LIVES – WINIFRED OUGHTON

Researched and written by Jeremy Palmer.

Early Life

Winifred Oughton was a noted character actress and stage teacher who lived at Effingham Junction for thirty years, and was also a founder member of the Effingham Junction Women’s Institute.

Annie Winifred Oughton (her full name) was born in 1890 in Camberwell, to Anna Maria Oughton (born Edwards) and David Oughton, who had married on February 16th 1889 at St Paul’s Church in Forest Hill. David was described in the 1891 census as an importer and clerk. The family was then living at 10, Selwyn Terrace in Dulwich.

Winifred may have acquired her passion for the theatre from her father. From around 1885 David was involved in acting in and producing amateur dramatic performances around Brighton and, later on, in South London. The advertisement opposite from 1890 mentions David Oughton of 10, Selwyn Terrace as a Business and Stage Manager associated with amateur dramatic productions. His stage manager role continued through the 1890s. By 1897 he was working as a Stage Manager at the Reading County Theatre, but thereafter he disappears from the records, to the point where in 1899 his address was being urgently sought by Houghton’s Dramatic Agency in Waterloo.

He was also missing from the Oughton household in the 1901 census where we find Anna Maria and Winifred living with Anna’s father, Edward T Edwards in Camberwell.

Theatrical Career

At the time of the 1911 Census Winifred was living with two aunts in Fulham, her occupation given as a student in training at Hereford College.

Her theatrical career began in 1915 with a walk-on part in “The Merchant of Venice” at the Old Vic. Her first notice seems to have been from March 6th 1918 when her portrayal of First Gentleman in “Cymbeline”, which starred Sybil Thorndike at the Old Vic, was described as “quite pleasing”. She remained in the company for five years, being noted for playing male roles such as Artemidorous in “Julius Caesar” while the War continued and then – at the Old Vic’s reopening in October 1919 – Mistress Quickly in “The Merry Wives of Windsor”.

Norwood News, March 29th 1890
From the British Newspaper Archive :
© British Library Board

Her first real notice in a widely read publication arose for her playing the titular role in the farce “Aunt Maria” at the Royal Theatre, Leamington. An issue of
The Stage
published on May 26th 1921 commented that:

“Miss Winifred Oughton gave an excellent performance of the title role and displayed the versatility demanded by the part.”

She does not seem to have attracted any in-depth reviews during the 1920s, probably because either she was cast in supporting roles or else was playing lead roles but only in productions touring the provinces. By the end of the decade she was becoming a character actor known for playing fierce spinsters and landladies. For example, in the newspaper Truth (issue of Wednesday July 30th 1930) her role in Rodney Ackland’s “Dance with No Music” was mentioned as follows:

“A too brief glimpse of Winifred Oughton gives us a landlady not of the stage but of any digs in which impecunious bachelors have ever languished.”

Electoral Registers show that Winifred and her mother Anna Maria resided at 148, Mitre Street in Norwood from 1929 up to 1934. In 1934 Winifred moved to a house named “Hathaway” in Surrey Gardens, Effingham Junction, joined by her mother from 1937. In the 1939 Register Winifred describes herself as an “Actress Straight plays and films”, with her mother doing unpaid domestic duties. The pair continued living in “Hathaway” during the War, until Anna Maria’s death in the second quarter of 1945. Winifred would remain at “Hathaway” until her death in 1964.

She appeared with other Effingham-based actors on a number of occasions. In June 1926 she and Beatrix Thomson were in “The Years Between” at The Everyman Theatre in Hampstead. She was joined in Effingham by her great friend Yvonne Arnaud in 1937. Winifred had first acted with Yvonne Arnaud in J B Fagan’s
“The Improper Duchess” (1930), taking the role of Gunning. The Stage (issue of January 15th 1931) described her thus:

“Miss Winifred Oughton as the English maid of uncertain age was typically English against so much that was American.”

Another Effingham resident actor, Andrea Malandrinos, also appeared in this play. “The Improper Duchess” was a substantial success enjoying a run of 348 performances over 10 months at The Globe. The three Effingham actors then continued in a revival of the same author’s “And So To Bed”.

