Lena Ashwell was born on a ship on the River Tyne on 28th September, 1872. Her father was the captain of a training ship. When she was a child the family emigrated to Canada. After the death of her mother she returned to Europe where she studied French at Lausanne University before moving to London where she studied singing at the Royal Academy of Music.
Ashwell decided to concentrate on acting and in 1891, she appeared in The Pharisee. This was followed by appearing with Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in King Arthur, by J. Comyns Carr. She also took the lead in Mrs Dane's Defence (1900) and Leah Kleschna (1905).
In 1907 she established her own theatre known as the Kingsway. It is believed that it received financial backing from Muriel De La Warr. Ashwell married the royal obstetrician Henry Simpson in 1908.
In 1908 Lena Ashwell joined forces with Elizabeth Robins, Kitty Marion, Winifred Mayo, Sime Seruya, Edith Craig, Inez Bensusan, Ellen Terry, Lillah McCarthy, Sybil Thorndike, Lily Langtry and Nina Boucicault to establish the Actresses' Franchise League. The first meeting of the AFL took place at the Criterion Restaurant at Piccadilly Circus. The AFL was open to anyone involved in the theatrical profession and its aim was to work for women's enfranchisement by educational methods, selling suffrage literature and staging propaganda plays. The AFL neither supported nor condemned militancy. In 1908 Ashwell appeared in Diana of Dobson's, a play written by Cicely Hamilton.
On the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 the AFL, at the instigation of Lena Ashwell, launched the Women's Theatre Camps Entertainments, which travelled round camps and hospitals. She was one of the founders of the Women's Emergency Corps and honorary treasurer of the British Women's Hospitals, and then took the Lena Ashwell Players to the Western Front.
After the war the Lena Ashwell Players continued as a company that was committed to bringing plays dealing with social issues to audiences in town halls.
Lena Ashwell died on 13th March 1957.