Thackeen Dhu!

  • By Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library


How’s that for a compelling image? Unlike most of the other playbills in the collection at Leeds Central Library, you won’t find this one online at Leodis, largely because, unlike the other playbills, it doesn’t really tell you very much about the show or venue. It appears to be a teaser, not much bigger than a postcard but, in essence, more like a film poster you’d find outside a cinema these days. Perhaps the theatrical folk named at the top, Mr & Mrs George Owen, would have put these smaller, cheaper posters up around town to create extra buzz around their production.

The more detailed version (one of a selection we took to show the lovely members of the Swillington Elderberries group last week) dates from 1863, when the play Thackeen Dhu shared the stage with another ‘sensation drama’ entitled Aurora Floyd. The latter gets an act-by-act breakdown of its exciting plot (“The Fatal Secret Revealed!”) but there’s not much given away about Thackeen itself. You can, however, find a cast of characters listed on this Dublin playbill, along with a brief description at the National Library of Ireland Catalogue:

The playbill features an illustration of Norah, the Thackeen Dhu, holding onto the branch of a tree while she hangs over over a ravine trying to escape from Barney the Sot, who is trying shown chopping on the branch of the tree she is holding onto with an axe; these characters played by Mrs. George Owen and Mr. George Owen respectively.

You’re probably wondering by now what the title actually means. Thackeen is an old word for a young(ish) girl, roughly equivalent to maiden, while dhu describes her as dark or dark-haired, as in Ghillie Dhu, the male fairy of Scottish folklore… All of which adds up to a fairly evocative title, certainly in conjunction with that striking image.

There’s so much to love about the illustration, from the way the thackeen herself seems to glow in the moonlight, to the cutaway cottage and artist’s signature hidden in the cliffs. Also check out the entirely-too-dramatic, forced perspective of the crags on either side of the water – it’s as confusing to the eye as that strange landscape behind the Mona Lisa.

We’ll leave you with some reviews of Mrs Owen’s performance to see if it could possibly have lived up to all the hype!


From: The Era (London, England), Sunday, November 8, 1868. (Viewed via Nineteenth Century Newspapers, which you can access using your Leeds Libraries card through our Online Resources page)

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