Miss Lilian Baylis CH

Lilian Baylis, Manager Old Vic, 1910s © National Portrait Gallery[1]
Lilian Mary Baylis, 58, (1874-1937), CH, Hon. MA Oxon, Hon. LLD Birmingham, was a theatrical producer and manager, whose legacy today includes the Old Vic, Morley’s College and Sadler’s Wells. Born in London, travelling to South Africa for a while with her musical parents, she returned to London and began her great career helping her aunt Emma Cons, the founder of the Old Vic. She made theatre a success, staged all Shakespeare’s 1st Folio plays and was the first theatre manager to be made a Companion of Honour – and one of the very few women too. She was dedicated to bringing the arts to a wide social audience. As Winifred Holtby wrote “she could produce an opera from A to Z”.


Lilian Baylis would have been good company for anyone at the table.


That week Lohengrin was on at Sadler’s Wells and Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic so doubtless nothing to worry about there. We know Lilian was a good storyteller so she was probably looking forward to a pleasant evening amongst friends.


Lilian Mary Baylis was born at 19 Nottingham Street, Marylebone, London, on 9th May 1874, the eldest daughter of Elizabeth Cons, contralto and pianist and Edward William Baylis, an employee of Gillows furniture store in Oxford Street and a baritone singer – known as Newton Baylis. The eldest of ten children (five survived infancy), Lilian was educated at home and then every other week at St Augustine’s convent school, Kilburn. She became a trained violinist with lessons from John Tiplady Carrodus the composer and principal violinist at Covent Garden. .

The Baylis family emigrated to South Africa when she was seventeen, touring as the Gipsy Revellers. In Johannesburg, she managed an orchestra for women for five years but after a spell of ill health returned to London in 1898 for a visit, and stayed, helping her aunt Emma Cons run the Victoria Theatre, Waterloo Road, Lambeth, – the Old Vic – which was being run as a temperance hall, which meant having to offer a wide range of entertainments. LCC health and safety demands added to financial difficulties. Lilian became the manager after her aunt’s death in 1912 and began to change things, obtaining a theatre licence to stage Shakespeare.

Lilian Mary Baylis, 1910s ©National Portrait Gallery, London[2]
After some false starts, she succeeded in making the theatre a success, by 1923 had staged all the 1st Folio plays and eventually attracting West End performers such as Edith Evans, Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. In 1924 Oxford awarded Lilian an honorary MA and in 1929 she became one of the very few women to become a Companion of Honour – and indeed the first CH theatrical manager.

Lilian Mary Baylis, full honours, 1920s, © National Portrait Gallery, London[3]
She also had to find more space for Morley College, the educational activities of the theatre, started by her aunt, as well as renovating Sadler’s Wells to add space for opera and ballet (opening on 6th January 1931).

Lilian Mary Baylis, examining the Sadlers’ Well © National Portrait Gallery, London[4]
She wrote a History of the Old Vic with Cicely Hamilton and in 1926 Winifred Holtby wrote in “Letters from a Friend”: Lilian Bayliss [sic] perhaps you know. She is middle aged and brimming over with humour, vivacity and the love of life”…. and recounts several of her stories including one of “the [Dame Nellie] Melba farewell night” at the Old Vic. “A great woman – a grand woman. She could produce an opera from A to Z”.[5] [6] [7] [8]


Lilian with a dog, pre-1920 [10]
Lilian kept up managerial involvement in both venues until her death at 63 on 25th November 1937 at home, 27 Stockwell Park Road, London.[9] She was a member of the Women’s Provisional Club, one of the earliest clubs established for women.



[1] Lilian Mary Baylis, by Unknown photographer, bromide postcard print, 1910s, Given by Terence Pepper, 2014, Photographs Collection, NPG x198182 © National Portrait Gallery

[2] Lilian Mary Baylis, by Unknown photographer, bromide postcard print, 1910s, Given by Terence Pepper, 2014, Photographs Collection, NPG x198182 ©National Portrait Gallery, London

[3] Lilian Mary Baylis, by Vandyk, bromide postcard print, 1920s, NPG x198183 © National Portrait Gallery, London

[4] Lilian Mary Baylis, by C.W. Edes, bromide postcard print, 1920s,NPG x198184, © National Portrait Gallery, London

[5] Winifred Holtby, (1937) Letters to a Friend, eds. Alice Holtby, Jean McWilliam, London, Collins, p435.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilian_Baylis

[7] Lilian Baylis, Sadlerswells.com accessed 4.1.2018 https://www.sadlerswells.com/about-us/history/lilian-baylis/

[8] Lilian Baylis, Hutchinson’s Woman’s Who’s Who 1934, Hutchinson & Co. London.

[9] Elaine Aston, Baylis, Lilian Mary, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published September 2004, updated 6.1.2011

[10] Wikipedia, By sconosciuto, from Oldvictheatre.com

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