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The Shakespeare Hut: A National Theatre Origin Story

Ellen Terry portrait - black and white, close-up

The origins of the National Theatre can be traced back to 1916 with the creation of The Shakespeare Hut, a 400-seat theatre staffed entirely by women, which set the foundations of what would later become the National Theatre. 

During the First World War, YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) huts were established to house recuperating soldiers in the UK. Sir Israel Gollancz proposed the idea of a hut in honour of William Shakespeare. One of these was built in London on what is now the site of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in Bloomsbury, London.  

The Shakespeare Hut stood from 1916 to 1924, staffed by around 350 female volunteers. It contained a 400-seat theatre and was managed by Gertrude Forbes-Robertson, who was also the co-founder and president of the Actresses’ Franchise League (AFL), a women’s suffrage organisation. The AFL campaigned for a ‘women’s theatre’, managed and staffed entirely by women, which they achieved with the Hut.  

Within the Hut, Shakespeare was performed alongside new writing, recitals, musical interludes and play extracts. The productions were all directed, written and performed by women, including big names of the day such as Ellen Terry (pictured above), Inez Bensusan, Fabia Drake and Edith Craig.  

The Hut’s success, and the women who made it possible, were key in building a campaign for government support for a national theatre. 

Ailsa Grant-Ferguson’s book The Shakespeare Hut: A Story of Memory, Performance and Identity, 1916-1923 tells the full story of these incredible women and their work. 

A black ink printed image of The Shakespeare Hut (an Arts and Crafts style set of buildings), Bloomsbury, WC, with a YMCA logo in the top left corner


This blogpost was published to mark International Women's Day on Monday 8 March 2021.

Celebrating the women at the heart of the National Theatre: