William Hartnell (1908-1975) - the first Doctor Who
2013 will see the fiftieth anniversary of the popular television series, Doctor Who. Although the Timelord is believed to be somewhere between 900 and 1,200 years old, he was introduced to the British public fifty years ago, on 23 November 1963. The first Dr Who was William Hartnell, who died in 1978 and is found in the database amongst the records of the Kent and Sussex Crematorium.
|William Hartnell playing his most famous role of Doctor Who||(c) Wikimedia Commons|
Deceased Online holds around 95,000 cremation records for the crematorium, most of which are scans of the registers dating from 1958 to 1995. More recent records are available fully computerised. Other Kent records on the database include the burial registers of Tunbridge Wells and Southborough cemeteries.
|The gardens at Kent and Sussex Crematorium (c) www2.tunbridgewells.gov.uk|
William Henry Hartnell was born in the Bloomsbury area of London on 8 January 1908. His mother, Lucy Hartnell, was unmarried and worked as a commercial clerk, often sending the young 'Billy' to rural Devon to stay with her family. Hartnell disliked school, but after leaving joined a boxing club where he met Hugh Blaker, an art collector. A passionate theatregoer, Blaker helped Hartnell to gain a place at the Italia Conti Stage School, where the young Billy trained to be an actor.
Originally a theatre actor under the name of 'Billy Hartnell', he appeared in his first film, School for Scandal, in 1930. He became a leading actor in 1944 (Carol Reed's The Way Ahead) after serving in the tanks corps during the Second World War. Hartnell's film career developed over the next twenty years, culminating in one of his most celebrated roles, that of of Johnson, an old rugby league talent scout, in This Sporting Life (1963).
Verity Lambert, a BBC producer, spotted Hartnell in this film and offered him the title role of a new children's television series - Doctor Who. Initially reluctant to accept the role, Hartnell grew to love the character, and the respect it brought him from his grandchildren. In 1966, ill health and conflicts with a new producer led Hartnell to leave the programme, where he was replaced by Patrick Troughton.
Hartnell continued to act in theatre, film and television despite declining health. In 1973 he filmed a tenth anniversary episode, 'The Three Doctors', for Doctor Who, but was admitted to hospital the following year. William Henry Hartnell died on 23 April 1975 at Coxheath, near Maidstone. He was cremated five days later in Tunbridge Wells.
|Entry for William Henry Hartnell in the register of the Kent and Sussex Crematorium as digitized on Deceased Online|
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004-13): "Hartnell, William Henry (1908-1975), actor" by Robert Sharp