Emma Cons (1838-1912)

Sector: Consumer Services

On the corner of the Old Vic theatre in London is a large stone inscription to its founder, Emma Cons, celebrating her life and work.  However, the Old Vic did not have a theatrical licence until after Emma died so although she put on ‘Grand Shakespeare Nights’, she never staged a full-length play there. Her theatrical legacy is far outstripped by the mark she made in a host of other areas spanning housing and horticulture, education and local government. 

Emma is also commemorated by a blue plaque at 136 Seymour Place in Marylebone. Here she is described as a ‘philanthropist’.  This might conjure up images of a wealthy, genteel Lady Bountiful. Not at all. There were no dulcet tones and fluttering eyelashes – Emma was happy to challenge the accepted norms and strode around ‘as if she was measuring a plot by yard steps’, according to Henrietta Barnett.   She was also not rich. She started her life in 1838 in St. Pancras, the child ‘of humble parents’. Her father made piano keys and financial constraints meant that Emma left school early. 

Her financial position meant that Emma spent most of her taking a commercial approach to her diverse agenda of social improvement, creating what we would now call social enterprises. Despite her propensity for unconventional behaviour, she could ‘soon capture the heart’ and key to her success was her ability to develop a wide-ranging network of influential women (and the odd man) who she won over to her various causes.

Emma Cons, in The Graphic 7/9/1889
(c) Illustrated London News/www.maryevans.com

It was Emma’s natural artistic talent that gave her an entrée into a wealthier and more powerful circle.   She trained as an artist at the Ladies Guild under Caroline Hill, mother of Octavia, future co-founder of the National Trust. One of her first jobs was as an illuminator, restoring manuscripts for John Ruskin, who admired her work and wanted her to remain in the arts.  But a trip to Switzerland inspired Emma to venture into the world of watch-engraving and tried to set up a co-operative business with other women doing this in London. Successful at first, male competitors soon reacted by beating up the delivery man who worked for her and customers deserted them.

She went on to be the first woman employed by the renowned stained glass manufacturer, Powell’s of Whitefriars, which handled commissions for many of the Pre-Raphaelite Boy’s Club.   She worked on the restoration of Merton College Chapel in Oxford for two years but again suffered from bullying, her work deliberately damaged by her male colleagues.

Henrietta Barnett later wrote that Emma ‘disliked, positively disliked, the male sex.’  Even if this was true, it does not have seemed to have stopped Emma from seeking and gaining support from a wide range of men and working with them perfectly effectively. However, she was certainly a feminist, a fervent supporter of women’s suffrage and preferred putting in women into her management teams when she could.  

Emma was the same age as Octavia Hill and the two women had what was described as a ‘strong and intimate’ friendship, by Emma’s niece, Lilian. Emma’s close emotional relationships were with other women but Lilian’s decision to burn many of Emma’s personal papers after her death means that their exact nature will never be known. It has also deprived us of deeper insight into Emma’s thoughts and reflections as she forged her wide and winding path through the educational and social structures of the Victorian era.

Octavia was an acolyte of F.D. Maurice, theologian, Christian Socialist and founder of the Working Men’s College in Bloomsbury in 1854.   In 1865, John Ruskin helped Octavia set up her first social housing scheme in Marylebone and she offered Emma a job collecting rent from the tenants, with accommodation included.  Emma was a valuable member of the team, very practical and financially savvy, able to identify any building improvements that were needed and cost them out, able to connect with the tenants.  After a stint in Marylebone, she went on to manage another project of Octavia’s, the Central London Dwellings Company based in Drury Lane. 

Living where she was working, Emma could see for herself the economic and social damage that excessive drinking could cause in families and this was what drove her commitment to the temperance movement.   She joined up with Thomas Hughes, social reformer, author of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, a member of the F.D. Maurice fan club and co-founder of the Working Men’s College, to set up a coffee tavern, ‘The Cat and Comfort’ in Covent Garden.  The idea was to offer a pleasant, teetotal, alternative to the many pubs in the area.  A working girls’ club was soon set up on the same premises, giving access to a piano and a library as well as offering job counselling and a creche for working mothers.

Thomas Hughes by Lock & Whitfield, published by Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, woodburytype,
Published 1880 © National Portrait Gallery, London

It was soon after this, at the end of 1876, that Emma founded her first social enterprise, the Coffee Taverns Company.   She was now 38 and able to draw on useful and well-established connections. Tom Hughes and Ernest Hart, editor of the British Medical Journal and brother-in-law of the social reformer Henrietta Barnett, were both directors.  The first Duke of Westminster was one of the Vice-Presidents and the Right Hon W.F. Cowper-Temple, Liberal M.P., was President.   The bankers were Coutts and Co.

