More Dickens Digitised!

After lots of hard work by a number of volunteers, I’m delighted to announce that we have now digitised almost all of our playbills for productions of works by Charles Dickens.

Although the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth was back in 2012, we have continued to work on this collection and, over the last few years, some very committed volunteers have made a wonderful contribution to this work.

Playbill advertising 'A Christmas Carol' at the Royal Victoria Theatre, December 1862

Playbill advertising ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Royal Victoria Theatre, December 1862

Christopher Hall and Marjolijn Verbrugge spent a significant amount of time digitising all of our smaller playbills, which are now visible on our website. More recently, Elizabeth Grimshaw, who is completing an MA in Dickens Studies here at the University, has spent hours cataloguing our Dickens ephemera, and digitising the remaining (rather large) playbills as well as some illustrations. The digitisation involved Elizabeth painstakingly reconstructing the complete playbill in digital form from several digitised pieces, matching sections carefully to create an almost seamless effect. Matching up text and ensuring that the angles are correct is difficult at the best of times, and even more challenging with Victorian playbills and their miniscule text. Although a handful of the last playbills were digitised on the newly working oversize scanner, the majority of the credit for this work must go to our hard working volunteers!

The Dickens Collection has been assembled over many years and includes bibliographic gems, such as the nineteenth century part issues of Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), pieces of ephemera, such as some twentieth century ‘Pickwick’ playing cards, and illustrations. Amongst this assembly is a significant collection of Dickens theatrical material, particularly Victorian and Edwardian programmes, postcards and playbills.

Playbill for Oliver Twist, 1838

Playbill advertising ‘Oliver Twist’ at the City of London Theatre, 11 December 1838, staged while the serialisation was ongoing.

Dickens was something of a sensation in his day (to put it mildly) and it wasn’t long before theatre managers decided to cash in on the popularity of his serialised works. Borrowing heavily from the books, the unofficial productions of lengthy works such as Oliver Twist included tableaux taken from the published illustrations and adapted the stories to suit their needs. In fact, the craze for all things Dickens was so great that hack playwrights, such as Edward Stirling and William Moncrieff, would make up their own endings for serialisations which had not yet been completed. With a lack of copyright protection, or an ability to police every theatre in Britain (never mind the spin-offs put on stage in America), there was little which Dickens could do about these plagerised versions but rail against them in prose.

In any case, the risks paid off for the theatre managers in early years, with Dickens’ first full length works immensely popular on stage. Around the time of Martin Chuzzlewit’s appearance, appetites for Dickens on stage appear to have abated somewhat, perhaps due to the fact that productions of Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby and The Old Curiosity Shop were all still being performed, as well as A Christmas Carol, which was published in December 1843, part way through Chuzzelwit’s serialisation. Of course, even limited success for performances of Dickens’ work on stage still proved profitable, with Dickens later cashing in to produce ‘official’ versions of his works in an attempt to limit plagerism. Even today, with television largely occupying the space which the Victorian Theatre filled, adaptations of Dickens’ works are widely popular.

We’re delighted that such an important section of the Dickens Theatrical Collection is now available on our website, with full zoom functionality, and would like to thank our volunteers for all their hard work.

If you’d like to learn more about performances of Dickens’ stories, take a look at our Dickens on Stage index.



What the Dickens!

It’s hard to believe that we’re coming to the end of another year, and what an exciting year it’s been! With events, anniversaries and commemorations, it feels like 2012 really has been a year to remember. Of course, it’s not over yet, but our series of Dickens exhibitions, celebrating the bicentenary of the author’s birth, is now coming to a close.

Cover of the first issue of Our Mutual Friend, May 1864

Cover of the first issue of Our Mutual Friend, May 1864

For the next six weeks, you can enjoy our fond farewell to our Dickensian celebration in our latest exhibition, “What the Dickens! Beyond the Books.” It’s on in the Templeman Gallery (accessible from the Library Cafe) and includes a cornucopia of the bizarre, banal and brilliant Dickens items in our archives.

