Emma Cons Memorial, The Old Vic

Restoration of the Emma Cons Memorial Plaque

Emma Cons (1837–1912) was a social reformer, educationalist and philanthropist. Born in St. Pancras, she initially trained as an artist and joined the Ladies' Co-operative Art Guild in London, run by Caroline Hill (mother of reformer Octavia Hill). She restored manuscripts for John Ruskin and worked as a watch engraver and stained-glass designer. Struck by London poverty she saw housing reform as essential in addressing domestic violence, alcoholism and lack of social mobility. She enlisted rich benefactors and in 1879 she established the South London Dwellings Company in Lambeth. She also founded the Working Girls Home, a hostel in Drury Lane.

In 1880, Emma Cons bought and re-opened the Victoria Theatre (now the Old Vic) as a temperance coffee house and music hall for the poor. Scientific lectures, Shakespeare productions and classical opera in English were all performed there. In 1889, Cons founded Morley College for working men and women, aided by philanthropist, Samuel Morley. In 1889 Cons became the first female alderman on the LCC. She served on the Committee for the Return of Women as Councillors, became Vice-President of the Women's Local Government Society, and Vice President of the Women's Liberal Federation. She continued to live on site at her Waterloo tenements till her death in 1912.

The Grade II* Old Vic theatre, built in 1818, is one of the oldest theatres to survive in England. The Emma Cons memorial plaque was unveiled at the Old Vic in 1929 by the Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother) and reads:

Emma Cons, Founder of ‘The Vic’, Alderman of the First London County Council. Born 1837. Died 1912. Lover of beauty, and pupil of Ruskin, she yet gave up the life of an artist for social work, so deeply did she sympathise with those who lack many of the good things of life. To improve housing for working men and women, to provide wholesome and joyous recreation at a low price, to promote education, to protect infant life, and to bring a human touch to the children in the industrial schools of her day. To such beneficent ends she gave her very self. Large-hearted and clear-sighted, courageous, tenacious of purpose and of great personal modesty, her selfless appeal drew out the best in others and was a constant inspiration for service to all with whom she was associated.

The Emma Cons monument stands in an exposed position on the corner of the Old Vic theatre and, by 2017 it had eroded to the extent that it was entirely illegible. Restoration included defrassing (paring back) the original stonework, consolidating the surface and recarving the inscription according to the original lettering and layout. The letters were then regilded by hand.

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