One day, around the start of World War One, a woman was walking down the street in London when she saw two girls singing. They were ‘minor actresses’, she said, out of an engagement – ie they were unemployed. With no earnings, they were being threatened with eviction from their lodgings, and busking on the street was their last chance of earning enough money to keep a roof over their heads. Of course, it wasn’t just actresses who could struggle; Londoners were facing high prices and housing issues, and according to the Reverend William Evelyn Kingsbury, who was the Honorary Assistant Secretary of the Actors Church Union, ‘London residents found it difficult to keep a roof over their heads.’ But thousands of those involved in the theatrical profession were reliant on lodgings or apartments, and, as the press noted, ‘how much difficult to keep a roof over their heads, how much more difficult the case of the young woman coming from the provinces to look for work!’
Virginia Compton, the woman who noticed the female buskers, was luckier than many of these actresses. When war broke out, she was 61 years old, and a veteran of the stage. She was also from an acting dynasty. Born Virginia Frances Bateman in New York in 1853, her parents were both performers. The eight Bateman offspring were expected to start performing as soon as they were old enough – the eldest two, Kate and Ellen, were acting by the age of eight, billed as the Bateman Children, and were successful on both sides of the Atlantic.
When Virginia was 17, her family moved back to England, as her father had accepted a new job as manager of the Lyceum Theatre. She now became part of Edward Compton’s company of actors and, in 1882, married him. Virginia enjoyed a certain level of success in the Victorian and Edwardian theatrical worlds, based on talent but also on family reputation. It is to her credit, though, that on seeing less successful actors, her primary response was to see how she could help them.
Virginia had a network of contacts within the theatrical world, gathered over many years of working in the profession. She set to fundraising, seeking the support of these friends and acquaintances. One was her good friend the eminent actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. She intended to open a residential establishment ‘to receive girls earning small salaries, girls looking for work, girls who are rehearsing, and girls who have been “out” a long time through various causes, and to help such to start again.’ Individuals gave money, or sponsored items for the new accommodation; even sleeping cubicles could be sponsored for £6 each – the cost of furnishing each of them.
The Theatre Girls’ Club was formally opened at 5 Little Portland Street, near Oxford Circus, on Saturday, 23 January 1915 by Adeline, the Duchess of Bedford. The Club aimed to offer free accommodation to girls ‘connected with’ the stage who were currently out of employment and in need of help. Those who were earning, but not very much, would also be allowed to stay, but would have to pay between 7s and 12s 6d per week for their board. The top two floors of the building were dormitories, each with 25 cubicles. Each cubicle contained a bed with sheets and counterpane. Elsewhere were reading and recreation rooms; an agreement was reached with the Hand-in-Hand Society to provide meals at low cost for the theatre girls, with fivepence being enough to buy a ‘cut from a hot joint, two vegetables, pudding, and a cup of tea or coffee’.
Fundraising obviously had to continue, in order to keep the Club open. The girls gave regular performances at the premises, with tickets costing either 1s or 2s. They sold merchandise such as leather cases, made by those girls who were unemployed; these cases were of different sizes, and designed to hold letters, pocket games, belts, or even slippers. There was considerable support for these girls; as one of their supporters said, ‘the public could not do too much for the theatrical profession, who had always responded to the call of charity, and had kept everybody’s spirits up during the war.’
In January 1917, the Theatre Girls’ Club relocated, Virginia Compton having found that the Little Portland Street building had become too small for her needs. A building at 59 Greek Street in Soho was deemed suitable, and as it had formerly been occupied by another girls’ club, is had everything Virginia needed, including a laundry, common room, dining room, and even a small stage. Although anyone who asked for accommodation was admitted, they were all also asked to contribute towards their rent and food, even if they were currently unemployed. Those out of work were charged 17s 6d a week – not much less than those in work, who were charged 21s 6d.
Once World War 1 ended, life slowly went back to some semblance of normality, with surviving soldiers, sailors and air force servicemen returning home, and families who had lost loved ones finding a new, sadder, routine. Many communities had been decimated by the loss of their male members, but there was a shift now, as women who had been filling the work roles of men returned back to their pre-war lives, and returning men took up those jobs again. In the theatrical profession, of course, actresses were always needed to fill roles whether it was peacetime or war, but the over-supply of actresses, and the competition for roles, continued now and into the 1920s.
