Leeds Playbills

It would be a mistake to assume that the only treasures held by Local Studies libraries are all books. At Leeds Libraries our Playbills Collection is just one of our ‘non-book’ treasures. Comprising over 5000 items from the 1700s to 1998, the first record of the collection comes from the Book Purchasing Committee minutes, December 1906 “That the Librarian be empowered to obtain the ‘Leeds Play Bills’ now submitted at a cost not exceeding £5”.

This is the possible start of the collection, with future records showing bulk gifts of playbills in 1910, 1935 and 1937, from people and Aldermen of Leeds.

In 1999 Leeds Libraries built the Leodis website to hold our extensive collection of Leeds heritage photographs, (over 63,000 images and counting), the Playbills Collection was included in the digitisation work for preservation and accessibility.

Over 50% of the Playbills Collection are for theatres no longer with us, providing insight into the programming and audiences experienced by each theatre. Today I’m going to introduce you to a few of our favourite items.

The main attraction of this 1912 Leeds Hippodrome playbill is ‘Fregolia’ in her ‘Protean Sketches’. Performing twice nightly, with matinee shows on Wednesdays. Quick change artist Fregolia portrays over 20 characters, with over 100 costume changes, ending with ‘a series of curtain calls, each curtain call necessitating a complete change of clothing, stockings included.’ The show is proclaimed ‘The greatest performance ever presented by a Woman!

One of my favourite parts of the collection are the 53 Circus Playbills we hold from the years 1832-1904.

The Circus Playbills include several from Britain’s first Black circus owner, Pablo Fanque, real name William Darby. A renowned equestrian and great circus performer, Pablo suffered a great tragedy whilst visiting Leeds in 1848. The wooden amphitheatre collapsed, sending 600 spectators into the lower gallery used for selling tickets, Pablo’s wife, Susannah Darby was in the ticket booth and the only fatality.

Pablo Fanque died in 1871, aged 76 in Stockport, but was buried with his first wife Susannah at Woodhouse Cemetery in Leeds. It was reported that a vast crowd lined the route of his funeral procession. He is perhaps more well-known now in popular culture after being immortalised on the The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band track ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ with the line ‘late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair’.

This 1854 playbill demonstrates various woodcuts around the outside, it is worth noting that the main image of a lady on horseback was reused on many of Pablo’s past and future playbills.

Around this time circuses showcased equestrianism, gymnastics, and clowns, however this 1894 John Sanger & Sons ‘Royal Circus Company’ playbill advertises ‘…some of the finest zoological specimens ever seen in this country’: trained elephants, performing lions, Royal Bengal tigers, kangaroos, cheetahs, leopards, baboons, and other animals. Boasting prior performances for ‘Her Most Gracious Majesty’ Queen Victoria, T.R.H. the Prince and Princess of Wales and H.R.H. The Duke of Connaught. It goes on to specify that they are ‘The original “Sangers” from London. No connection whatever with George Sanger’s Circus’, just a hint of background drama there.

We’re going to jump forward 100 years now, to the Victorian era music hall, Leeds City Varieties. Still going strong today, in the 1950s and 1960s it competed with cinema and tv for an audience. The owner’s solution was to turn the venue into a strip theatre, booking risqué performances. Between 1954 and 1968 nearly every performance had a strip element, save for an infrequent comedy show now and then. By the late 1960s the new owners put an end to the theatre’s days as a strip venue after discovering families were put off attending the Christmas pantomime as they thought Cinderella would be nude.

As with other heritage items, the Playbill Collection includes items displaying language, imagery and attitudes that are now known to be insensitive, upsetting and factually inaccurate. These depictions reflect the context and culture of their creators and are designs of the time. They have been included in digital collections for historical preservation purposes, they do not reflect the beliefs or values of our organisation.

The best way to view the Playbills Collection is by visiting the Advanced Search function on Leodis.net

Select ‘Playbills’ from the Media Archive drop down menu, click Search if you want to browse all 5054 playbills, or using the options on the Advanced Search page you can narrow down by theatre or year.

You can read more about Pablo Fanque, or City Varieties performer the “The ‘Vivacious’ Audrey Mann”, on our Secret Library Leeds blog.