Women on Stage and in Society : 1850 – 1915

part of the British Theatre History exhibition

part of the British Theatre History exhibition

On Wednesday 6th April the yearly exhibition by second year students of the British Theatre History module launched. Whilst this has been an annual event for several years, this time the students faced a bigger challenge than ever: the size of the Templeman exhibition space. This is only the second exhibition to be held in the new space, and asking first time exhibition makers to fill it was initially concerning, but the students rose to the challenge admirably.

Playbill for Society at the Prince of Wales

Playbill for Society at the Prince of Wales, currently on display

This module offers students the opportunity to learn about a hugely varied period of theatre history in Britain, ranging from Victorian pantomime through to suffragette plays. What’s unique about this module in particular, is that the student use Special Collections and Archives material to really come to terms with the time period, utilising Kent’s extensive Victorian and Edwardian theatre collections. The students look at a range of original material, such as playbills, play-scripts and theatre documentation, to learn about this exciting time.

The British Theatre History student exhibition

A section about living as an actress

This year was different than previously in other ways too. Firstly, the students usually work in groups to produce sections of a general exhibition on British theatre history. This time,

The exhibition launch

The exhibition launch

however, the students were challenged to work individually, and they did not disappoint! The other difference is that this time the students worked on a very specific theme: women. Within this theme the students looked at gender roles in pantomime, the representation of women in melodrama, influential female playwrights, theatre managers and actresses, and theatrical women as a political force. The result is a very well rounded, coherent exhibition, which catches the eye and the interest of passers-by.

Dick Whittington from the Melville Collection

Dick Whittington from the Melville Collection


The module draws heavily from theatre collections housed here at Kent. Firstly, the Melville Collection, which tells the story of a theatrical dynasty of actors and theatre managers. The Melville’s owned many theatres around the country, but particularly the Lyceum in London, from which we hold music, takings books, and administrative documentation concerning productions put on there, as well as publicity material and scripts.

A lithograph showing a scene from the Octoroon

A lithograph showing a scene from the Octoroon



Secondly, the students use the Boucicault Collections. Dion Boucicault was a playwright and actor who worked both here and in America in the 19th century. He was particularly well known for his melodramas, most famously the Octoroon, a controversial play concerning race and slavery. One student has produced a detailed section concerning this play.

Photograph of Nellie Farren, from the Milbourne scrapbook

Photograph of Nellie Farren, from the Milbourne scrapbook



Many of the students use sections from the Milbourne scrapbook. This scrapbook contains photographs (and some signatures) of famous actors and actresses of the time period, and also accurate depictions of costumes worn in theatrical productions. The costume images were originally black and white, but the scrapbook’s owner attended the productions featured in it, and faithfully coloured in the images to represent what was being worn on the stage.


Pettingell scrapbook, currently on display

Pettingell scrapbook, currently on display

Finally the students used our Pettingell Collection. Frank Pettingell was an English actor in the 20th century. He obtained the collection from Arthur Williams, who was an actor and playwright in the 19th century. The collection is made up of a huge selection of printed and handwritten play scripts, many of which were used as performance prompt copies. There are also a handful of theatrical scrapbooks in the collection, one of which is on display.


The exhibition is up until the 25th April.

Going out with a launch

So here we are at the end of another term – the time seems to go by so quickly (and no doubt more quickly when you have a deadline or two!) As I said in my last post, it really has been a busy and exciting term for us in Special Collections. As well as sharing the enjoyment of the Night at the Victorian & Edwardian Theatre exhibition launch last week, yesterday we were able to celebrate student success once again.

A display of the new writers' work

A display of new writing

This time, it was the turn of students of the School of English, who had taken Simon Smith’s Book Project module. This very popular module includes a visit to Special Collections to investigate our Modern First Editions collection, particularly looking at self-publication and small presses. The module culminates in the creation of a piece of original creative writing, which the students then publish themselves using online software to design every last detail of the physical book. This in itself is an exciting achievement, but to celebrate the occasion, Special Collections hosted the book launch for all of these writers to talk about their work, perform readings and generally share their enthusiasm.