Winifred’s role in “The Improper Duchess” was also the first one for which she appeared in cast photos in the leading theatre papers, such as The Sketch on February 11th 1931 (below, left). She was also depicted in cartoon form with Andrea Malandrinos in The Bystander on February 4th 1931 (below, right).

under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans

From 1930 she began to appear in British films, maintaining a career as a character actor on the screen until 1950. She is seen at right in a typical housekeeper role in the 1932 film “There Goes the Bride”, a British farce directed by Albert de Courville and notable for giving David Niven his first, uncredited screen role.

From at least as early as 1923 she was also interested in teaching drama.
She had a particular connection with schools in Gloucester, working with Ribston Hall High School for Girls on a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1923), “Twelfth Night” (March 1925) and “The Merchant of Venice” (1927). From 1930 she was a director of the Schools Theatre, an organisation associated with the Old Vic whose purpose was to bring professional actors into schools to help in productions, as she herself had already been doing.

Daily Herald, April 30th 1930
From the British Newspaper Archive :
reproduced by kind permission of Reach Plc / Mirrorpix

The Sphere, November 12th 1932
under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans

Her work with the Schools Theatre extended to giving public lectures and demonstrations across the South of England. However, she seems to have ended her involvement with the Schools Theatre by 1935 when in addition to her acting career she became a teacher at RADA. This also coincided with her move to Effingham from South London.

We have been left some account of Winifred’s teaching methods. She was known for insisting on exceptionally high standards. The actor David Weston in his autobiography Covering Shakespeare recounts being taught by her at RADA in 1957:

“We were directed by a ferocious, hunch-backed old woman called Winifred Oughton. ‘You’d better learn to type, dear,’ was one of her kinder comments to the girls, many of whom she reduced to tears. She was obviously not impressed by my attempts at virility – standing legs apart with my hands on my hips … Her report at the end of the year, when I went off to do my National Service, was brief and to the point: ‘Good luck David, and come back to us a man’.”

Her demands were not limited to young people hoping to become professional actors. Michael Waller, brought up in Effingham during the War, recalls:

“My sister was involved with amateur dramatics at the Rowland Lubbock Memorial Hall under the guidance of Winifred Oughton, who it seems was quite demanding, requiring high standards. My sister returned home after rehearsals quite emotionally drained.”

By the mid-1930s she was well-established as the actor of choice for acerbic older women. A notable example was in “Grief Goes Over” at The Globe in June 1935 for which the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (June 14th 1935) proclaimed:

“Perhaps the most real character in the play is an uncomfortable old aunt, perfectly played by Miss Winifred Oughton.”

An original flyer for “Grief Goes Over” can be viewed here:

In 1941 she again starred with Yvonne Arnaud in Margery Sharp’s “The Nutmeg Tree” at The Lyric, this time playing Arnaud’s devoted Cockney maid Griffin:

Winifred in “The Nutmeg Tree”: from The Tatler (left) and The Bystander (right), October 8th 1941
under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans

In the early part of the War she was also highly active in the Effingham Women’s Institute and when that organisation split into two entities she served as the first President of the Effingham Junction Women’s Institute. The latter met at the Rowland Lubbock Hall in Effingham Junction after being formed in December 1940. Winifred resigned at the end of 1943. During those years she persuaded some of her co-stars on the stage to travel down to Effingham to talk to the members, while Yvonne Arnaud often entertained the WI members on the piano. As well as her phenomenal efforts to support the War effort through fund raising, morale boosting talks and jam-making on an industrial scale, Winifred organised a series of Shakespeare festivals.

In 1942 Leslie French, one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his time, visited to perform songs from the Bard’s plays, accompanied by Yvonne Arnaud on the piano (see article at right).

Perhaps the most surprising guest speaker was Naomi “Micky” Jacob, who visited the Institute on Monday April 13th 1942. She was a prolific author, playwright, journalist, broadcaster, actor and political activist who had recently returned from Italy where she had been living for her health. At the time of her visit she was appearing on stage in “The Nutmeg Tree” with Winifred and Arnaud. Naomi Jacob was famous for her butch and flamboyant appearance, crew cut hair, wearing a monocle and a First World War Women’s Legion uniform. She enjoyed discrete affairs with other women, though her many romantic novels were much more conventional. According to The Surrey Advertiser (see below) the packed audience enjoyed from her:

“… a most delightful talk on her travels through France to Italy and her experiences there before the War.”

