On their shoulders
Even before women had the right to vote, they were instrumental in creating The Old Vic. Over 200 years, countless women have played a fundamental part in not just The Old Vic’s history, but across the UK’s cultural landscape. Today on International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating them.
Although she died before it was built, the theatre-loving heir presumptive to the British throne became patron to a new theatre in Waterloo and the foundation stone was laid on 14 September 1816. Without Charlotte’s funding and name attached to the project, who knows if enough money would have been raised to build the theatre that still stands on The Cut today?
Together with her lover David Osbaldiston, Eliza took on the lease of The Royal Victoria in 1841. Born in 1815 to a newspaper seller in Blackfriars Road, she was a promising child performer who became a soubrette at Covent Garden. After her move to The Royal Victoria, she found herself on the front page of The Daughters of Thespis with an article that read: ‘Announced in the largest of type in the largest bills at the largest of minor theatres, as the acknowledged heroine of domestic drama.’
She became The Royal Victoria’s leading lady, where she stayed for 15 years – longer than any management before Lilian Baylis – cementing the theatre’s reputation as one of ‘the best in London North or South of the river.’ In 1852 she took over the lease entirely following Osbaldiston’s death. She died in 1856 at the age of 41.
Emma served as manager of The Old Vic for 32 years until her death on 24 July 1912.
Committed to improving the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, Emma was a strict advocate for temperance and under her management, no plays were performed and no alcoholic drinks were served.
In addition to the music-hall variety programmed instead, Emma also instigated temperance meetings and weekly lectures at the cost of one penny. These soon expanded to form Morley College, making Emma one of the earlier pioneers of the technical institute.
Together with her Aunt Emma, Lilian managed The Royal Victoria Hall from 1884 until Emma’s death in 1912. Lilian went on to manage the theatre for the next 25 years, bringing theatre back to the stage. Under her management, the theatre continued to operate throughout the First World War amidst the air raids, it was the first theatre to perform all 36 plays in Shakespeare’s First Folio and it became the birthplace of the English National Opera, the Sadler’s Wells dance company and a theatre company that would become the National Theatre.
She helped to nurture the careers of the likes of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Maurice Evans and Ralph Richardson. In 1924 she became the first woman in history to receive an honorary master’s degree from Oxford University for her work in the theatre and was made a Companion of Honour in 1929 for service to the nation.
Her motto, ‘Dare, Always Dare’ sits proudly in our foyer as a constant reminder of the spirit with which she ran The Old Vic.
Ninette de Valois
Ninette de Valois approached Lilian Baylis in 1926 after having danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. She was hired on £1 per week to teach the actresses of the company ‘how to move’ – Lilian was particularly concerned with their hands and said that she preferred beautiful hands to beautiful faces – and choreograph dance sequences for the Shakespeare repertory.
The Vic-Wells ballet was formed in 1931 after Lilian raised the funds to reopen Sadler’s Wells and it was down to Ninette to scrape together a ballet company of rising stars which included Alicia Markova, Margot Fonteyn and Lydia Lopokova. The two venues operated in tandem until 1939.
In 1945, the Company moved to Covent Garden where it later became the Royal Ballet. She was made Companion of Honour and Order of Merit.
‘Let us remember with gratitude Miss Baylis, who believed in Miss de Valois, and Miss de Valois, who believed in herself.’ The Sunday Times
Today, theatre impresario Sally Greene is Founding Trustee of the Theatre after forming a charitable trust to purchase it when, in 1997, The Old Vic was put up for sale. Bids came in from developers looking to turn the theatre into a shopping centre, bingo hall and even a lap-dancing club. A charitable trust was formed and acquired the building for £1.5m, saving it for the nation. Now, 72% of The Old Vic’s permanent workforce are women, and 75% of senior management are women – each leaving a legacy of their own in whichever area of the theatre they work.