Lilian Baylis and the Vic

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In 1898 Emma Cons’ niece Lilian Baylis took over, on her aunts’ behalf, the management of the Royal Victoria hall and coffee tavern located south of the Thames. The building originally opened as the Royal Coburg Theatre in 1818 and, after a visit from Queen Victoria in 1833, had become known as the Royal Victoria and later the Old Vic. By 1912 Lilian was completely in charge and mounted Opera and Shakespeare at popular prices.

In the 1920’s Lilian became enthusiastic about acquiring the derelict Sadler’s Wells, a theatre rich in history dating from 1683, in order to provide north London with similar advantages. In 1925 a Fund was established under the Chairmanship of the Duke of Devonshire and eventually after much hard work, on the 6th January 1931 Lilian’s goal was achieved. The newly restored Sadler’s Wells opened with, appropriately, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the cast led by John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, current Old Vic players.

Two weeks later Carmen was staged with the ballet within the opera danced by Ninette de Valois and her students. De Valois had approached Lilian Baylis in 1926 and had been employed to choreograph dances for the operas at the Old Vic. She now transferred her school to Sadler’s Wells and established a ballet company, known as the Vic-Wells Ballet. This became the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, which de Valois took to Covent Garden in 1946.Ten years later the company received the charter to become the Royal Ballet. A second Sadler’s Wells ballet company was established at the Wells, which later moved to Birmingham becoming the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

The Old Vic continued to present plays with many famous artists taking part and carried on after the death of Lilian Baylis in 1937, going out on tour during the war when the Old Vic was bombed. After a very successful period in the New Theatre (now the Albery) the company returned to the restored Old Vic in 1950, but disbanded in 1962 when the newly established National Theatre company under Laurence Olivier moved in, remaining until 1976 when the South Bank Theatre complex was completed.

In 1969 the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company moved to the Coliseum and later was renamed the English National Opera. Lilian Baylis was thus the instigator of three National Companies. The Vic-Wells Association honours her name and is proud to have been founded by her in 1923 to assist her two theatres and form the link between the Audience, the Theatres and management.