
  3. ^ Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1933, p8
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 19 December 2013. Retrieved 18 December 2013.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ D. McGillivray, Little Did You Know: The Confessions of David McGillivray (Godalming: FAB Press, 2019), p. 174.

External linksEdit