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Archives and Special Collections

Welcome to the Drama and Theatre History Guide

This resource guide provides an overview of some of the collections held by the University of Exeter that may be particularly useful for the study of drama, theatre history, and the history of cinema. The boxes below describe different collections and contain links to the catalogues, through which you can explore the collections further. 

The resources highlighted in this guide have been identified using our catalogues, but are not exhaustive. You can search our archives catalogue and library catalogue with key word searches to identify further items of interest. More information on searching the catalogues can be found on the Search our Catalogues LibGuide. If you come across any other sources within our collections that you think should be included in this guide, we would be very pleased to hear about them.

Archives and rare books held by Special Collections and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum are available to everyone. More information about accessing the collections can be found in our Visiting Heritage Collections LibGuide. Please note that there may be some restrictions on accessing and copying (including photography) material in the archives and books held by Special Collections and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in line with current data protection and copyright legislation. Always make sure to check the access conditions on the archive catalogue and email Special Collections before your visit for more information about specific restrictions.

Northcott Theatre Archive

The Northcott Theatre and Arts Centre was conceived of by G.V. Northcott after the demolition of Exeter’s Theatre Royal in 1962. The theatre opened with a production of The Merchant of Venice on 2nd November 1967. Early directors were known for fostering new writing talent and many famous actors performed there early in their careers. 

The Northcott Theatre archive comprises operational and production records spanning the period from its opening in 1967 to its threatened closure in 2010. These include administrative, legal and operational records, information on the technical management of theatre productions, promotional literature and press coverage. There is also a collection of photographic records of productions and actors, along with records of film productions from the earlier Theatre Royal in Exeter.

This collection is currently undergoing a cataloguing project. You can search the archive as the cataloguing progresses in our online archives catalogue, or follow the progress of the project in our project blog.

The Northcott Theatre Archive has great potential for interdisciplinary researchers, particularly touching on areas of history, drama, sociology and business. Some possible areas of interest to early career researchers are listed below, though the archive provides rich ground for many other areas of research.

  • Censorship in the Theatre - The first two years of the Northcott Theatre fell in the period before the abolition of the official censor. A small collection of scripts can be found in the collection bearing the Lord Chamberlain's licence, often contingent on specified corrections to the script to remove offensive phrases.Early show files also contain

  • Regional sensibilities in Theatre - As a small regional theatre the Northcott often faced push-back against new writers and productions that attempted to expand the boundaries of theatre. Correspondence, contracts and other materials show low take-up and canceled performances at touring venues as many small theatres self-censored productions that they felt did not fit their audiences regional sensibilities.

  • Set design and staging- The archive contains a large collection of set plans and designs for a wide range of productions, in addition to many annotated prompt books and some annotated scripts. Prompt books and show files may also contain small sketches, notes, contracts and other material related to staging and set design. These materials are a valuable resource to understand the vision behind different productions and the varying approaches that were taking by different directors to the same play.

  • Publicity and criticism - An expansive collection of posters, programmes and press cuttings forms the centre of the Northcott Theatre Archive. Differing approaches to the design of publicity material can be identified through the years, while albums of press cuttings show the changing representations of the Northcott Theatre in the press throughout it's lifetime and record critical opinion on many of its major productions.

Theatre Royal (Exeter) playbills collection

Theatre Royal (Exeter) playbills collection

The collection contains nearly 2,400 playbills, relating to all types of production at the theatre over a fifty year period. Included are bills for ballets, plays, variety and revue performances, musicals, operas, pantomimes and film showings.

The theatre ran productions of all kinds, ranging from plays, musicals, variety and pantomimes, with occasional ballets, operas and film showings. The theatre closed regularly every summer, and staged a huge pantomime each Christmas. These ran for one or two months and were very popular. As well as the home repertory company, touring companies also visited, including the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company with the great comic actor Sir Henry Lytton. Many other famous theatre names guested, including Harold Neilson, Mrs Patrick Campbell, local-born Violet Vanbrugh and Charles Hawtrey. Early appearances by Harry Secombe and Morecambe and Wise were also made.

