The Red Dean – another milestone

The pamphlets from the Hewlett Johnson Collection have now been fully catalogued. The items can be searched via the main library catalogue.

Hewlett Johnson was Dean of Canterbury from 1931 to 1963 and became infamous for his outspoken support of socialism. His life (1874-1966) saw turbulent times, experiencing the end of the Victorian era, two world wars and the heightening of tensions in the Cold War. Controversy dogged his public and private life, but unlike many of his contemporaries, Johnson never became disilussioned with Communism as the twentieth century progressed. Dean of Manchester, then Canterbury, he worked for social change in Britain as well as writing books and pamphlets to support the cause of a global socialism. He saw his deeply held Christian beliefs as complimentary to the Communist cause, rather than at odds with it. With critics and supporters in equal numbers, Johnson saw Canterbury through the Second World War, although his wife, Nowell, and children were evacuated to Harlech in North Wales.

Fidel Castro talking to Hewlett Johnson

Fidel Castro talking to Hewlett Johnson

During his lifetime, Hewlett Johnson became a global star for Communism, travelling to Russia and China several times and publishing books and articles about his journeys. The material for his later visits was largely drawn from his wife’s diaries. At the age of 90, he visited Cuba for the first time: one spur-of-the-moment photograph in the collection shows Johnson talking to Fidel Castro. In 1951, Johnson became the second person to be awarded the Stalin Peace Prize and, despite the hostility from the Canterbury Cathedral Chapter, continued to advocate socialism throughout his tenure.

Some of the pamphlets were written by Johnson, for example I Appeal, which Nowell illustrated, about germ warfare allegedly carried out on China by America during the Second World War. There is also an obituary for Joseph Stalin, in the form of a memorial address to the British Soviet Friendship Society in 1953. Other topics related to socialism include social credit and the distribution of food during the Second World War. There are numerous pamphlets from and about Johnson’s tours to Communist countries. It is also clear that Johnson’s unsuccessful attempts to become a missionary did not stop his interest in the global development of Christianity; there is a pamphlet about Ugandan Christians, a copy of a sermon in support of the observance of the Sabbath, a short article on Christian fellowship and an exhaustive pamphlet supporting the theory of divinecreation, rather than evolution.

While these pamphlets are only a small part of the Hewlett Johnson Collection, they do display the wide variety of interests and influences of the extraordinary man who became known as the Red Dean of Canterbury.

For more information about Hewlett Johnson, and the collection, please visit the Special Collections Website.

Coming up next, the continuing cataloguing of the Bigwood wartime cinema and theatre programmes, and more entries on Archives Hub. Watch this space!


It’s funny how quickly things get forgotten by fashion. As I’ve been told, the reaction to any mention of Dion Boucicault today is likely to be “Boucic-who?”. But at the end of the nineteenth century, Dionysius Lardner Boucicault was an international star, bad at managing his money, his personal life attracting audiences as much as his plays. Only recently have his plays begun to come back into vogue; a recent production of London Assurance at the National Theatre was broadcast live around the UK and in the US.

While editing entries for Archives Hub, part of an effort to get Special Collections ‘out there’, I’ve been lucky to have a lot of biographical material to work with, particularly for the two Boucicault Collections. (We generally refer to them as one collection, but technically, they’re the Fawkes Boucicault Collection and Calthrop Boucicault Collection). Editing down a three-thousand word essay to something more manageable hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learnt a lot of fascinating things along the way.

When I started in Special Collections, I admit that my reaction was “Boucic-who?” as well. Other, better informed, people tried to explain the importance of the Irish-born playwright, but it’s only really by looking at the items in the collection(s) that I’ve been able to get a real idea of Boucicault’s importance. It seems as if he kept lawyers in business, with the amount of litigation he became embroiled in, yet he was influential in establishing the copyright and royalty systems in the US and UK. His personal life was the subject of some controversy; he claimed never to have been married to his second wife, Agnes, while having an affair with an actress called Katherine Rogers, then married a 21-year-old member of his company when he was 65 and still married to Agnes.

But beyond the scandals of the celebrity lifestyle, some of Boucicault’s melodramas, both original and ‘adapted’ (or plagiarised) were hugely popular; Queen Victoria noted some of the performances she attended in her diaries. Boucicault managed, directed and wrote for the stage, displaying a mixture of talents unusual for his time. While he experienced many failures and frequently squandered his earnings, his successes were hugely successful and he often pushed at the boundaries of professional expectation. Added to this, he is also, bizarrely, credited with inventing fireproofing for scenery, to create increasingly lavish (melo)dramatic productions. This elaborate staging was one of his difficulties; a production of Babil and Bijou, for example, made losses despite a hugely popular six month run.

So far, I have only created entries for the Fawkes Boucicault collection, the smaller of the two. Next, I’m moving on to the entries for the Calthrop Boucicault collection which, I have to admit, I prefer because it contains more original material, including images of many productions. When they’re both complete, they will be sent to the Archives Hub team to be put onto their database. Hopefully the University of Kent’s entries will start going live early next week; I hope that putting these collections out in the public eye will encourage the renaissance that Boucicault’s work recently seems to have enjoyed.

There are currently some items on display in the Reading Room from the Bouciault and Melville Collections which relate to The Flying Scud.

If you’re interested in Victorian and Edwardian Theatre, why not take a look at some of the University’s other Theatre Collections?

Another major and complimentary Boucicault Collection is held at the University of South Florida, Tampa.