Lena Ashwell (1869-1957)

Born: Lena Pocock Also known as: Mrs Arthur Playfair; Mrs Henry Simson; Lady Simson

Sector: Travel and Leisure

Lena Ashwell had a long stage career but it is for her work behind the scenes and off stage that she is included in the FT-She 100. She ran a theatre in London before the war, was active in the suffrage movement, playing a leading role in both the Women’s Tax Resistance League and the Actresses’ Franchise League; organised morale-boosting wartime entertainment for troops in France and Belgium, for which she was awarded an OBE in 1917.

Lena Ashwell (1900) by Bassano;  National Portrait Gallery collection
Lena Ashwell as Mrs Dane in ‘Mrs Dane’s Defence
by Alexander Bassano, bromide print, 1900,
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Despite her year of birth being widely recorded as 1872, (apart from in Margaret Leask’s 2012 biography), Lena was actually born on 28th September 1869, on the Wellesley. a 74-gunner ship in the Newcastle channel. Her father, Charles Ashwell Pocock, was a sea captain and her mother, Sarah, was also from a sea-faring family. Lena, the second-youngest of seven children, grew up on this ship, living on it until she was eight. Then in around 1877, as a result of a breakdown in her father’s health, the family moved to Canada, first to Brockville in Ontario, overlooking the St Lawrence River and later to Toronto. Lena’s mother, Sarah, died in a carriage accident in May 1887. With his older children starting to marry and settle in North America, Charles returned to Europe with his three youngest daughters and became a priest.

Lena was originally more inclined towards music than theatre. She was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy of Music and was hoping to be a singer but her voice was not strong enough and she started to do more non-musical performances. Her life changed course in 1890 when the actress Ellen Terry came to examine the third-year students. Ellen Terry later wrote that Lena acted ‘with such true emotion, such intensity that the tears came into my eyes… she was incomparably better than any one’. Ellen Terry was an important sponsor, introducing her to the theatrical producer Joe Comyns Carr. In 1895, Lena found herself in his production of King Arthur, starring alongside Ellen and Genevieve Ward, all wearing costumes made by Ada Nettleship.

Lena Ashwell in King Arthur, 1895
Lena Ashwell in King Arthur (c.1895) V&A Collections
Costumes for the play, King Arthur, in 1895 by Ada Nettleship
Lena Ashwell, Genevieve Ward and Ellen Terry in costumes made by Ada Nettleship for King Arthur (c.1895) V&A Collections.

Lena made a disastrous marriage in March 1896 to another actor, Arthur Playfair, which was over almost as soon as it started. He was an alcoholic and according to the divorce papers filed in 1908, Lena had to cope with adultery, transmission of venereal disease and threatening behaviour involving a carving knife before their first anniversary. Her stage career was going significantly better: by 1900 she was starring in leading roles and scored a great hit in ‘Mrs Dane’s Defence’. A key collaborator on-stage and off was the American actor, Robert Taber, and she was devastated when after a period of ill-health he died in 1903 aged just 38. He and Lena had been about to create a production together but instead of dropping the idea, she pressed on alone.

Running the show
Lena saw a move into management as the way to get the parts she wanted and to be able to stage a greater variety of plays with shorter runs rather than being tied to one character for a long period of time. When Helen Lenoir leased out the Savoy Theatre in 1906, Lena staged a season there, testing the theatre-going public’s appetite for serious theatre and learning some valuable lessons. In 1907 she took over the lease of the Great Queen Street Theatre in Holborn, which she re-named the Kingsway Theatre. Her first play, ‘Irene Wycherley’, by a new playwright, Anthony Wharton, did very well, with King Edward VII in the audience one night. She continued to make bold programming choices, staging more work by new writers including Cicely Hamilton, who at around the same time co-founded the Women Writers’ Suffrage League and went on to write the lyrics for the WSPU’s anthem ‘The March of the Women’. Like the D’Oyly Carte set up, she also had touring companies performing work around the country in parallel with the London-based programme.

In January 1908 Lena began divorce proceedings. The ink was barely dry on October’s decree absolute when she tied the knot again with Henry Simson (1872-1932). They remained married until Henry’s death and in him Lena found a man who loved her and gave her consistent support, never bothered about being known as Lena Ashwell’s husband. This might have been helped by being so successful in his own field.

Henry was a gynaecologist who delivered both Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, Princess Margaret. Lena later described her first meeting with the UK’s longest-serving monarch at Glamis Castle in August 1930. Princess Margaret was still a new-born baby and the Queen was four years old.