Enjoying the event

Enjoying the event

Among the guests were friends, family, academic and library staff, and all enjoyed hearing these new writers read their prose and poetry, each unique and with their own, clear style. With subjects ranging from the experiences of a 20-something, family and identity, conformity, disability and mystery, we were entertained over two hours by the students’ talent, vision and their ability to engage the whole audience.

A reading

Engaging the audience…

A reading

… and sharing the story

Once the books have been marked and moderated, copies will be deposited in Special Collections, so that we can showcase the talent which this University has inspired. This module also ran last year, and we are currently in the process of transferring the completed books from 2012 into our collections.

Celebrations and events aside, this term has seen us make great strides with our collections, thanks to the hard work of regular staff and a committed core of volunteers. The sermon notes of Hewlett Johnson have now been completely catalogued and are searchable on the Special Collections website. Similarly, a large chunk of the new B. J. Rahn Collection of twentieth century theatre programmes has been catalogued and added to the website. Work is also ongoing on our deed boxes of legal materials relating to Dion Boucicault and on the significant research papers of Andrew Hendrie, a UoK student whose PhD researched the Coastal Command during the Second World War.

Suffice it to say, the work here is always varied!

We have plenty planned out for the next few weeks, when the reading room and all of our services should be running as usual, from 9.30-4.30 Monday-Friday. Expect new collections, new discoveries and more to blog about as we head into (what I hope will be) the summer. In early May, we’re looking forward to a new exhibition to mark the changing attitudes towards women, which we hope will incorporate materials from UoK Special Collections, the Gulbenkian Theatre costume store and Christ Church Canterbury University Special Collections.

So as I sign off for another term and wish everyone a good Easter vacation, I’d just like to remind you to come and take a look at our current exhibition, curated by students from the School of Drama. Or if you can’t make it in person, try the digital exhibition, accessible via the website and let us know what you think.

Nothing new under the sun?


Playbill from Theatre Royal, Hull, 1850

Hazel has recently been working on our Pettingell Collection of Victorian manuscript prompt copies, which includes the holograph of playwrights such as Dion Boucicault, Charles Hazlewood and G. D. Pitt. Many of these prompt copies, handwritten playscripts with multiple annotations relating to staging, scenery and production, came from the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, and are annotated by Frederick Wilton, the Britannia’s stage manager during the latter half of the nineteenth century. These copies arguably offer  more realistic evidence about what was being performed on the Britannia’s stage than the copies which were sent to the Lord Chamberlain to be passed as fit for the stage (censorship on the British stage was only abolished in 1968). These copes are now held by the British Library as the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

In the course of checking the status of these manuscripts, Hazel came across some overhead projector slides of playbills advertising ‘Varney the Vampire’, which led to investigation of where these should fit with the collection. As usual, in Special Collections, a straightforward task became something of a voyage of discovery; I’ve tried to summarise some of our findings here.


Illustration from 'Melmoth the Wanderer' playscript by B. West

Vampire literature became popular in the early eighteenth century, although the first real mention of a vampire in English fiction occurred in 1797 with Robert Southey’s poem Thalaba the Destroyer. During the nineteenth century, the popularity of vampire fiction was still strong; Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood first appeared as a serialised ‘penny dreadful’ in 1845 and is attributed to James Malcolm Rymer. It was of epic length; when published as a book in 1847 it had over 200 chapters and almost 667,000 words. It was this tale which provided some of the most iconic pieces of vampiric lore to later writers of Gothic fiction, for example Varney’s fangs, hypnotic powers and superhuman strength. However, Varney had no problems with sunlight, crosses or garlic. Varney also represents a creature who is a slave to his condition, finding his vampirism repellent but unable to escape it. This idea of the reluctant vampire has been echoed in fiction ever since.


