The Royal Victoria Hall

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On this day in 1880 Emma Cons took over the management of The Old Vic.

The past decade had been an uncertain one for the theatre. It went bankrupt in 1872 after manager Romaine Delatorre failed to pay the bill for his lavish renovation of the theatre. William Frewer followed and went bankrupt in 1875. John Aubrey took over the lease but failed to programme enough shows leaving the theatre dark for weeks at a time and in 1877, former manager J. Arnold Cave took up the post once again until a committee of benevolent gentleman made an offer in the name of temperance.

The committee formed the Coffee Tavern Music Hall Company and Emma Cons was their hon. Secretary. With the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Westminster she applied for a music and dancing licence for ‘The Royal Victoria Hall.’ The lease was bought and sacks of shrimps’ heads, nutshells and dried orange peel were dug out of the pit. The new temperance music hall opened on Boxing Day 1880 with American songs and dances, an orchestra, a juggler, a troupe of Roman gladiators and a cartoonist. The front of the theatre had been transformed into a coffee house:

‘And the experiment has succeeded to the glory of Emma Cons… Women with their children are there, boys and girls at the “dangerous age”, working men and slaving women; and over all hangs an atmosphere of purity and truth which must cause rejoicing in Heaven, for Emma Cons has found the way to console and pacify the troubled soul.’ The Birmingham Daily Post, 1888

For the next 32 years no plays were performed and no alcoholic drinks were served for the next 50.

Emma served as manager of The Old Vic for 32 years until her death on 24 July 1912. In 1929, a memorial plaque was unveiled by the late Queen Mother on the north western corner of The Old Vic. The plaque was restored in October 2017 with the support of the Heritage of London Trust and the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation.

The inscription reads:

Emma Cons, Founder of ‘The Vic’, Alderman of the First London County Council. Born 1837. Died 1912. Lover of beauty, and pupil of Ruskin, she yet gave up the life of an artist for social work, so deeply did she sympathise with those who lack many of the good things of life. To improve housing for working men and women, to provide wholesome and joyous recreation at a low price, to promote education, to protect infant life, and to bring a human touch to the children in the industrial schools of her day. To such beneficent ends she gave her very self. Large-hearted and clear-sighted, courageous, tenacious of purpose and of great personal modesty, her selfless appeal drew out the best in others and was a constant inspiration for service to all with whom she was associated.

Image credit: University of Bristol Theatre Collection

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