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The loss of the Globe Theatre on Bankside in 1613 was a disaster on many levels. The information that was lost on Shakespeare and the business he conducted there was a tragedy. It took hundreds of years before Shakespeare’s plays were once again performed on Bankside. The Old Vic Theatre was the establishment and this article is an attempt to briefly chronicle it’s birth and early life at the hands of some remarkable women.

It is at this point that women enter the stage. It took a group of women – encouraged by the works of Wilkie Collins, Charles Kingsley and Dickens – to take measures towards remedying the total lack of interest in theatre in London at that time. We cannot therefore proceed further without mentioning Emma Cons. She has been referred to as an enemy of the theatre. However while she did disapprove of music halls and gin palaces, . she did not disapprove of entertainment. Her goal was to tempt the populace from the seedy drinking houses and brothels by offering them wholesome entertainment with coffee and buns by way of refreshment. Emma Cons inserted the word “coffee” into the name of The Coburg Theatre, and it became The Royal Victoria Coffee Music Hall. Eventually the words “coffee” and “music” were removed and it became known as The Royal Victoria Hall”.

The entertainment laid on by Cons was disparate. It was clean entertainment and very likely quite dull. Legend has it that to preserve the wholesome nature of the entertainment, Cons would sit in the prompt corner and drop the curtain on anyone who strayed into inappropriate behaviour during a performance. Lectures and penny readings, popular at the time were included in the programmes.

Emma Cons may not have been aware of it but the bait she was dangling to lure men and women from vice was the very essence of the theatre – what Harley Granville-baker called the miracle of human communion.

In 1895 something happened that seemed almost accidental but was a pivotal moment in the history of The Old Vic. Cons had a music and dancing teacher for a niece who liven in South Africa. Her aunt invited her to London for a holiday. This became the longest working day of her life. She became the Old Vic Manager under Miss Cons. Her name was Lilian Baylis. Emma Cons died in 1912 and her portrait was hung in the hall of The Old Vic next to a painting of King George V. ‘Not quite so large as Aunt Emma’s,’ Lilian Baylis once explained to Queen Mary, ‘because your dear husband has not done so much for The Old Vic.’

Baylis was soon searching for some new attractions to put on the bill. How she decided to put on Shakespeare’s plays is shrouded in mystery and we will probably never know the full story. The legend is that she said ‘I had lost so much money that in despair I turned to Shakespeare.’ It is at this period that the next formidable woman to enter the story of The Old Vic appears. A certain Rosina Filippi, and you can read more about her in the next part..