‘We had just finished lunch; the door opened and in walked this baby, alone. There was a quality, an intelligent alertness, a balance and poise unusual in so small a child, and at the same time she was so charming, so comic, and so sweet. When her little sister arrived she took Henry up and presented this new treasure to him, giving the baby little pokes to make sure she was really alive.’

HRHs Duchess of York, Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth in 1930.
HRHs Duchess of York, Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth in 1930

The fight for equality
The two main professional bodies at this time, the Theatrical Managers’ Association and the Society of West End Theatre Managers, were not welcoming of women. Lena’s experiences of sexism in the theatrical profession must have played a part in her embracing the cause of women’s suffrage but it did not endear her to her male colleagues. ‘Once when I went to see [Herbert Beerbohm] Tree I had in my hand a book called “The Soul of the Suffragette”.. Tree picked it up and with a magnificent gesture of contempt flung it into the far corner of the room.’ Undeterred by ‘the scorn which women who thought they should be recognised as citizens drew upon themselves from otherwise quite polite and sensible people’, Lena joined the Actresses’ Franchise League in December 1908 and started becoming actively involved in suffrage events in 1909, advertising them in the programmes of the plays she was putting on at the Kingsway. It is unlikely these choices were career-enhancing – ‘managers, authors, pressmen became quite passionate in their resentment’ of the suffrage campaign – and as well as possible reputational issues, the sheer amount of time and energy Lena started committing to the agenda of equality sometimes came at the cost of her health and her ability to work.

In November 1911, Lena was part of a deputation of fifty prominent suffragists who visited Downing Street to put their position to Asquith and other cabinet ministers. They were ‘received by the flunkeys as if we had a strange odour and had been temporarily released from the zoo’. Margot Asquith, a committed anti-suffragist, kept sticking her head round the door shooting hostile and contemptuous gazes as the assembled group. Her husband was equally uninterested: ‘His expression made me think of that iron curtain which descends in the theatre to ensure that the stage is completely cut off from the auditorium’. Lena was also an early member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, directly affected by the 80-year old Income Tax law which meant married women could not be taxed separately from their husbands.  Henry helped her write her speech when she and five other women petitioned the then Chancellor, David Lloyd George, for changes in the law in June 1913, to no avail.

Lena walked in suffrage professions where ‘well-dressed men, with ridicule in their eyes and the smile of superiority on their sneering lips, stared as we passed along. It really was infuriating and now it seems quite unbelievable.’ Or perhaps for many, even 100 years later, it is sadly not only all too believable but an experience we have shared.

Lena Ashwell and Gertrude Elliott, 1911, The Women’s Library, LSE

Her work during this pre-war period also had a practical component: providing affordable accommodation for women working in art, drama and music. A site was found at 19a Marylebone Road and the venture was announced in March 1911. Edward Elgar and John Singer Sargent were on the committee, with Lena as Chair. Among the supporters were the painter, William Orpen, Ellen Terry and the singer and desert inspiration, Dame Nellie Melba.

A range of fund-raising activities, including a ball for 4,000 guests at the Royal Albert Hall, took place during the rest of the year to raise the c.£360,000 equivalent needed to fit out the 80 bedrooms and residential areas. The Club opened in December 1911 at 19a Marylebone Road with Lena’s sister, Hilda, as the manager. It was designed to meet all needs, with curling tong heaters on every floor and workshop space for ‘noisy crafts such as metal work’ in the basement. Woman at Home, edited by Alice Head, was just one of the positive voices: ‘This new venture marks another step in the sensible social emancipation of women workers and their revolt against conditions of existence which would never be contemplated or endured by a man’.

In February 1914, frustrated at the lack of progress by the NUWSS but reluctant to go as far as the arson and bombing of the WSPU, a new pro-suffrage organisation emerged, the United Suffragists. It stated its aim to ‘avoid overlapping and to work in harmony with all the existing Suffrage Associations’ (of which there were by now many) and welcomed both men and women as members. One of its main objectives was to establish campaigns in parliamentary divisions. Lena was one of the founding committee members and Henry was one of the many Vice Presidents, along with Louise Jopling. As the shadows of war gathered, the new group kept on ‘pestering’ vigorously and were one of the few suffrage organisations not to cease activity when war broke out.

Entertaining the troops
When war was declared on Germany on 4th August 1914, Lena and three of her fellow activists, Eva and Decima Moore and Eve Haverfield, swung into action. On 7th August, they set up the Women’s Emergency Corps. It pulled together a register of thousands of women who were volunteering to support the war effort, with their skills, to enable faster deployment. To start with it was run out of Gertrude Kingston’s Little Theatre in but it soon became so big an operation that it moved to Bedford College. Lena and Eva Moore toured the country from Bristol to Newcastle to publicise it and drum up support.

