Our founder, the great actress Kitty Carson, called a meeting of friends at her house in Great Russell Street in 1891. She told them, “I was very grieved to hear of many sad cases of distress among our sisters in the profession…” Together, they resolved to do everything in their power to help. Long before the advent of the welfare state, Kitty and her colleagues were all that stood between hundreds of theatrical workers and destitution.
And so the Theatrical Ladies Guild was born. Kitty Carson became the Hon. Treasurer, and the actress Fanny Brough took up the mantle of President. Until 2009, the Guild was run entirely by women; in 2001, we changed our name to The Theatrical Guild, to make it clear that we will support anyone who needs us – man, woman or child – as we have done for over one hundred and twenty-five years.
Kitty’s Busy Bees used to meet regularly to make clothing for new-born babies. In our early years, many actresses were fired from touring productions when they became pregnant, and found themselves abandoned in the provinces. Thanks to Kitty, Fanny and the Guild, hundreds of vulnerable women and their young children were spared the horrors of the Victorian workhouse.
More clothing was needed for the actors themselves; in the early 20th century, they were expected to supply their own costumes, the cost of which prevented poorer performers from being able to work. The Guild appealed for cast-off clothing (but none with moths, as it was noted we had “plenty of those already”). Combined with the efforts of The Stage Needlework Guild and their Sewing Bee branches in Edinburgh and Hull, we helped countless actors and actresses back into work and self-sufficiency. This is still central to our ethos today: we will always help people find their feet, so they can enjoy the reassurance and satisfaction of supporting themselves.
The Guild helped theatrical workers through ill health, too; in this regard, our work has changed little since 1891. Many early applicants were offered hospital beds, childcare, and help finding a home. This all required money, of course – and from the beginning, our fundraising efforts have been spectacular! We’ve been holding events at the Royal Albert Hall throughout our history, and have had the support of royalty and wealthy aristocrats from the very beginning.
In January 1927, a magnificent charity dinner dance was held at the Carlton Hotel for the princely sum of £2 2s, with an after-party at the Waldorf Hotel. Guests offered themselves in auction as dancing partners; Mr Selfridge won Adele Astaire, Fred’s sister and a prodigious dancer, for fifty pounds. She later laughed, saying “I expect that was the most expensive waltz he ever had.”
Irene Vanbrugh, our fiercely dedicated president of thirty-six years, gave a speech in 1936 that inspires us to this day. She praised “stage hands, dressers, those employed in the front of house… All that great army of unseen workers who also administer to the amusement of the public.”
Over a hundred and twenty-five years later, we’re still the go-to resource for theatre workers in hard times; and we’re driven by Irene’s belief that the unsung heroes of backstage and front of house deserve just as much gratitude and support as their actor colleagues. Now there are many other charities to support performers, we’re committed exclusively to that unseen army.
Our society and our industry may have changed beyond Irene or Kitty’s recognition, but some things have not. Theatre is still a volatile industry, and illness or misfortune can still prevent dedicated workers from being able to support their families.
If you agree with Irene, and you can afford to help the unseen army who work so hard to bring the magic of theatre to audiences across the UK, we’d be extremely grateful for your help.