The company’s first venue was at 344 Edgware Road and was open from 5am to midnight Monday-Saturday, 1pm – 11pm on Sundays.  It sold cocoa, tea and coffee and promised that ‘working men and women can bring their own dinners and eat them in this establishment.’   By the end of 1877 the company had two more coffee taverns near Billingsgate fish market and in Seven Dials, Covent Garden.  The profit margin was 7% ‘notwithstanding the low and seemingly ridiculous price at which the articles are sold’, and the chain quickly expanded. 

In April 1878, the company issued its second Annual Report. Its first three sites now had 4,000 customers a day and were selling 26,500 drinks, 1,646 loaves of bread, 384 pounds of beef and ham and 30 dozen eggs every week.  The company also issued a pamphlet, ‘Practical Hints for the Management of Coffee Taverns’, to help other entrepreneurs.  The report made ‘special mention of the invaluable service which Miss Cons has rendered.’  William Gladstone was added to the list of vice-presidents and Florence Nightingale wrote asking to buy shares. By March 1879, the chain had expanded to 16 venues, adding nine more the following year.  By then, the company saw 30,000 customers a day.

This model, an enterprise with a clear social purpose that generated enough income to sustain itself and attract high-profile supporters, was the one Emma broadly tried to follow from then on, with varying degrees of success.  Next was a housing scheme, the South London Dwellings Company, on the corner of Lambeth Road and Kennington Road, which she formed in 1879.  It was as a director of this business that Emma became the first woman to address the Institute of Directors in 1908.

Emma lived on site and so got to know the local neighbourhood including the nearby Royal Victoria Theatre, which at that point was empty. She wanted to transform it into a multi-purpose venue run on temperance lines which would make the arts accessible to all.  She used money from the coffee business and raised additional funds from, among others, the composer Arthur Sullivan, who would have been flush with his profits from ‘The Pirates of Penzance’.  1880 saw the formation of the Coffee Music Halls Company and in October it was granted a music and dancing licence. 

Royal Victoria Coffee Palace and Music Hall (1881)
Royal Victoria Coffee Palace and Music Hall from The Graphic 20/8/1881
(c) Illustrated London News/www.maryevans.com 

Saturday nights saw music hall acts take to the stage. On other days of the week it also hosted temperance meetings and ‘penny science’ lectures. The lectures had become so popular that four men asked about regular classes and so, as an experiment, these were organised in October 1885.  From these small beginnings, interest quickly grew.   The programme on offer expanded beyond the sciences to include French, literature, music, politics and economics.   

However, with charges for all activities kept low to enable accessibility and no alcohol sales to boost revenues, the ‘Old Vic’ quickly turned into a money pit. The years between 1881 and 1889 were frantically busy. Emma hired a series of theatrical managers, but most were short-lived and she ended up doing a lot of the day-to-day management herself. Key to putting the company on a firmer financial footing and maintaining its long-term viability was purchasing the freehold, which became a condition of Charity Commission funding. The Coffee Taverns Company was wound up in 1885 to release funds and after a prolonged period of fund-raising efforts and campaigns the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation was finally established. It brought together a coalition of partners, including the University of London, the Royal Academy of Music and the Borough Road Polytechnic Institute, all united in the purpose of making the Old Vic a place for ‘the benefit and enjoyment of the people forever’.

Lady Frederick (Lucy Caroline) Cavendish c.1860 (c) Royal Collections Trust

One key supporter during this period was Lady Frederick (Lucy) Cavendish (1841-1925). Widowed in 1882 when her husband, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire, was murdered in Dublin shortly after being made Irish Secretary, she put her energies into educational projects. Lucy’s connections were not just a result of her marriage. She was the daughter of Lord Lytton, had been a Maid of Honour to Queen Victoria and was a niece of William Gladstone. She brought a wealth of useful connections and was actively involved in the running of the Old Vic ventures, sitting on the Council of Morley College from 1889.

Also critically important was the wealthy textile manufacturer, politician and supporter of the temperance movement, Samuel Morley, who joined the Executive Committee in 1884 and made sizeable donations to the company.

In 1889, Morley Memorial College (for Working Men and Women), was officially opened in the Old Vic. By the time Princess Christian visited the College in May 1890 to open an art exhibition showing work by Frederic Leighton, G.D. Leslie and Edward Burne-Jones, the college had 800 students, nearly all resident in Southwark.  Right from the start, it was agreed that three of the council members had to be women and there was a series of women principals: first was Louisa Goold, who gave Helen Cox her first break, followed by Caroline Martineau in 1891 and then Mary Sheepshanks, who invited Emmeline Pankhurst to lecture there in 1907.