Having examined Dickens on Stage in the nineteenth century and cartoonists’ use of Dickens’ characters in the twentieth, this time we’re investigating how Dickens’ fame and the popularity of his characters have survived and been transformed since their first success.

Do you know how Joseph Clayton Clarke made his living from Dickens’ characters? Or how Dickens became associated with music? Have you hear of Sir John Martin-Harvey, who played one of Dickens’ characters more than 4000 times on stage? What is the link between Dickens, Oliver Twist and chocolate?

Take a look at the exhibition to discover all this and more as we look ahead to the new academic year and plenty of new Special Collections discoveries.

“What the Dickens! Beyond the books” will be on display from 26 September until 6 November in the Templeman Gallery, next to the library cafe.


Happy Birthday Boz!

Today is the day that so many people have been looking forward to in 2012: the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth.

Script for Oliver Twist, 1838

Script for Oliver Twist, 1838

I’d just like to take this opportunity to say Happy Birthday Boz, if not quite as popular now as in his heyday, still standing the test of time remarkably well. Who would have thought that, two hundred years after his birth in 1812, many of Dickens’ characters and stories would be part of popular culture today? With adaptations, spoofs and much-loved inspiration, Dickens’ work continues to be as powerful and timely to us as any number of twentieth century authors.

Few people could have failed to notice that 2012 was going to bring a rush of Dickensian fans to the fore; don’t worry, I’m not going to make a stand for the literary merit or try to explain the enduring popularity of Dickens’ works. Instead, I’d like to update you about what we will be doing, here in Special Collections, to mark this year.

As you may have guessed, our 2012 will be heavily focused upon Dickens. Our Dickens Theatre Collection draws together elements of our extensive Victorian and Edwardian Theatre Collections with a small collection of Dickens ephemera, and will be the mainstay of our bicentenary celebrations. In fact, those of you who are regular visitors to the Templeman Library may have noticed that our new Welcome Hall display is already celebrating all things Dickens in the library. Do have a look, and try to guess the characters from the Kyd sketches. We’re working on pages for the website which will allow a virtual exploration of our Dickens holdings and hope that this will be up and running by May.

Playbill for 'No Thoroughfare', 1868

Playbill for 'No Thoroughfare', 1868

Currently Chris, Hazel and myself are working hard to prepare for our first exhibition of the year. Dickens Dramatised will focus on nineteenth century adaptations of Boz’s works for the theatre and explore the writer’s immense popularity on the stage. From the start, with Sketches by Boz, Dickens’ work was being transformed for the stage. While many of the playwrights reworked the novels into theatrical forms without consulting the writer, Dickens himself tried try, and on some occasions succeeded in, writing for the stage. He also acted, appearing on his own stage at Tavistock House, in 1855, under the stage name Mr Crummles in Wilkie Collins’ The Lighthouse. Dickens collaborated with Collins on several occasions to produce plays, but was rebuffed when attempting to adapt his own most popular work of Oliver Twist. Dickens Dramatised will explore the relationship between Dickens’ novels and the theatre during the height of his popularity.

More news on this coming soon, I hope!

Scene from 'The Only Way', 1899

Scene from 'The Only Way', 1899

We hope to produce two more exhibitions this year, one in the summer term, examining Dickens’ impact on visual art in the twentieth century through cartoons held by the British Cartoon Archive, and one in the autumn, looking at the Dickens craze as it moved beyond the author’s lifetime. As soon as we have dates for these exhibitions, I will let you know.

Just in case you feel that there is such a thing as too much Dickens, don’t despair; we’re also hoping to work on the Dion Boucicault Collection throughout the year, digitising playbills and cataloguing materials. Theatre is one of our key areas for development, but I am sure there will be plenty of exciting developments to the Collections during this year.

So as you’re munching on your special Dickens birthday cake, I hope that you’ll join with us in wishing Boz a very happy two hundredth birthday!