Lilian Baylis

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Lilian Mary Baylis
Lilian Baylis and friend c. 1920
Born (1874-05-09)9 May 1874
Died 25 November 1937(1937-11-25) (aged 63)
Cause of death Myocardial infarction
Resting place East London Cemetery
Nationality British
Occupation Theatrical producer and manager
Known for Revived Old Vic and Sadler's Wells. Founded forerunners of English National Opera, National Theatre and Royal Ballet.

Lilian Mary Baylis[1] CH (9 May 1874 – 25 November 1937) was an English theatrical producer and manager. She managed the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells theatres in London and ran an opera company, which became the English National Opera (ENO); a theatre company, which evolved into the English National Theatre; and a ballet company, which eventually became The Royal Ballet.

Early years[edit]

Lilian Baylis was born in London, England. Her education was mainly in music, and she began performing and teaching music at an early age. The Baylis family ran a concert party that performed with some success under the name of The Gypsy Revellers and, as a young teenager, Lilian Baylis sometimes played several Gypsy Revellers engagements in one night.

The other major influence in her life was social housing; Baylis's aunt, Emma Cons, was an associate of Octavia Hill and worked energetically to improve the quality of life for those living in London's slums.

South Africa[edit]

In 1891, Baylis's family emigrated to South Africa when The Gypsy Revellers were offered a long-term contract there. They toured for some time but eventually settled in Johannesburg, where Baylis earned a good living as a music and dance teacher. In 1898, she returned to London from South Africa as she was ill, and her intended return to South Africa was delayed by the outbreak of the Boer War. While living in London she assisted Emma Cons in running The Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern near Waterloo Station, and Baylis gradually took on more management duties running concerts, film shows, lecture programmes and variety shows. Eventually she decided to stay in England and, following Cons' death in 1912, Baylis had complete managerial control of the theatre, known by then as the "Old Vic", until her death.[2][3]

One of her most significant achievements at the Old Vic was to produce a full cycle of Shakespeare's plays, starting with The Taming of the Shrew in 1914 to Troilus and Cressida in 1923.

Sadler's Wells[edit]

The Old Vic Theatre from the corner of Baylis Road.

In 1925, Baylis began a campaign to re-open the derelict Sadler's Wells Theatre, something she finally achieved with a gala opening, on 6 January 1931, of a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night starring John Gielgud as Malvolio and Ralph Richardson as Toby Belch. For the first few years the opera, drama and ballet companies, known as the "Vic-Wells" companies, rotated between the two theatres, but by 1935 the ballet and opera companies were based at Sadler's Wells and the drama company at the Old Vic.

In 1928, Baylis engaged Ninette de Valois, under whose direction British classical ballet really developed at Sadler's Wells. Here de Valois nurtured the careers of dancers such as Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann, and her productions of classical work often featured guest appearances from Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. Musical direction was by Constant Lambert, and choreography for new works by de Valois and rising star Frederick Ashton. The ballet company's descendants today are the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Growing stars[edit]

The Drama company also nurtured the careers of stars – Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Maurice Evans, Ralph Richardson – and became famous for stylish productions under the artistic directorship of Tyrone Guthrie during the 1930s. In 1937 Guthrie's production of Hamlet played at Elsinore/Helsingør in Denmark, with Olivier in the title role, and Vivien Leigh as Ophelia.

One of Baylis' greatest achievements was Gielgud's first performance as Hamlet in 1930, which became the first Old Vic production to be transferred to the West End for a run. She also scored a casting coup by featuring Charles Laughton at the theatre in 1933 after he had become a worldwide name in the film The Private Life of Henry VIII. To exploit the audiences' interest in the film, she cast Laughton as Shakespeare's Henry VIII.

Recognition and death[edit]

Baylis was awarded an honorary master's degree from Oxford University in 1924, only the second such honour to be given to a woman by the university. In 1929, she was made a Companion of Honour (CH) for service to the nation. In 1934 Birmingham University awarded Baylis an honorary doctorate. A Greater London Council blue plaque commemorates Baylis at her home, 27 Stockwell Park Road in Stockwell, South London.[4] and the Lilian Baylis Technology School, Kennington is so named in her honour.

After a long illness, Baylis died of a heart attack on 25 November 1937, aged 63, the night before the Old Vic was to open a production of Macbeth starring Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson.[5] She was cremated at East London Cemetery and Crematorium, where her ashes were scattered at her own request. There is no memorial.


In 1985, English National Opera created an education and outreach department, naming it the Baylis Programme called in Lilian Baylis's honour. The Baylis Programme (now called eno baylis) was led for ten years by its founder directors Rebecca Meitlis and David Sulkin. Subsequent directors included Steve Moffitt[6] and Alice King-Farlow. In the Lilian Baylis tradition the work of ENO Baylis focusses on those who are new to opera. It involves around 12,000 people every year in a wide range of projects, events, courses and performances, with a goal of developing creative responses to opera and music theatre; making new work with communities and exploring individual creativity as a means of providing access to ENO's productions; and encouraging learning and development through participation of artists and collaboration of resources.

The current Sadler's Wells Theatre contains a 200-seat theatre named after her, and the National Theatre has a Lilian Baylis terrace. The upper circle in the Old Vic is called the Lilian Baylis Circle. A building in West Hampstead used by ENO for rehearsals and production wardrobe is called Lilian Baylis House. In Vauxhall the Lillian Baylis secondary school is also named in her honour. There is a Lilian Baylis rose, and the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation administers the annual Lilian Baylis awards for promising acting students. A street alongside Waterloo Station is named Baylis Street.


  1. ^ Schafer, Elizabeth (2006), "Lilian Baylis: A Biography". University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield. ISBN 1-902806-63-8
  2. ^ Findlater, Richard (1975), Lilian Baylis: The Lady of the Old Vic. London: Allen Lane.
  3. ^ Hamilton, Cecily and Baylis, Lilian (1926), The Old Vic. London: Cape.
  4. ^ "BAYLIS, LILIAN (1874–1937)". English Heritage. Retrieved 20 October 2012. 
  5. ^ Tanitch, Robert, "Olivier". Abbeville Press
  6. ^

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