It also attracted talented teaching staff. Gustav Holst was the Director of Music from 1907 until 1924 and other teachers and lecturers who went on to great things were Virginia Woolf and E.M. Foster, who used his experience there in his creation of the character of Leonard Bast in ‘Howard’s End’. It continued to grow but it was not until the 1920s that it moved out of its original home at the Old Vic to another nearby site in Lambeth, where it still stands today.

1889 was also the year when elections were held for the newly formed London County Council. Some women could vote in these elections but there was confusion over whether under the 1888 Local Government Act women could also serve as councillors. Jane Cobden and Margaret Sandhurst tried standing as Liberal candidates to see what happened and both were accepted as having been elected. Eighteen Aldermen were also chosen by elected council members. Emma was the only woman, a remarkable event and one that sparked a flurry of stories about her, followed by another flurry of corrections, like this one in the Illustrated London News:

‘Emma Cons..objects to being known as “the manager of a Mission in South London.” She writes as follows:- “I have nothing whatever to do with the management of any ‘mission’ either there or elsewhere. My work has been essentially practical. It has been to endeavour, by making the housing of the mass of people more sanitary and comfortable, themselves more provident and temperate and their recreation more intelligent and healthy, to make their lives more happy and better worth living.”‘

Legal challenges restricted their ability of all three of them to participate as fully as they would have wanted, though Emma still managed to serve on numerous committees. However, out of this came another different opportunity. In the autumn of 1890, she was invited by another member of the London County Council, John McDougall, to visit the campus of Swanley Horticultural College in Kent. 

Emma went with the woman she had been sharing her life with since 1882, Ethel Everest, to spend a few weeks there, working alongside the male students to prove women had the strength to do the job.  She soon joined the governing body in 1890 and both she and Ethel, who had a private income, invested in it.  This undoubtedly made it more likely that her proposal to open up classes to women fell on listening ears and work started on finding them somewhere suitable to live. 

In 1891 College welcomed its first five women students. Fees were £70 to £80 a year and the course included lessons in book-keeping alongside the core sciences and the basics of building and construction.  Scholarships were offered in 1893 and another ten women became students.  The same year, Emma made a further loan to the College and in 1894 Ethel joined the board of directors.   1895 saw the College’s first high-profile success as Annie Gulvin, a Swanley student, came top of the Royal Horticultural Society’s examination rankings table that year.  Altogether, of the twelve students assessed as First Class, six were from Swanley and four were women and it was from Swanley alumni that Kew took its first women gardeners.

By 1896, more women were applying to Swanley than men.  A whole slew of high-powered women were becoming involved in Swanley’s governance, including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Eleanor Sidgwick, principal of Newnham College and Eva McLaren, a committed suffragist and sister of another one of Helen Cox’s supporters, Henrietta Müller.    Constance Martineau, Caroline’s sister, who had also taught at Morley College, gave a large loan to the college in 1899.    In 1902 the decision was made to become a women-only college, a turnaround that is remarkable yet somehow unsurprising, later characterised as a ‘triumph of brains over brute’.

To ease the burden on Emma, her niece, Lilian Baylis, took over the management of the Old Vic in 1898. However, Emma still kept a close eye on the financials.  In 1905, when renewing the music and dancing license, she strenuously objected to demands being made to install a direct phone line to the local fire station (which can still be seen from the steps of the Old Vic, even if Emma would vehemently disapprove of its current use).  ‘What do we want of a telephone? We have only to stand at the door and shout “Fire!” and it would be heard at the adjacent fire station.  Why are we to put up a telephone which is no good to use and pay £4 10s a year?’  A year later she was still holding out and eventually a compromise was agreed whereby Miss Cons was to ‘provide prompt communication in the event of fire and not necessarily a telephone.’

The Old Vic Theatre today with the memorial to Emma Cons visible on the right hand side.
The Fire Station, still standing but now a pub, diagonally opposite the Old Vic.

Emma’s political involvement increased after her experiences with the London Council shenanigans. She was a Liberal, a member of the Liberal Women’s Federation Executive Committee and a very active member of the Women’s Local Government Society, which finally achieved its goal of legalising the election of women in local government elections in 1907.   She was a keen supporter of women’s suffrage but decried the methods of the WSPU and was one of many high-profile women who signed a letter to the press in December 1908 urging that Lloyd George be allowed to speak and be heard on the issue of Women’s Suffrage at an upcoming meeting of the Women’s Liberal Foundation at the Albert Hall.