Click here to browse the collection.

Click here to browse the collection in our Archives Catalogue.


  • Once the page opens click the underlined Ref No to see a full list of playbills by date


  • Click on the '+' icon by the date to expand the listing to show performances for that year
  • Click on the title of a play to see the full listing for that item
  • You can also enter keywords like the title of a play into the search box at the top of the catalogue page

Scrapbook of John Stokes Bennett of the Theatre Royal, Exeter

Scrapbook of John Stokes Bennett of the Theatre Royal, Exeter, and other papers relating to theatre history

John Stokes Bennett, c 1773-1829, was an actor and theatre manager of New Theatre and Theatre Royal, Exeter.

This item comprises one volume scrapbook of mainly newspaper cuttings, 1820-1824, compiled by John Stokes Bennett, also containing 18th and 19th c theatrical posters (playbills). Typescript death notices of Bennett from 'Trewman's Exeter Flying Post' and 'Alfred', Mar 1829, and photocopy of two pages from 'The theatre tourist, being a genuine collection of correct views, with brief and authentic historical accounts of all the principal provincial theatres in the United Kingdom, by a theatric amateur [James Winston]', London, 1805.

English concert parties and pierrot shows

Concert parties are an alternative name for what is more commonly known as pierrot shows. Originating in the Italian commedia dell'arte tradition, and later French developments, the character of Pierrot in the familiar white baggy costume was created by Giuseppe Giratoni c 1665. Pierrot arrived in England in 1891, with his popularity established by the French mime play L'Enfant Prodigue which ran at the Prince of Wales' Theatre. The first English Pierrot troupe began c 1895, making its debut at the Henley Regatta. Closely allied to Minstrel shows, the pierrot shows pioneered a new form of British popular theatre, and consisted of songs, dances, comic sketches and occasional monologues. The shows were performed in the open, giving them the name of alfresco concert parties. By 1910, troupes were taking the shows on tour rather than remaining in one resort for the summer season. Famous touring shows included 'The Fol-de-Rols', 'Twinkle', and 'The Co-Optimists'. By the end of the 1920s, permanent wooden stages were often used with proper seating for the audience, or pier pavilions and other permanent theatre buildings were used if available. The pierrot shows flourished in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, only waning in popularity with the arrival of the summer show, which featured television stars, dancers and big bands. Probably the only remnants of this particular form of variety performance surviving today are the Pierrotters, and the Redcoat entertainers at Butlin Holiday Camps.

EUL MS 225 Papers relating to English concert parties and pierrot shows (1900-1970s)

This small collection contains over 250 items relating to English concert parties and pier entertainments, including reviews, press cuttings, programmes, play bills, handouts, artists' cards, call sheets, miscellaneous notes and photographs (many signed). Items relating to major touring companies are included (Catlin's Royal Pierrots, The Fol-de-Rols, Gaytime, Billie Manders' Quaintesques, Edgar Taylor's Lavender Follies, Clarkson Rose's Twinkle), as well as for other smaller companies. A thorough history of the genre is also contained: 'Pom-poms and Ruffles: the Story of Northern Seaside Entertainment', G J Mellor, 1966.

Dorothy Johnson and John Lawrence Toole

Dorothy Louise Hartnup (1909-1966) was born on 14 Aug 1909 and was later adopted. She knew nothing of her natural parents. She was brought up in Battersea by her adopted parents John Bishop and Dorothy Louise Hartnup (nee Wood). Her adopted father was a barber and master wig-maker, running his own hairdressing shop in the Queenstown Road. She was educated at a convent school in Clapham, and married twice. Her second marriage was to George James Johnson, artist and civil servant, in 1936. They had one son, born in 1940.

She was actively involved in amateur dramatics and singing, with much of her activities centring on the Parents' Association attached to local scout groups to which her son belonged. She had a keen interest in theatre history, particularly in the actor managers Edward Edwards and John Lawrence Toole. Her most productive period of research was from c 1953-c 1957. She died in Thornton Heath on 5 Oct 1966.