However, it was her Concert Parties that were her greatest contribution to the war effort. Realising that arts workers would be hit hard by the war, with audiences disappearing, and convinced that troops would benefit from entertainment, Lena started petitioning in October 1914 to be able to organise touring parties to the front. The government response was ‘No’. However, Lena seems to have used other channels to make her case and an intervention was made by Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Helena Victoria. She was Chair of the Women’s Auxiliary Committee of the YMCA and used her position, as well as her royal status, made a request for a concert party to go Le Havre that was harder to brush off. An arrangement was reached whereby the Princess took personally responsibility for the conduct of artists Lena selected. The YMCA would organise the transport and accommodation while Lena had to put the groups together and find the money.

Fund raising poster from 1917 – Hoover Institution Library and Archives

The first Concert Party set off in January 1915. The standard composition was a group of four singers (soprano, contralto, tenor and bass or baritone), a musician, an entertainer and an accompanist. Ventriloquists and opera singers could share the bill. Shakespeare recitations, orchestral adagios and a rendition of ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ were all on the programme. Both men and women took part and would tour for three weeks, usually give three concerts a day. By June, 250 artists had already performed over 300 events, which took place in camps, hospitals and on the roadside. Over the course of the war, Lena’s concert parties gave employment to over 400 artists who otherwise might have been left in dire straits as theatres across the UK shut up shop.

By 1916, they were travelling further afield, to Egypt and Malta. Soon theatrical companies were forming in base camps, with crates and chairs the only props and candles providing the stage lighting and by the end of the war they could be found in Le Havre, Rouen, Dieppe, Etaples, Abbeville and Paris. When the Armistice was signed in November 1918, there were twenty-five parties in France alone, giving fifty entertainments a day. The poet John Masefield dedicated a sonnet to ‘the little bands’, ‘mixing the bread with sorrow night by night’.

Entertaining during the War by the roadside, Forges Les Eaux. (‘Myself a Player’ by Lena Ashwell)

It was a huge logistical effort, involving the selection of artists, the planning of the cross-Channel voyages and the organisation of accommodation and stages on the ground. It was risky: submarines prowled in the Channel while once in France, planes conducted raids overhead. Performances were often within a mile of the front-line with music drowned out gun-fire. In Acheux, in the sea of mud, a large and heavy baritone walked off the duck-boards and sank nearly out of sight. Audiences ranged in size from a tented hospital ward to a fleet-load of 15,000 waiting to embark and set sail.

Staging entertainment on this scale was also expensive. The total cost was c.£100,000 then, equivalent to around £7m now, which all had to be met by Lena and her team, which included the indefatigable Hilda Leyel, through fundraising activity. At one end of the spectrum were flag days, shaking tins to raise funds. At the other was a charity fund-raiser, the Petticoat Lane Fair. Held at the Royal Albert Hall between 3rd and 5th December 1917, it included a tombola with the most extraordinary array of prizes on offer: two acres of land in the Chilterns, a couple of diamond necklaces, a first-class return ticket to America (on a boat, obviously) and a design for a country cottage by Gertrude Jekyll’s protegé, Edwin Lutyens as well as ‘hundreds of beautiful model gowns, cloaks, wraps, hats and exquisite sets of furs’. With all those possibilities, the winner of the ‘unique toby jug of Sir Douglas Haig, autographed’ might have been a bit bummed… It raised a third of the total funds needed in one go, netting £34,000.

Throughout the war years, Lena continued to take the stage herself, in the concert parties, travelling out to France when she could, in fund-raisers and at the Kingsway Theatre, to ensure she could keep paying the rent. The concert parties continued when the Armistice was signed, only finishing when all the troops were evacuated. Lena was one of the first women to be recognised for her remarkable contribution to the war effort, awarded an OBE in August 1917, at the same time as Laura Annie Willson received her MBE.

Theatres for Everybody
By the time her war work was over, Lena was fifty years old and although she had just been through an exhausting five years, she was encouraged enough by the response to the concert parties from soldiers to think that now was the time to make theatre more accessible to all. From this sprung the creation of the Lena Ashwell Players, with its own mini-manifesto. Among its object ‘to take interesting Plays of all kinds to over seven million people, amongst whom are a number who find Plays as attractive as dancing, bridge and the cinema.’ With a wide-ranging repertoire, weighted towards more serious plays, the idea was to create a regular circuit of town halls and, in the winter, out-of-use Public Baths of London’s less-well-provided-for boroughs, turning up on the same night each week in a specific location with a new play. A small theatre in Notting Hill, the Century Theatre, provided the company with a central London base where they had a chance to perform in longer runs without all the travel.

