Friday, 13 March 2015

All the world’s a stage: Northern theatre at York Minster Library

Maria Nagle and Andrew Brownlie delve into the theatrical world of 19th Century entertainment

While millions of people have flocked to London’s West End to see the Lion King over the past fourteen years, very few have heard of an earlier ‘Lion King’ - the American Mr John Carter. Although reputed to be an imitator of Issac Van Amburgh (the original ‘Lion King’), Carter captivated audiences with his daring exploits. He and his troupe of animals performed twice in York Theatre Royal. The first time was in November 1840, in a new French melodrama 'The Lion of the Desert' (pictured), where he regaled the audience by a combat with a tiger and by driving a lion in harness. He later returned in August 1843, appearing in Boyle Bernard’s melodrama Mungo Park.

This is just one of around 1,400 loose and bound theatre playbills contained within York Minster Library’s collections. They might seem an odd addition to a Cathedral Library but most were bequeathed by Edward Hailstone in 1890 as part of a large Yorkshire history collection.  We are lucky to have them as they give a fascinating insight into the world of late eighteenth and nineteenth century theatre.

Many of the playbills are from the Theatre Royal in York; as a military town, a tourist destination and a centre for many of the Northern nobility, York has always been a good place for theatre. The playbills would have been pasted up outside the theatre and around town to advertise the evening’s entertainment, much like the posters for performances today. That so many of these ephemeral cultural objects survive in such good condition is wonderful news for theatre historians, or those interested in the cultural aspects of eighteenth and nineteenth century society.

Library playbill cataloguing project

Today, the playbills are being organised and individually catalogued by library volunteer Andrew Brownlie. Here he provides some highlights of his experience of working with the collection:

As well as the York Theatre Royal the collection includes playbills from theatres in Leeds, Wakefield, Hull, Scarborough and Whitby. While cataloguing these items it slowly became clear what was expected in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries of an evening's entertainment. A bill might begin with an abridgement of a Shakespeare play followed by comic songs or an acrobat on a tight-rope. The evening would often conclude with either a short farce or a pantomime.

Famous performers that made appearances included Mrs Sarah Siddons who was greatly celebrated for her Shakespearean roles. A six year old Ellen Ternan acted in 'Young Nap', and much later became better known as Charles Dickens's mistress. One actress who had great success in adaptations of the novels of Sir Walter Scott took what must surely be a stage name and became Miss Waverley Scott. 

The catalogue records are providing as much information as possible, and include details such as the names of each performer and how much tickets cost.

The playbills are all available to view as part of York Minster Library’s special collections; anyone can book an appointment to see them by emailing


Kotar, S.L. and Gessler, J.E. 2011. The Rise of the American Circus, 1716-1899. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland

Rosenfeld, S. 2001. The York Theatre. London: The Society for Theatre Research.

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