Emma Cons (1837-1912) and Lilian Baylis (1874-1937)

Above: Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Rosebery Ave, London EC1.

Emma Cons Gardens, The Cut, London SE1. “The Cut (formerly New Cut) is a street in London which runs between Waterloo Road in Lambeth and Blackfriars Road in Southwark, approximately parallel to the South Eastern Railway (England). The Old Vic theatre is at the western (Lambeth) end.” (Wikipedia)

From: an entry by John Earl in The Theatres Trust Guide to British Theatres, 1750-1950 – a Gazetteer (2000)*:

*updated version of Curtains!!! (1982).

“…Historically, as well as architecturally, the Vic (The Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1) is one of London’s most precious theatrical possessions. Built as a ‘minor’ for melodrama and pantomime, it was important in the history and development of popular theatre…It became world famous under (Emma) Cons and Lilian Baylis. The management of the Vic and the history of its productions have formed the subject of innumerable books and papers, but there has never been a completely authoritative architectural study. The Survey of London vol. XXIII offers little more than a sketch. Like the Haymarket, the Vic deserves meticulous research, close physical investigation and interpretive recording.”

From the website of English Heritage:

“Cons was a lifelong temperance campaigner and in 1879 she founded the Coffee Music Hall Company with the aim of developing the coffee tavern as an attractive non-alcoholic alternative to pubs and gin-palaces. Her first venture was the Old Vic in Waterloo Road. It opened as the Royal Victoria Coffee Music Hall in 1880, and nine years later also became the venue for Morley College’s evening classes for working-class men and women.

In 1899 Cons passed the management of the Old Vic to her niece, Lilian Baylis, who transformed the venue into a theatre. In the same year Cons took her seat as one of only three female members of the newly formed London County Council.”

John Earl, as above, on Sadler’s Wells:

“In all essentials, a completely new theatre and strictly, therefore, the Wells falls outside the scope of this survey. However, some parts of earlier theatres have survived and, as a location, the record of almost continuous occupation by an entertainment house on a single site is exceeded only by that of Drury Lane. On this basis it cannot be ignored.

A wooden ‘musick house’ was erected on the site in 1683, after discovery of medicinal wells in the grounds of Thomas Sadler. Successor theatres presented popular work of outstanding elaboration and quality, but it was not until the breaking of the Patent Theatres monopoly in 1843 that it became a mainstream theatre under Phelps. It became a music hall in 1893, then a cinema. In 1906 it fell into dereliction. Acquired by a charity initiated by Lilian Baylis, it was completely rebuilt and opened in 1931 in harness with the Old Vic and with the same policy of bringing quality theatre to the people. From 1934 it was dedicated to opera and ballet. The rather cheerless 1934 theatre was one of the first in London to be protected by inclusion in the Statutory List, an honour which must have been bestowed more in recognition of the historic ‘holy ground’ reputation of the site (and its wells) than for reasons of architectural quality.

A fully researched architectural history of the various Wells theatres is long overdue, including, as it would, Cabanel’s historically important 1802 reconstruction and its subsequent evolution. Where will we find a Leacroft or a Southern to do it?”




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