John Lawrence Toole (1830-1906), actor and theatrical manager, was born in St. Mary Axe, London as the son of James Toole, City Toast Master and employee of the East India Company. Toole was educated at the City of London School and worked briefly in a wine merchant's counting house. He then joined the City Histrionic Club and made his first public appearance at the Haymarket Theatre. He made his professional debut at the Queen's Theatre, Dublin, 1852, under Charles Dillon, moving onto the St. James's Theatre, London, the Lyceum, and the New Adelphi Theatre. After a successful acting career, he opened the Globe Theatre, London, in 1877. In 1895 he then opened the Folly Theatre on King William Street, Strand, in 1879 (renamed Toole's Theatre, 1882) which he ran until 1895. He died in Brighton in 1906.

Papers of Dorothy Johnson relating to theatre history and John Lawrence Toole

This collection contains items relating to theatre history, including:

  • Playbills [originals, most with facsimile copies], mainly featuring the actor Edwards Edwards or directed or produced by him, 1840s
  • One portfolio containing mounted letters and telegrams relating to performances, tours etc., from JLT to Edmund Routledge 1870-1891 (many relating to 1890 tour of New Zealand and Australia, as well as UK tour 1889), as well as some newscuttings relating to performances; pictures, caricatures and engravings (some signed) including some taken from magazines and newspapers, with a pencil portrait of JLT by P. Klein, 1890; tickets, menus, table plan and programmes for farewell banquet at Hotel Metropole Feb 1980 as well as for other social occasions; printed undated speech for 300th performance of 'Walker, London'; playbill for 1880 performance of JLT and the Folly Company at the Theatre Royal, Brighton; b/w photographs of JLT and Miss Furtado in Belle Helene, undated; 'Souvenir of Mr. J.L. Toole', London: Charles Yates and Co, 1890, including useful biographical details. This portfolio was possibly compiled by Edmund Routledge.
  •  One box containing: album of mounted engravings of various actors and actresses (mainly Victorian), 19th c., also containing certificate from the Girls Friendly Society, presented to Lilt Hartnup on her marriage, 19 Nov 1887 [unfit for production] and Victorian Christmas/New Year cards; two notebooks of Johnson containing biographies and indexes of various actors, managers and London theatres, 1950s-early 1960s; three notebooks by Johnson containing portions of original playscripts, poems and short stories, 1950s-early 1960s; file containing letters from JLT to Edmund Routledge during Australian and New Zealand tour, 1890, including playbill for performance at the Choral Hall, Auckland, New Zealand, Dec 10 1890; two glass plate negatives of magazine engravings of the actress Miss [Blanche] Vincent, undated; menu for banquet of J.L. Toole, Waterloo Hotel, undated [1880s-1890s].

Bill Douglas Cinema Museum


The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum is both a public museum and an academic research centre, housing one of Britain's largest public collections of books, prints, artefacts and ephemera relating to the long history of screen practice. There are over 80,000 items in the collection. Holdings include many examples of nineteenth-century panoramas, dioramas, magic lanterns, stereoscopes, peepshows, optical illusions, and early cinema handbills. Artefacts are complemented by printed works relating to nineteenth-century science, technology, domestic leisure and popular entertainment. is home to one of the largest collections of material on the moving image in Britain.

Search the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum for books and artefacts

Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was born in Paris. She was educated at the Institution Fressard in Auteuil, and at Grandchamp, a convent near to Versailles. In 1860 she entered the Paris Conservatoire, where she took second-prize in the final competition. She then established her reputation as a tragedienne actress at the Comedie Francaise, the Theatre du Gymnase and Theatre de l'Odeon. She subsequently toured Europe and the USA in the 1880s where she also won international fame. She managed the Theatre de la Renaissance from 1893-1899, and subsequently founded the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt (originally Theatre des Nations) in Paris in 1899. She was created a chevalier of the Legion d'honneur in 1914. She died in Paris in 1923 and is buried in the cemetery at Pere Lachaise

Papers relating to Sarah Bernhardt

This collection contains theatre pamphlets and other papers relating to Bernhardt's life and career. It contains papers dating to during and after her lifetime including: magazine articles, theatre programmes (signed), black and white photographs, Sarah Bernhardt exhibition catalogue (Ferrers Gallery, London, 1973), assorted newscuttings, articles, notes and extracts relating to the life of Bernhardt.

