Born in London, Julia Neilson spent her early years studying in Germany before enrolling in the Royal Academy of Music and earning prize after prize for her singing abilities. On March 21, 1888, she made her first stage appearance at the Lyceum Theatre in W.S. Gilbert’s Pygmalion and Galatea in the role of Cynisca. A few months later, she moved up to the lead role of Galatea opposite Lewis Waller. Soon, she began performing and touring with Beerbohm Tree, who introduced her to Shakespeare through his production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. She continued to work under Tree’s guidance at the Haymarket Theatre, honing her craft and renown as an acclaimed tragedienne. In 1890, she met and married fellow actor Fred Terry who was also working at the Haymarket, and came from a famous acting family. Together, in their five years in Tree’s company, they performed in a variety of plays, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
In 1892, Neilson and Terry welcomed a daughter, Phyllis, into the world, who herself would grow up to become an accomplished actor in her own right. Later in life, both she and Phyllis would appear on stage several times together. Their second child, Dennis, also an actor-to-be, was both in 1895. After much success in England and in New York, Neilson and Terry performed as Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing and she played, to much acclaim, Rosalind in As You Like It, both staged at the St. James’s Theatre in London in 1898. Neilson was known for her statuesque figure and expressive voice. In 1899, she returned to Tree’s company, now at Her Majesty’s Theatre, to play the role of Lady Constance in King John, and appeared in the short, early silent film version of this play. With this second stint with Tree, Neilson also appeared as Oberon in the 1900 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then again as Rosalind in As You Like It.
After 1905, she devoted much of her time to theater management. From 1900, she and her husband managed the Haymarket Theatre for over twenty-seven years and led successful annual seasons at the New Theatre in London between 1905 and 1913. Neilson retired from the stage in 1934, a year after Fred’s death and two years after the untimely death of her son Dennis. She was honored in 1934 with a celebratory luncheon to honor the fiftieth anniversary of her stage debut. Neilson passed away after a fall at her home in London in 1957. Both she and Fred are buried at Hampstead Cemetery in London.
Neilson is connected to many of the famous names in the acting community. Her cousins include Eileen and Nora Kerin and a young John Gielgud, and through her marriage to Fred, she became sister to Ellen and Kate Terry, and aunt of such figures as Edith and Edward Gordon Craig.