Twenty years ago a commemorative plaque was set into the pavement outside the childhood home of actress Lynn Fontanne. It was unveiled by Donald Sinden who said that Lynn was the most glamorous women he ever met.

Lillie Louise Fontanne was born on December 6, 1887 (not 1892 as is often quoted) at 6 Station Terrace, Snakes Lane, Woodford Green. The house is still there, heavily disguised as ‘Skin Spark’ just down the hill from the station. She was keen to become an actress. Somehow she was introduced to Ellen Terry who gave her some coaching and arranged for her debut as a chorus girl in ‘Cinderella’ at Drury Lane in December 1905. Her stature was against her – she was a slim and relatively tall at a time when it was fashionable to be petite and plump, but she slowly climbed the ladder of success as Lynn Fontanne, becoming a well-known figure in London’s theatrical circle. ‘Who’s Who in the Theatre’ has a very long list of her roles in London, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, London, New York… and so on.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

'Skin Spark' now stands where Lynn Fontanne was born

Lynn was introduced to a young American called Alfred Lunt backstage in 1919 and they were married on May 22, 1922. They appeared together the following year and so started an acting partnership which delighted audiences for 37 years. They preferred to act in comedy and had a wonderful rapport, appearing as a team in 26 plays. Their biggest hit was ‘O Mistress Mine’ which opened in New York in January 1946 and ran for 451 performances before going on tour for three years, playing 400 venues across America.

Lynn had become a friend of Noël Coward before her career in New York took off, and she and Alfred acted in three Coward plays, ‘Design for Living’, ‘Point Valaine’ and ‘Quadrille’. Apparently Coward’s experience working with the Lunts was expressed as “Direct the Lunts? My dear boy, when you do a play with the Lunts, nobody directs them. Oh, they have a delusion that they listen to a director, but they don’t, y’know.” When they appeared in his play ‘Quadrille’ Coward asked that the posters read “Directed by the author with the grateful assistance of the Lunts”! They had a sophisticated style which was ideal for Coward plays, but their remarkable versatility made them much respected among their colleagues.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

Donald Sinden called Lynn Fontanne 'the most glamourous woman I ever met'

Their home at Ten Chimneys gave the Lunts a quiet retreat, although their press agent arranged for photo-calls from time to time, showing the public their idyllic life style, hand-in-hand in the meadows of their sixty-acres estate, relaxing elegantly in their sitting room etc. Here they coached budding thespians helping them financially until they made a start up the theatrical ladder. They were also visited by many of the leading actors of the day and Ten Chimneys became a focus of artistic talent.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

They received many acknowledgements of their success. Lynn Fontanne received the gold medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1935, and in 1964 she and Alfred received the United States Freedom Medal in ceremonies at the White House. The Lunts were married for 55 years and were only separated once, to tour in separate productions. They made three films and only occasionally ventured into television, being much happier on stage with a live audience. They felt they had a duty to make sure people enjoyed their night out and didn’t want to shock or surprise them.

Alfred Lunt died on August 3, 1977 at the age of 84 but Lynn lived on at Ten Chimneys, dying there on July 30, 1983, aged 95.

Georgina Green has been involved with local history in Redbridge, Waltham Forest and the Epping Forest area for 40 years and served as the honorary secretary of the Woodford Historical Society from 1987 to 2000. She is the author of several local history books and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2021.