Title page from Melmoth the Wanderer by C. Perkins

Varney was incredibly popular with his peers and was adapted for the stage (I can only assume in a shortened version). Another playscript which we hold (in manuscript prompt copy and printed text) is Melmoth the Wanderer, based upon Charles Robert Maturin’s 1820 novel. Although Maturin was commenting on contemporary society through this novel, it also contains some of the hallmarks of Gothic literature. In this novel, Melmoth makes a pact with the Devil to live for 150 years, and spends his life trying to find someone to make the payment for him. This, too, is an epically long tale, setting stories within stories and ranging between the New World and Europe. The connection between Melmoth and Varney? Well, it sounds a bit tenuous to me, but our manuscript copy of Melmoth has an alternative title handwritten on the cover: Varney the Vampire or the Unearthly Bridegroom.


Title page illustration from The Phantom by Dion Boucicault

The popularity of vampires in performance was closely linked to the rise of melodrama. The first staged vampire melodrama was adapted by Charles Nodier from an unauthorised sequel to John William Polidori’s The Vampyre. (Incidentally, Polidori’s tale was inspired by Byron’s entry into the now infamous 1816 ghost story writing competition which also spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.) Nodier’s version was then reworked and produced at the Lyceum Theatre in 1820, as The Vampire; or, the Bride of the Isles. Dion Boucicault also wrote a contribution to the genre, first produced at the Princess’s Theatre in 1852, entitled The Vampire: a Phantasm (later renamed The Phantom).


Title page for Sweeney Todd by George Dibdin Pitt

This interest in Gothic horror and the supernatural did not go unmarked by those in authority. On Tuesday 13 November 1888, Mr Channing reported to the House of Commons on the case of ‘two boys’ awaiting their trial for murder in Maidstone Gaol and how they

had been addicted by their own confession to reading of such books as “Dick Turpin”, “Varney the Vampire: or, the Feast of Blood” and “Sweeney Todd”…and that there was an enormous circulation of criminal literature among the young…these stories attractively written were widely circulated and read by enormous numbers of children, and instigated many of them to the commission of crime

The Times, 14 November 1888, p.6

In the end, we housed the overhead projector slide with a set of negatives of a prompt copy, entitled The Feast of Blood, which looks close enough to Varney’s original incarnation to make sense. But this little bit of research has shed a whole new light, for us, on Gothic and vampiric fiction (which no-one can fail to notice has made something of a comeback in the last few years). So it seems that maybe there isn’t anything new in concerns about the effects of popular fiction/culture on young people or in popular vampires (however reluctant).


While getting out materials for researchers interested in pantomime and melodrama, I came across an interesting note, penned by Andrew Melville III while drafting his unpublished MS;

Today people look to the front-page of a newspaper for their melodrama

Publicity postcard

Publicity postcard for the Melvilles' The Girl Who Lost Her Character

I was intrigued by this opinion, suggesting that we still need that touch of the dramatic in our lives, even if melodrama is generally seen (within the theatrical industry as well, I believe) as second rate, over-acted and a generally primitive form of drama. When I started to think about it, though, I began to see what Andrew III meant.

After all, many newspapers and magazines rely on that sense of the over-dramatic to outdo one another and sell as many copies as possible.

There was fierce competition during the time of the Melvilles’ ownership of several London and provincial theatres, but this was not specifically from rival melodramas, nor from television or radio, but from music hall. ‘It is no good charging 6d when the opposition (possibly a Music Hall) can afford to do it for 2d’ Walter Melville explained in the September 1905 edition of Stageland (0600336). Despite this time of increasing competition for all forms of entertainment, especially before the time of any government subsidy, the Melville family were successful in their acting, writing and management of a number of theatres in London and the provinces. Perhaps the most spectacular success of the family was the partnership between Frederick and Walter Melville, who jointly ran the Lyceum, the Prince’s Theatre and other major theatres, mainly in London. Their melodramas, most notably the ‘Bad Women Dramas’, filled the Melville theatres after the pantomime season, continuing a long theatrical tradition well into the twentieth century.