Please see the Archives catalogue for a full list of items in this collection.


Gerald du Maurier

Sir Gerald du Maurier (1873-1934) was an actor and theatrical manager, and was son of George du Maurier. He first appeared on the stage in 1895, playing a small part in a dramatization of 'Trilby' at the Haymarket. His break came in 1902 during Barrie's 'The Admirable Crichton', at the Duke of York Theatre, where he met his later wife Muriel ('Mo') Beaumont (1881-1957) who was also an actor. (She appears to have been based predominantly at three London theatres, the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, the Garrick Theatre and the Duke of York in the period 1898-1906, 1912, acting in a range of productions from Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' to 'For Love of Prim' and 'A Golden Wedding' by Eden Phillpotts). Gerald du Maurier was the first actor to play the parts of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook in Barrie's 'Peter Pan' (1904).Other successes included E W Hornung's 'Raffles', 'Arsene Lupin at the Comedy Theatre' (1906) and 'Alias Jimmie Valentine' (1910) by Paul Armstrong. He then moved into theatre management with Frank Curzon at Wyndham's Theatre, whilst continuing his acting career. He was knighted in 1922 for his services to theatre. Film roles include 'The Living Dead' (1936), 'I was a Spy' (1934), 'Power' (1934), Catherine the Great' (1934), 'Lord Camber's Ladies' (1932) and 'Escape' (1930).

Papers relating to Gerald du Maurier

These papers relate to Gerald du Maurier [1873-1934], include items regarding his acting career. These include albums of press cuttings and photographs. They are part of a larger collection of papers relating to various members of the du Maurier family.


An album relating to the acting career of Guy du Maurier, brother of George du Maurier, can also be found within the collection. It contains theatre programmes, newspaper clippings, letters, verses, scripts, costume designs, and a large number of photographs of theatrical performances

Printed books



The Hypatia collection is a rich and diverse collection of books and journals by or about women, collected by Dr Melissa Hardie. Chiefly nineteenth to twentieth-century, the collection is strongest on biography, social life, occupations and history, as well as on literature (especially fiction) and the arts. The collection also contains a Performing Arts section (see classmark: Hypatia/Per)

The books and pamphlets are arranged within subjects: Biographies; Health; Education; Occupations; Science; Crime; Religion; Marriage and the Family; Politics; Archaeology; History; Domestic Science; Art; Humour; Natural World; Poetry; Performing Arts; Diaries; Nursing; Literature; Myths and Legends; Travel; Topography; The Cornish Woman; The American Woman; Women and War; Fiction, Journals.

To search the entire Hypatia Collection, enter *HYPATIA* in the search field on the Library Catalogue. You can also search *Hypatia* + *Keyword* or *Hypatia* + *Author* or *Hypatia* + *Book Title*. Then under *Refine your results* and under *Location* select *Special Collections Old Library*


There are 19th century editions of books which were adapted to melodramas in our Reserve Collection at 822.08

Rare books and reserve collections can be found by searching the University of Exeter Library catalogue

  • Enter a keyword, title or author in the search bar
  • To restrict the results to a specific time period, enter a date range under *Refine your results* and *Creation Date*
  • To restrict the results to results to Special Collections materials, select *Special Collections, Old Library* under *Location*

For more advice on searching the Library Catalogue, visit our Searcing our Catalogues guide

Video explainer - How to search the archives catalogue

Watch the video explainer above for a quick guide to searching the archives catalogue

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