To celebrate 100 years since British women were given the right to vote, The Telegraph - alongside the Mayor of London's #BehindEveryGreatCityCampaign - is running a weekly series.
'Hidden Credits' will look back and celebrate individual women who have smashed glass ceilings, helped change society for the better and given the UK's capital something to boast about.
A few days after opening her new theatre, the recently restored Sadler’s Wells, Lilian Baylis, manager of the Old Vic Theatre in London, lay stricken in the street following a serious car accident.
Her secretary explained to the policemen that the injured party was “Miss Baylis, Miss Baylis of the Old Vic” - at which point, despite being badly hurt, Baylis roused herself to add: “And Sadler’s Wells.”
This helps to paint the picture of a woman who was regarded as a work-loving eccentric, and maverick, too.
Born on May 9 1874 in Marylebone, London, Baylis was brought up by parents whose artistic talents undoubtedly influenced her own. Her mother, Elizabeth, was a professional singer and pianist, while her father Newton was a baritone.
Baylis staged affordable theatre and saw no reason why the inhabitants of Waterloo shouldn't enjoy Shakespeare
Baylis began her professional performance career with her family’s performance troupe, the Gypsy Revellers, who took the stage at high-society engagements, performing for the likes of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, in June 1890.
The troupe emigrated to South Africa in 1891 after being offered a nine-month contract to tour the country, which they would do for two years. It was there that Baylis taught fiddle, banjo and mandolin, played violin in several orchestras and led them, too, heading up a banjo orchestra of bank workers, and an orchestra of the wives of millionaires.
These proved crucial in honing Baylis’s craft for management, and led to her following a new career in teaching dance, setting in motion what would lie ahead for her in London.
Baylis returned to England in 1897 following a kidney operation, and stress among the Anglo-South African community after the Jameson raid. Back home, Baylis recovered quickly, and was soon working hard to help her aunt, Emma Cons, run the Royal Victoria Hall. A year later, she became its acting manager.
After Cons’s death in 1912, Baylis took over the management of the venue now known as the Old Vic, and stayed true to the vision of her predecessor in using it as a means for social outreach.
Baylis became its driving force in offering affordable theatre; under her management, every one of Shakespeare’s plays was produced between 1913 and 1923 for a working class audience.
In an effort to extend her work north of the river, Baylis successfully raised funds to renovate Sadler’s Wells Theatre, which opened in 1931 with a performance of Twelfth Night starring John Gielgud.
Soon, opera and dance would become the theatre’s mainstays, while drama continued to flourish at the Old Vic. With typical foresight, Baylis enlisted Ninette de Valois to lead the dance company at Sadler’s Wells, under whose inspired direction saw its classical ballet offering go from strength to strength.
Baylis forged a legacy both through what she herself achieved, and the platform she gave to others. During the 1930s, she launched the careers of actors who would go on to define their generation, from Gielgud to Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans. This coterie formed a repertory company at the Old Vic, from which later sprung the National Theatre Company.
Today, as Sylvia, a musical celebrating the life of Sylvia Pankhurst and her pivotal role in the campaign for women’s rights, opens at the Old Vic, the role of the woman who paved the way for such productions to take the stage - not least in a time when her professional seniority was so rare among her sex - is well worth celebrating, too.
Baylis was at the centre of what are now enduring institutions. The Old Vic Company was reformed as the National Theatre Company in 1963, while her Sadler’s Wells Opera company moved to the London Coliseum, and was renamed the English National Opera.
Baylis proved to be committed to the notion of art as the absolute right of the people
At the end of the war, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet moved to the Royal Opera House, and became the Royal Ballet, and a second company, Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, formed when the original company relocated, going on to become the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
In spearheading early conversations about access to the arts, Baylis proved her commitment to the notion that it should not be reserved for the elite by providing it at affordable prices - in spite of keeping her own wage incredibly low to do so.
In using the arts as a tool to educate and enrich, it is no wonder that, even after her death in 1937, the companies which she established continue to flourish today.