It is clear from the way it was described at the time that the challenge of what Lena was trying to do was clear to all: her weekly tours were ‘missionary travels’ to ‘theatrical deserts’. ‘If the popularization of good and varied drama is ever recognized as a public concern, much of the praise..will be due to the difficult and laborious enterprise of Miss Lena Ashwell and her accomplished Players’, wrote Common Cause in 1925

One Player who did not enjoy his experience traipsing around ‘unthought-of parts of London’ like Deptford and Limehouse as part of this company was an 18-year old Laurence Olivier. Performing in boarded-over swimming pools, where changing rooms stood in as dressing rooms was not the actor’s life he had in mind. He christened the company ‘The Lavatory Players’ and wrote nearly sixty years later that it was ‘the scrappiest mixture: would-be West End actors..; a few really scruffy old derelicts, and a handful of desperate hopefuls like myself’. Lena ended up firing him for getting the giggles in the middle of a performance of ‘Julius Caesar’, so his account is not entirely unbiased but he described Lena as ‘no Lilian Baylis’ (who had taken over the Old Vic from her aunt, Emma Cons), ‘unseen and mystifying, just a vaguely feared figure in an upstairs office’.

Lena was probably in the office so much was because once again she had taken on a significant logistical and financial challenge. While the aspiration was applauded, it was clear reasonably early that this was not a commercially viable model. Audience sizes were highly variable from week to week depending on the programme leading to a a constant re-evaluation of venues in an attempt to find the timing and location combinations that worked best. Staging a new play every week during the touring season was a high-intensity model, not ideally suited for an actor-manager construct. With no government subsidies, additional funding was needed from sponsors and Henry and Lena sunk a lot of their own money into the project. Lena later admitted that the dream turned into a ten-year ‘gruelling experience of failure and defeat’.

Lena Ashwell Simson by Bassano Ltd bromide print, 24 July 1936; NPG x85235
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Henry Simson by Bassano Ltd. bromide print, August 1932; NPG x84781
© National Portrait Gallery, London

She finally called time on the Lena Ashwell Players in 1929, as she turned 60, effectively ending her stage career at the same time, though she did occasionally take part in radio productions. Henry’s death in 1932 was a tough blow but she remained politically active for the rest of her life, continuing with campaigns and organisations to which she had still managed to devote energy in the 1920s (another reason she might not have been so visible to young Larry). She was one of the first vice-presidents of the British Drama League, formed in 1919 to promote amateur and professional theatre, which advocated for the National Theatre, eventually founded in 1963 by Lena’s giggling teenager. She fought for better working conditions for those in the theatre and for women in all areas of work. She was active in pro-peace meetings and later in her life became a supporter of the Moral Re-Armament movement, founded in the 1930s.

When war broke out again in 1939, memories of Lena’s Concert Parties and their morale-boosting impact were still fresh. This time, rather than grudgingly allowing one woman to organise it and leaving her to find all the money, the government immediately sponsored the creation of the Entertainment National Service Association, known as ENSA (which was jokingly said to stand for ‘Every Night Something Awful’.) Performers included Vera Lynn, Peter Sellars, Noel Coward and… Laurence Olivier.

On her death in 1957, The Times described Lena as ‘an actress of force and sincerity’. ‘As her acting, producing, writing and lecturing proved, she was intelligent, lively and sincere’ said the Manchester Guardian. Even Laurence Olivier recognised her for her social conscience. Lena often found it hard to reconcile creative ambition with commercial viability but her successes were many and for four vital years her outstanding organisation provided thousands of soldiers, nurses, doctors and ambulance drivers with a few minutes of much-needed relief.

You can see and read more about Lena Ashwell’s First World War work in this great blog post from the Mary Evans Archive. You can hear more in this BBC Radio programme, World War One: The Culture Front.

Sources: ancestry.com has details of both Lena’s birth and her 1908 divorce filing.

Vote 25/11/1911; Truth 29/3/1911; Woman at Home December 1911/ January 1912; Pall Mall Gazette 9/3/1912; Globe 10/6/1913; The Vote 6/2/1914; The Gentlewoman 29/8/1914; Sporting Times 24/11/1917; Common Cause 23/10/1925; The Times 15/03/1957; The Manchester Guardian 15/3/1957

‘Myself a Player’ by Lena Ashwell (1936); ‘Confessions of an Actor’ by Laurence Olivier (1982)

‘Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer’ by Margaret Leask (2012);

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