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The girls admitted to the club had to find work any way they could and, then as now, many actresses resorted to short-term work away from the stage to earn some money. Some did secretarial work; others worked as models, dance teachers, barmaids, swimming instructors or masseuses. The growing cinema industry also gave them opportunities to work as ushers or pianists, accompanying the films. A key part of the theatre girls’ income was panto work. This was, of course, seasonal, and affected both the number of girls housed by the Theatre Girls’ Club, and what they could pay towards their board. During the winter pantomime season, the club saw a smaller number of girls needing a bed, as many went off to provincial theatres in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, taking chorus roles which offered a small, but regular income. However, by the end of January, it would be recorded in the club’s minutes that ‘the pantomimes are finishing and the girls are beginning to come back.’ Some weren’t even in the chorus; in 1929, Doris Lynn had undertaken a successful season of appearances ‘as principal girl in pantomime in Hull’, but as soon as her season ended, she had to return to Greek Street.
By the end of the 1920s, the Theatre Girls’ Club was just one of a range of philanthropic organisations designed to help struggling actresses. Other organisations, such as the Actors’ Church Union, helped actors of both genders, but for women, there was also the YWCA Theatre Girls Club in London. Speaking at a conference of the National Council of Girls’ Clubs, held at Cambridge in 1929, it was argued that a greater number of such residential ‘clubs’ for theatre girls were needed, because of the prevalence of ‘inferior lodgings’ that they would otherwise be forced into. One attendee noted that ‘the girls get very depressed about the precariousness of their work’.
The 1930s saw a continuation of financial pressures and girls needing accommodation at the Theatre Girls’ Club – and so also a continuation of fundraising efforts, which included a radio appeal in 1933. The 1939 Register offers a useful snapshot of who was resident at the Theatre Girls’ Club at the start of World War Two. There were just 14 individuals on site at the time the Register was completed, including Virginia Compton and two members of staff. The other 11 females present were aged between 24 and 39, and listed as dancers, singers, actresses, stage artistes, dance teachers and dance students.
There was both change and continuity once World War Two was declared. In the winter of 1939, pantomime opportunities once more meant regular earnings and work for actresses; the club’s minutes noted that there were 17 girls currently living at Greek Street, and that ‘most of the girls have fixed’ – in other words, most of them had gained pantomime engagements. However, by the start of February 1940, it had become clear that the pantomime season had been shorter than usual, curtailed by war and many usual audience members being called upon to fight. There were fewer auditions taking place for other productions, and those who had been in panto were now back at Greek Street, having had less work than expected, and now unable to find auditions for further work.
Some resourceful girls were able to find work entertaining the troops overseas, but this was not necessarily rewarding. One girl, Emily Tallak, left the Theatre Girls’ Club to perform with ENSA in France – they were performing Aladdin. Emily unexpectedly returned after just three weeks, complaining that she had had to work in ‘very cold and uncomfortable conditions’ and that most of the cast had picked up bad colds as a result. She said she had only taken part in two performances, and when a concert party was put on for the ‘ill and dispirited’ troops, nobody turned up to watch.
In the spring of 1940, Virginia died, aged 87. Her death marked the beginning of the Theatre Girls’ Club long, drawn-out demise, too. Times were changing, unemployment benefits now existed, and media coverage – so vital to bring in funds – declined. By the 1960s, the Theatre Girls’ Club had become something of a relic from a long-gone time. Soon, the club closed for refurbishment, as modern actresses wanted more home comforts than it had hitherto offered. In June 1966, Vanessa Redgrave reopened the building – now including showers, washing machines and coffee facilities – describing it as ‘a smashing place’. The reopening could not save the club, however.
Although in January 1970, after more temporary closures, it was announced that Harry Secombe had been elected the new President of the Theatre Girls’ Club, it had closed for good by the spring of 1972. Now it became a hostel housing 45 female alcoholics and drug addicts, the only criteria for admission being female and homeless. In 1979, though, a process had begun to rehouse the hostel’s residents, via charities and housing associations, to Lewisham, Belsize Park and other parts of London, and the days of the Theatre Girls’ Club as a place where vulnerable or potentially vulnerable women could find refuge were over.