Fred & Walter

This pair come across as a larger than life duo, with their entire lives revolving around the theatre. Walter was the senior, eldest son of Andrew Melville (I) and his wife Alice, born in 1875, with Frederick the next eldest son, born in 1877. There was a degree of seniority in Walter’s relationship with his brother; according to Andrew III, Walter tried to dominate his brother, but they were ‘twin spirits’ and their success was the result of their ‘mutual endeavour’ (Melville, 0599809/23).  The considerable size of their fortunes at the time of their death is testament to their success, but the relationship was fairly tempestuous. From 1921, the brothers were embroiled in a dispute with one another which spilled into a legal quarrel, with both posting notices to announce that the disagreement would force them to shut down the Lyceum at the close of the pantomime. On the last night of the pantomime, February 18th 1922, one of the stars called the brothers on stage, with the news that they were reconciled (0599809/9). The pair shook hands and appeared amicable; however, it is far from clear that they knew anything about this reconciliation before they set foot on the stage. They also had short shrift for any other person who they disapproved of. Walter recounts a trip to a ‘second rate Provincial theatre conducted by my young brother’, most likely Andrew II, who amassed a fortune of his own. The attitude of the eldest son to his siblings gives us some clues into the working and personal relationships of the Melville family.


Walter Melville

Walter Melville

There was certainly a degree of eccentricity about the elder Melville brothers. Andrew III recalls his uncle Walter’s constant aura of theatricality, describing his ‘luxuriant’ overcoat and painstaking dress, including a wide brimmed black hat (599809/23). Walter himself recounts his father’s lessons in the ‘Dignity of the Theatre’, which ensured that he always wore his dark, ‘dress clothes’. Apparently the comedian Fred Leslie thought that Walter ‘was the funiest thing he had ever seen’, at which Walter commented ‘I cannot remember what there was particularly funny in my attire’ (599887/5). In contrast, Fred Melville was described in an obituary as having ‘cared nothing about dress’ (Daily Telegraph, 6 April 1938); he ‘rarely wore a coat to match his trousers or a waistcoat that went with either…wore low Byronic collars and frequently dispensed with a tie’ (599997/6). Fred was also had a ‘fanatical passion for physical fitness’ (599997/6), and a fear of draughts;

‘At panto rehearsals he would erect a shelter in the stalls from odds and ends of scenery, then stand outside it complaining of the cold, enveloped in two heavy overcoats, his trousers tucked into his socks’ (599809/9)

In contrast to Walter, who ‘never knew to what limit a practical joke should go’ (which cost him numerous friends), Andrew III recalls Fred’s ‘shrewdness with considerable wit and humour’ (599997/5). This is aptly illustrated in Fred’s speech Are Authors Cribbers? (0599809/12) which appears to have been written in connection with a legal case for copyright. In it, he states that authors are often the opposite of their heroes, perhaps referring to his own melodramatic plays, and that all known plots are to be found in the Bible, from which playwrights may copy if they choose. The case of Dion Boucicault, himself frequently bound up in litigation relating to copyright, is used as an illustration, and Fred goes on to recount his father’s anger at an unlicensed production of one of his own plays in America. Rather than pursue an expensive legal case, Andrew I put on three of the offending manager’s plays, unliscenced, in revenge. Fred’s own theatrical nature is revealed in the conclusion of his rousing defence. After relating a complaint he received from the famous Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, on the grounds that the Melvilles had stolen a scene from one of his plays, Fred wrote:

Frederick Melville as Reverend Knight

Frederick Melville as Reverend Knight

I was astounded – I had been accused of copying the French from the actual words. I am no cribber. As there had obviously been some mistake, what was I to do because I was certainly not going to submit to the terms of the letter. Just what I did is shown in a letter to Tree saying – “My sketch is taken from my play – A World of Sin – which was produced in 1890. Will you give me the date of the production of your play, because this is of great importance and if you find my play was produced earlier than the French play, you owe me an apology.”