Naomi Jacob (public domain)

Dame Sybil Thorndike, one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, was another visitor to the Effingham Junction WI. Dame Sybil was associated with Winifred’s career from its start at the Old Vic, and Winifred had been a member of Dame Sybil’s company through the 1920s. Dame Sybil had been one of the patrons of the Schools Theatre and, as mentioned, they had appeared together in “Grief Goes Over” at The Globe in June 1935. On Winifred’s instigation Dame Sybil visited the Effingham Junction Women’s Institute’s sold-out meeting in March 1943, described by The Surrey Advertiser (see right) as follows:

“Her wonderful rendering of Shakespeare, in drama and comedy, her charm of voice and manner in the rendering of verse, and her dramatic art in the scenes from ‘Macbeth’, delighted the audience.”

The Surrey Advertiser, April 18th 1942
From the British Newspaper Archive :
reproduced by kind permission of Reach Plc / Mirrorpix

Dame Sybil was also present at Winifred’s probable last public appearance in June 1963. This was at a celebration of the Old Vic hosted by Dame Sybil, prior to its temporary closure for refurbishment. Dame Sybil’s association with Surrey was cemented when Leatherhead’s Thorndike Theatre was named after her and opened in September 1969. This also marked Dame Sybil’s last appearance on stage, in John Graham’s
“There Was an Old Woman”, playing “a poor old blighter who sleeps in the park every night”.

An article about the opening of the Thorndike Theatre can be viewed using this button
The Stage, September 18th 1969
From the British Newspaper Archive : © The Stage Media Company Limited

The Surrey Advertiser, November 21st 1942
From the British Newspaper Archive :
reproduced by kind permission of Reach Plc / Mirrorpix

The Surrey Advertiser, March 6th 1943
From the British Newspaper Archive :
reproduced by kind permission of Reach Plc / Mirrorpix

Winifred also co-authored with a lady named Brenda Cross two plays based on books – “Wuthering Heights” and “Little Women”. The former premiered at the Guildford Repertory Theatre on Tuesday September 3rd 1946. The Stage (September 5th) praised her adaptation, saying:

“Five weeks ago Winifred Oughton was asked to produce Wuthering Heights for the Guildford Repertory Co and…decided to write a new one in collaboration with Brenda Cross. The result is a fine adaptation. The play though faithful to the original retains nothing of its disconnected nature.”

although the reviewer thought that Winifred’s success was marred by indifferent acting. “Little Women”, again written with Cross, was reported on as early as December 28th 1940 when the Surrey Gardens Repertory Company read a scene from it at a WI meeting. However it was then adapted for the BBC in 1950/1 into a six-episode series, giving it the distinction of being one of the first dramatic series to be shown on television. It was broadcast live from December 12th 1950 but as it was not recorded it is now considered “lost”.

That it was not recorded may have had something to do with a dispute between Equity and the BBC concerning payments for actors when recorded transmissions were repeated. Recording technology was a relatively recent innovation for television. For “Little Women”, after protests from Equity, its student actors were paid a minimum wage (The Stage, January 18th 1951). ELHG has discovered that one photograph (see right) of the cast has survived.

Her last appearance on stage was in the first run of Agatha Christie’s
“The Unexpected Guest” at The Duchess Theatre in August 1958.
The description of her performance as Miss Bennett, contained in her obituary in The Stage, summed up her appeal:

“… an old family retainer, loving but unsentimental, wise and true, when she gave a characterisation of singular verisimilitude, perfectly timed and projected. She was one of those sensitive, experienced, thoroughly reliable artists who is an asset to any production.”

The Sketch, January 3rd 1951
under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans

Her retirement after this play also coincided with her retirement from teaching. In recognition of the esteem in which she was held, after her death on December 26th 1964, RADA established the Winifred Oughton Memorial Prize.

Her obituary in The Stage is shown opposite.

The Stage, January 21st 1965
under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans