The Importance of Happiness: Noel Coward and the Actors’ Orphanage
In April 1934, the most successful living playwright, Noël Coward, became the President of The Actors’ Orphanage and he remained in the position for 22 years. The orphanage took in the children of those in the theatrical profession who couldn’t afford to care for them, or sometimes even want them. It is a lesser-known aspect of Noël’s life and, after meeting and talking to former orphans, the whole saga is unveiled.
Under Noël the somewhat Dickensian orphanage, located in Langley, Berkshire, greatly changed. It became fully coeducational, cold baths were ended, food was improved and rooms were decorated. On visits Noël would often bring famous friends like Mary Pickford, Marlene Dietrich or Ivor Novello; hand out Mars bars and play the piano.
Some deep-rooted problems did exist, however, and took time to resolve. A report was published in 1936, called “Irregularities and Illegalities”. It revealed that there was a severe abuse of corporal punishment. Noël and his committee of actors took action and certain members of staff were soon “retired”.
It transpired that Noël, despite his name being on the stationery, hadn’t officially been made President. This did not point to brilliant administration. Financial records were incomplete, no one had attended meetings and the staff lived in a culture of fear. Noël brought in the lawyers and had the entire organisation straightened out.
In June 1937 The Stage newspaper published the transcript of the charity’s AGM held on the stage of Wyndham’s Theatre. It was a quick, formal meeting, noting that “... everything possible has been done to make the children happy and to see to their health”. The income and accounts were in good order and more money was being spent on staff salaries, food and accommodation. From the transcripts we glean Noël’s authority and effect. At one point, in a way that only Noël could get away with, he proposes, and, as President, seconds a vote to thank himself for chairing the meeting!
In 1938 the orphanage moved from Langley to a much grander property at Silverlands in Chertsey. Neo-georgian in design, it was a 27-room mansion. Soon, however, with the start of the war, Noël started making plans for the children to be evacuated to America. They ended up at the Edwin Gould Foundation in the Bronx, New York City. It was, according to Noël: “Wonderful to the children and I suspect has spoiled them forever.”
Jimmy Burke, then aged nine, recalled that he found America more relaxed, with less punishment and that the classes were okay, you just had to adjust to history being taught solely from America’s perspective. And how, after Pearl Harbor, they suddenly had to practise air raids with their hands over their heads in the corridors.
In 1945 they returned to Silverlands and the post-war orphans I’ve spoken with all remember it as their home, their family. (Read Judy Staber’s excellent book, Silverlands). Children would be dropped at the gates and left; this experience could be damaging but it also bonded them. Norma Gumley would sit on the front step every visiting Sunday waiting for a mother who would never come. As for Noël, they have only fond memories; Judy Staber: “All I knew was that from time to time this nicely dressed, posh-sounding man came to see us. He would come upon us outside, playing hide-and-seek in and around the
air-raid shelters and would call out, ‘Hello boys and girls. Having a jolly time are you?’”
Susannah Slater, whom Noël helped to get a start in show business: “He was wonderful, he really did turn that place around and we’re all very grateful to him.” She added “...he was like a benevolent angel.”
Caroline Baldwin had stayed at Noël’s house one weekend in order to attend a premiere and hand the Queen flowers. She did fall over on the curtsy but all this time later said, “Noël did more for me in that one weekend than my Daddy ever did.”
Life wasn’t perfect of course, there was another vindictive headmaster for a while, (again fired by Noël), and a degree of bullying. Noël tried to help the really troubled children, including the bullies, such as Peter Collinson, writing in his diary: “He is being torn to pieces by his divorced parents. He is in an emotional turmoil. I promised that I would look after him and be his friend. I honestly don’t think he will transgress again. Actually he practically broke my heart. I may be over-sentimental but a sensitive little boy bereft of all personal affection is to me one of the most pathetic things in the world.” Fast-forward many years and Peter was directing Noël in the 1969 comedy caper film The Italian Job.
When Noël left England in 1956, Richard Attenborough, (only 33), was asked to take over and Noël’s secretary, Lorn Loraine, had written to him: “You’ll say you’re too young to be President — Noël was only 34 and hadn’t a clue!” Yet Richard didn’t feel prestigious enough so Sir Laurence Olivier became the new President and Richard the Chairman, but, like Noël, Richard was hands on.
By 1958 with dwindling numbers and roof repairs needed, Silverlands was closed. The Actors’ Charitable Trust was born and donated money instead. As Richard said: “...it is hoped that we may in the future be able to subsidise some needy children in their own homes and to save families from being split up. This is surely a better way of spending money than upon roof repairs!”
Noël’s motives in the end seem pure and simple; take for example this short exchange between May and Cora in Noël’s 1960 play, Waiting in the Wings, regarding the committee of actors that runs The Wings retirement home: CORA: I know they get a lot of publicity out of it but even so I shouldn’t think from their point of view it was worth all the effort. MAY: It is always possible, my dear Cora, that just one or two of them might do it from sheer kindness of heart.
In 1955 Noël had written “The Importance of Happiness” for a fund-raiser programme, it’s almost a last word before he had to relinquish his Presidency. It says of the children: “None of them has a home in the accepted sense of the word and it is this that we try to give them. Somewhere safe and stable where birthdays and Christmases can be looked forward to with excitement and remembered with joy.”
After listing his duties as President he continues: “But in my heart what I really mind about, what I have minded about since I became President in 1934, is the happiness of the children who come into the care of this charity.”
At a reunion in 2000, organised by Susannah Slater, Lord Attenborough spoke of what The Actors’ Orphanage had meant to him and to Noël. He expressed passionately that when he was thanked for what he did for them, the children, assembled now in late middle age and older, that it was he who should be thanking them: “Love goes both ways and the love that you have shown to us, has brought us joy and reward beyond words.”
The charity now exists as the Actors’ Children’s Trust (www.actorschildren.org) and is based in Bloomsbury.
Special thanks to: Robert Ashby at ACT, Michael Attenborough CBE, Susannah Slater, Judy Staber, Liz Eastham, Ann Hollis, Caroline Baldwin, Jimmy Burke, Granville Bantock and Canon David Slater. Jessica Clark at the Cadbury Research Library — Special Collections, University of Birmingham, L.J. Elliott, Carrie Kruitwagen and Alan Brodie.