Imagine opening a book and finding a treasure trove of letters from world-famous actors and actresses. A M Broadley’s Haymarket scrapbooks are just that – although the stars of the stage who feature in the collection were celebrities way back in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The scrapbooks form part of the Theatre Collection at Westminster Archives Centre and are among some of our rarest and most captivating items. All four volumes are sumptuously bound and contain a wide array of historic prints, drawings and documents relating to London’s Haymarket theatres. With each turn of the page there’s a fascinating piece of theatre history to be discovered: from satirical cartoons mocking the affectations of actors and audiences to exquisite portraits of great beauties of the opera world. But to my mind, the most interesting items are the scrapbooks’ manuscript letters and the stories they tell of Theatreland in times gone by.
David Evans, a Friend of Westminster Archives Centre and long-standing volunteer, is currently working on a project to transcribe the letters and bring these stories to light. From the rant of prima donna Catherine Tofts vowing “never to set foot on the stage again” to the tenor John Beard applying to aristocrats for salaried positions, the letters reveal how turbulent a career in theatre could be.
The authors are among the foremost actors and singers, impresarios and theatre managers of their day: Sir John Vanbrugh, David Garrick, Giulia Grisi and Herbert Beerbohm Tree all feature as writers or recipients.
We hope to publish the letters online towards the end of the year, so watch this space! In the meantime, why not indulge your interest in London’s theatre history with Robert Tanitch’s recently published, London Stage in the Nineteenth Century. The book is lavishly illustrated with images from the Archives Centre’s collection, including a number from the Broadley albums.
Inspired by David’s project? Find out how to become a Friend of the Archives or volunteer.