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How British theatre raised funds in World War I


If you were fundraising for a good cause in Great War Britain, where was your first port of call? More than likely it was a local playhouse, variety theatre or music hall where a matinee might raise large sums in an afternoon. 

No sooner had war been declared than West End stars, popular entertainers, singers, actors, backstage staff, writers, producers and theatrical managements immediately fell in with the national mood for supporting the war effort through charitable giving. The level of energy thrown into fundraising for war charities by the theatre industry was phenomenal. By 1916, special matinees, all-star galas, on-stage auctions, benefit performances, garden parties and bazaars had become part of the theatrical landscape, effectively boosting funds for a myriad of welfare organisations including the YMCA, Red Cross, Belgian Relief Fund, Blind Heroes Fund, Actors’ Benevolent Fund and Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund. The weekly trade newspaper The Era even established its own War Distress Fund (motto: ‘Collect as much as you can and pay out as quickly as possible’) to collate donations from charity performances or through individual artists’ generosity. Consequently, wartime theatre-going rapidly became part of what Bernard Shaw called ‘the passionate penny collecting of the Flag Days’ until it was virtually impossible to buy an admission ticket without stumping up a bit extra to drop into a collection box or make a contribution to one of the many regular cash-raising stunts. 

Ruses for squeezing money from patrons became increasingly ingenious. Actors and entertainers supported novel causes such as The Era Tobacco Fund by selling signed publicity postcards; vocalists sold sheet music of their most popular songs. Just days after the declaration, actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree went into action by re-staging his lavish 1912 production of Drake at His Majesty’s, with all profits going to the Prince of Wales’s Fund, specially earmarked for injured theatre professionals who enlist for military service. The cast volunteered to accept reduced pay rates: Phyllis Neilson-Terry, playing Queen Elizabeth, donated her entire salary. During its short run Drake raised more than £2,000, a massive sum then, equivalent to about £220,00 today. 

In 1917, Harry Lauder, of ‘Keep Right On to the End of the Road’ fame, returned from entertaining frontline troops to set about raising money for wounded servicemen, known officially as The Harry Lauder Million Pound Fund for Maimed Men, Scottish Soldiers and Sailors. Marie Lloyd’s considerable wartime efforts included numerous Sunday charity matinees and special free shows for munitions workers. Throughout the war years, readers of The Play Pictorial supported the magazine’s Wounded Soldiers’ Matinee Tea Fund to send a party of patients each week from the Military Hospital in Covent Garden to a West End matinee, followed by high tea, free cigarettes and newspapers, before returning them back to the wards.

When he wasn’t headlining popular musicals such as The Bing Boys Are Here, George Robey, Britain’s ‘Prime Minister of Mirth’, hosted mammoth all-star Sunday evening charity concerts at the London Coliseum – usually with an auction tacked on. At a typical gala evening in June 1916, Queen Mary, Patron of the British Red Cross Society, attended in aid of the Star and Garter home in Richmond for severely disabled ex-servicemen, which needed to expand as casualty lists lengthened.

Next month, on ‘Forget-me-not Day’, Music Hall Ladies’ Guild members took part in street collections on behalf of an ambitious new cause. The War Seal Foundation aimed to erect a mansion-style block of seventy-two flats for returning wounded veterans on a strip of land in Fulham Road, west London.

 The project was the brainchild of leading impresario Oswald Stoll, the money coming through the sale of small diamond-shaped War Seals at a halfpenny each. Stoll’s idea of using them for sealing letters or sticking on postcards instantly caught on. As The Stage noted, ‘the beauty of the scheme is that all can help’. Seals could be purchased at the three-dozen Stoll-owned theatres in towns and cities across the UK or at stores such as Boots and Selfridges (Sir Jesse Boot and Gordon Selfridge sat on the governing board alongside the Prime Minister’s wife, Margot Asquith). Individual Seal sellers included singer Julien Henry, who claimed to have sold £3,000-worth during his three-week run in a variety bill at the Coliseum. Henry was, however, ably assisted by a team of actresses who did a roaring trade by selling four kisses with each Seal for a sovereign. Comedy duo Mooney and Holbein donated their entire week’s salary at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, where a concert on 26 March 1917 raised another £400, which made this Stoll-owned theatre the first venue to endow a flat. Music hall stars who paid for dedicated flats included Gertie Gitana and VestaTilley.

Stoll’s untiring efforts earned him a knighthood in 1919 for ‘valuable work for many charities’. A century later, the much-extended Stoll building remains at the heart of what is now the leading UK charity providing supported housing to vulnerable veterans - and a symbol of remembrance for the many theatre professionals who played a vital role in raising funds to build it. 

By Roger Foss

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