Founded in 1908, the Actresses' Franchise Pageants League was founded to support the suffrage movement. It staged suffrage events and readings and its members wrote and produced plays in support of the cause. These included Cicely Hamilton, Ellen Terry, Elizabeth Robins, Edith Craig and Sybil Thorndike. By 1914 membership numbered 900 and there were groups in all major UK cities.
Edith Craig (1869-1947), late 19th century, England
Edith Craig, or Edy as she was known, was an actress, producer, and designer in the early 20th century. Born in 1869, she was the daughter of the legendary actress Ellen Terry and the architect Edward Godwin. Her brother, Edward Gordon Craig became one of the most influential designers and theorists of 20th century theatre.
Edy first appeared on stage aged 9 along with her 6-year-old brother, and went on to work with her mother and Henry Irving at the Lyceum. From 1911, she moved into direction and design.
Craig produced some 150 plays for the Pioneer Players whose work supported the suffragist movement to gain women the vote, and later introduced the work of many major European playwrights to the British stage. She later worked for amateur and community theatre all over the UK.
Craig and her partner Clare 'Tony' Atwood were part of a literary community that included Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, and the controversial lesbian author Radclyffe Hall. She remained devoted to her mother's memory throughout her life, and annually staged an anniversary performance in a converted barn at Terry's house at Smallhythe in Kent.
The First Actress - Pioneer Players, Kingsway Theatre, London, England, 1911
This image shows Nancy Price playing Margaret Hughes, one of the first actresses to be seen on the professional British stage.
This one act play called The First Actress was presented by the Pioneer Players at the Kingsway Theatre in 1911. The Pioneer Players was made up of members of the Actresses' Franchise League, a group set up in 1908 to help gain women the right to vote.
The story of Margaret Hughes was an appropriate choice. When Hughes became an actress after the Restoration of the monarchy in the 17th century, she found herself aggressively criticised by some audience members, and by many of her male colleagues. The modern actresses also came in for criticism for their 'propaganda' as contemporary reviews show. However the League boasted some very prestigious actresses among its numbers including Ellen Terry who played Nell Gwyn in this production.
Pioneer Players review in The Standard newspaper, London, England, May 1911
The Pioneer Players was a company formed from members of the Actresses' Franchise League. Actresses, like other women at the turn of the 20th century had few rights in the workplace and were paid significantly less than their male colleagues. The Actresses' Franchise League was set up in 1908 to promote the cause of the suffragettes and support their fight to win votes for women.
The production reviewed in these cuttings is The First Actress, the first play to be presented by the Pioneer Players and featuring Ellen Terry. Terry was already a star by this time and was one of the many famous and high earning actresses that supported the League. The cuttings show how mixed reactions were. One journalist celebrated 'the highest histrionic talent', whilst 'The Standard' pompously complained that 'secret societies' were being formed 'to turn the playhouses into temples of propaganda in which the password is 'Votes for Women''.
Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952), sepia photograph, late 19th to early 20th century, Guy Little Collection. Museum no. S.143:118-2007
Pioneer Players programme, Little Theatre, London, England, 1912
This group of short plays was performed in 1912 at the Little Theatre in St John Street. It was produced by the Pioneer Players, a company formed from members of the Actresses' Franchise League. The programme carried adverts for the weekly paper The Suffragette, along with the usual adverts for corsets and shoes.
Honour thy Father by H M Harwood was about a vain old man who discovers that his daughter is a prostitute, but who slowly accepts the idea of taking money from this 'tainted source' rather than have to change his lifestyle. The Thumbscrew by Edith Lyttleton was criticised for lecturing the audience and being 'more pamphlet than drama'.
The plays were produced by Edith Craig (daughter of Ellen Terry). Terry was herself the President of the Actresses' Franchise League and had appeared in the Pioneer Players, first production 'The First Actress'.
Article from The Sketch magazine, 10 February 1908, Kingsway Theatre, London, England
Photograph showing the characters of Diana and Mrs Cantaloupe from the production of Cicely Hamilton's play Diana of Dobson's.
Article entitled 'A shop girl's life at the rate of £3,600 a year and as an out-of-work on the Embankment'.