There was no reply.

Oh Herbert, why did you not reply? Oh, Herbert!

The effect of this oration was no doubt similar to the popular reactions to the brothers’ plays.

Fred and Walter ran the Lyceum from 1910-1938, when they leased it to various managers. Andrew Melville III writes ‘in those days, Walter smoked a pipe and drank tea…until about 1910…he forsook the pipe for cigars and the tea for champagne’ (599809/23). This was hardly surprising, given the success of the partnership, but the Melvilles were always more concerned about business than celebrity. Walter’s motto was ‘give the public what they want’ (Stageland, September 1905), while at Fred’s last appearance in public, at the closing of Beauty and the Beast at the Lyceum in 1938, he expounded the principle of pleasing ‘the child that is in us all’ (599997/2). These principles and the brothers’ loyalty and commitment to their work and their employees, ensured that they were remembered with their brother Andrew II as the ‘three musketeers of melodrama’.

Reading the typescript reminiscences of Walter and Fred, including a humourous incident relating to weapons on stage, their theatrical and perhaps even melodramatic personalities spring from the page. Andrew III relates ‘it cannot be said that the Melvilles possessed the ‘charm of the Terrys’ or the ‘social standing of Irving” (599807/10), yet the three brothers, who died within a year of each other, were described as belonging ‘to one of the oldest theatrical families in London and the provinces’. One of Fred’s obituaries adds the accolade that Meville dramas had been played all over the world and acted in many languages. Perhaps there is more truth than eccentricity or melodrama in the plaque beneath the bust of Walter Melville which used to sit in the foyer of the Standard Theatre, Shoreditch:

There is Only One Shakespeare and the is Only One Walter Melville.

Dastardly bankers and financial panics

Despising bankers and panic over financial crises are no new phenomenons: Dion Boucicault’s The Poor of New York (later renamed The Streets of London), written in collaboration with three journalists, was a popular success in 1857. Focusing on two periods financial panic, 1837 and 1857, the plot is set in motion by the actions of the villain Bloodgood, a banker, who absconds with his bank’s cash just before it goes bankrupt. One of the latest investors, Captain Fairweather, leaves an impoverished family who are driven further into penury as a result of Bloodgood, who, as a wealthy landlord, demands high rents from the Fairweather family and their friends.

Boucicault himself suffered from poor finances for most of his life, but as a result of overspending, rather than extortion. He was involved in several cases regarding plagiarism; The Poor of New York was closely based on Les Pauvres de Paris by Edouard-Louis-Alexandre Brisbarre and Eugene Nus. Ironically, Boucicault’s version was written in response to his desperate need for money after the birth of Eve, Dion and Agnes Boucicault’s second child.

Streets of London Quadrille

Streets of London sheet music title page

Although initially written for and performed in America, the play was a hit elsewhere, with the name of the production changing to suit the place of its performance. The Poor of Liverpool, for example, was performed in 1864 and versions of The Streets of Dublin performed as recently as 1995. Despite the critics’ derision and Boucicault’s own admission that the play was ‘guano’, the enduring popularity of the play suggests that the trials of financial panics and the actions of bankers have long been a subject to draw the crowds.

For more information on this or any of Boucicault’s plays, have a look at the Special Collections website, where there are lists of characters, plot summaries and lists of productions of some of Boucicault’s better known productions. Archives Hub now also includes full descriptions of the two Boucicault Collections.

If you would like to view any items from the collection, please email specialcollections@kent.ac.uk to make an appointment.

With many thanks to Angela Groth-Seary for the excellent website, and to Mrs Sue Crabtree, for her research.