Emma was active in her many projects until the end of her live. When she died in July 1912, Henrietta Barnett hailed her as a ‘pioneer of modern social service.’   King George V and Queen Mary sent a telegram regretting the death of a woman ‘for whose self-sacrificing life their Majesties had a high regard’ while a Lambeth dustman wrote to tell of the transformation in his life ‘from a drunkard to a useful citizen’. A memorial fund was set up in her honour, the money going to the Old Vic.  In her will she asked to be cremated and ‘the ashes scattered in the little wood at Hever, Kent, to which Miss Everest has kindly consented and she knows the spot we have arranged.’

In comparison to her peer, Octavia Hill, relatively little has been written about Emma.  When you put ‘Octavia Hill’ into Amazon it comes up with a list of relevant books but when you put in ‘Emma Cons’, the number one suggestion is a Spanish translation of Jane Austen’s classic novel.   Where she is celebrated is the community she served for much of her life, Lambeth. The large stone tablet on the side of the Old Vic Theatre was recently restored, its gold lettering glinting in the winter sunlight, there is a small urban park named after her opposite the theatre and further down Westminster Bridge Road, she is commemorated in mosaic form on the Morley College building.

The memorial to Emma Cons on the Old Vic Theatre. “Lover of beauty and pupil of Ruskin, she yet gave up the life of an artist for social work… To improve housing for working men and women. To provide wholesome and joyous recreation at a low price. To promote education… She gave her very self, large-hearted and clear-sighted, courageous, tenacious of purpose and of great personal modesty.”

When looking at the full breadth of Emma’s life and work, it is clear that Emma would have been totally at home in the 21st century. She lived in and with the communities she supported. She was a standard-bearer for purpose-driven businesses. She was always looking for ways to level up, creating more opportunities fo advancement for those excluded due to gender or socioeconomic status and believed great teaching and great art should be open to all. And she would have loved the idea of Dry January. Her attitudes and beliefs place her at the vanguard of movements active and relevant today and more than a hundred years after her death, we can still draw inspiration from her.

Sources include: 

Marylebone Mercury 9/6/1877; Sunderland Daily Echo 15/12/1877; The Globe 24/12/1877; Salisbury Times and South Wilts Gazette 13/4/1878; The Globe 22/10/1880; Illustrated London News 23/2/1889; The Morning Post 26/5/1890; The Stage 16/11/1905; The Daily News 1/12/1906; Belfast Newsletter 29/7/1912; Common Cause 1/8/1912; The Vote 10/8/1912; The Globe 2/10/1912; The Graphic 26/10/1918; ‘How Emma Cons transformed the Old Vic’ by Frances Collingwood in The Stage, 26/7/1962

‘Enterprising Women: The Garretts and their Circle’ by Elizabeth Crawford (2002); ‘Women of Consequence’ by Mark Hichens (2013); ‘Philanthropy and the Construction of Victorian Women’s Citizenship: Lady Frederick Cavendish and Miss Emma Cons’ by Andrea Geddes Poole (2014); ‘Lilian Baylis: A Biography’ by Elizabeth Schafer (2006)

‘The Citizens of Morley College’ by Andrea Geddes Poole (2011) Journal of British Studies Vol 50(4), P.840-862; ‘A Triumph of Brains over Brute’: Women and Science at the Horticultural College, Swanley, 1890-1910 by Donald L. Opitz (2013) Isis P.30-62.

4 thoughts on “Emma Cons (1838-1912)”

  1. Delighted to come across this article on Emma Cons. I did a research degree on Emma some time ago and it was great to read this and to have updates on her especially about the coffee houses.

    A truly remarkable woman.

    Many thanks

    Dr Judi Leighton


    1. Hi Judi , I am currently involved in a plan to regenerate Emma Cons Gardens as a living memorial to Emma Cons and would love to read your research on Emma.


  2. I was so pleased to come across this article. My maternal grandmother used to tell us that we had a relative who “started the Old Vic.” Now my grandmother was someone who often used the expression “Never spoil a good story for the sake of a few facts,” so we never knew whether to believe any of her stories. But as it turns out, with the help of genealogy-research, I have found Emma Cons is a relative, a 1st cousin 4x removed to me (and probably 2x removed for my grandmother). And what a relative! I am in awe of her good works and her character, and I’m so glad you wrote this. Even though she didn’t “start the Old Vic” on her own, she certainly was one of the engines of its revival.


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