English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day


From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

15 January 2016

Cataloguing begins on the Joan Littlewood Archive

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The Joan Littlewood Archive takes up three inconspicuous bays of storage, just shy of one hundred boxes in rather uniform box-files. We’re not supposed to talk about dusty archives these days but more than one member of the department introduced me to the collection mentioning it as ‘the dustiest collection I have ever seen’. This, it turns out, is incredibly accurate but the contents of the collection promises to be as vibrant and interesting as Joan was herself. Joan Littlewood and her company were an incredibly important part of post-war theatre and opening up her collections will be invaluable to many people.

Joan began her theatre career at RADA - which she attended on a scholarship - but despite very promising beginnings she quickly dropped out, stifled by the stuffiness. Seeking what she imagined to be a ‘truer’ theatre experience Joan walked from London to Manchester, sleeping in hedgerows and eating foraged turnips. The photos below show the reaction to the ‘Girl Tramp’ and her explosive entrance to Manchester.


Newspaper cutting featuring Joan Littewood's story

Following her arrival she joined the Manchester Reperatory but again, despite high praise, she quit after just two seasons. From Manchester she wrote for the BBC (before being temporarily banned for her communist allegiances) and then began Theatre Union with her then husband Ewan MacColl. Theatre Union later developed into the Theatre Workshop for which Joan is most renowned and which eventually settled in the Theatre Royal, Stratford, where during the early years much of the company essentially squatted. Theatre Workshop’s most famous out-put included: ‘Oh What a Lovely War!’, ‘A Taste of Honey’ and ‘Fings aint wot they used t’be’ as well as producing the first British production of Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage and her Children’. However, the scope of Theatre Workshop is far wider than these pieces and it is incredibly exciting to gain a greater understanding of the company as the collection unfolds.


Poster for a Berlin Festival performance of 'Oh! What A Lovely War' by Theatre Workshop London 

The collection contains what you might expect of a personal archive of this sort: lots of correspondence, personal and professional, accounts of the theatres and productions, diaries, photographs, posters and scripts. What is initially striking is the organisation and annotation from Joan herself, she is incredibly present in her collection. Half I think as she organised her papers in order to write her autobiography but also with the knowledge that her papers would likely be of interest after her death. Her interference is both helpful and unhelpful to the cataloguing process. She adds detail and colour to events, clarifies names and organised a lot of her correspondence chronologically. But, she is also annotating things with a reflective eye, sometimes even copying out early diaries and editing them. Luckily, she has very distinctive hand-writing and tends to use capitals for her later additions and sometimes her control slips and little glimpses of an unguarded Joan peek through.

Littlewood early bio

An early headshot and bio for Joan Littlewood

I am a little under half-way through creating a box list of the collection and have already been deeply moved, shocked or found myself laughing out loud. The collection moves from official company business to passionate and emotional letters between her and her long-term partner Gerry Raffles to biting notes on members of the company and then to evidence of her self-imposed exile to France after Gerry’s death – the letters reaching her during this period seem to have gone unanswered, people crave her response or a visit to England and are peppered with her own hand scrawled notes and stray sentences revealing her emotions at the time.

   Littlewood correspondence

Some correspondence between Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles

What is clear about this collection, even at such an early stage, is how valuable it will be to a variety of researchers and how important it is to put this evidence of Joan out there within the narrative of theatre history. There is a little section of this archive for everybody: formal theatre accounts and evidence of an endless battle for funding, an account of the struggle to make approachable working class theatre, Joan’s unwavering dedication to current social issues and the more personal aspects of Joan’s private life often supplemented with the strength and wit of her own later thoughts and observations.


07 January 2016

Olwyn Marguerite Hughes (1928-2016)

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We were saddened yesterday to hear of the death of Olwyn Hughes. Olwyn who had a long and varied career which included work as a literary agent and publisher was the elder sister of the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes (1930-1998).

Olwyn was born in Mytholmroyd in 1928, the middle child of William and Edith Hughes (née Farrar), with an elder brother, Gerald and younger brother, Ted. The Hughes family lived in the Calder Valley until 1938 when they moved to Mexborough after William Hughes bought a newsagents and tobacconist in the South Yorkshire town. Olwyn and Ted both went on to attend the Grammar school in the town. Olwyn had a keen interest in literature from an early age and Ted later acknowledged that with the departure of Gerald who left to live in the southwest, he fell under the influence of his sister, from whom he learnt about literature in general and poetry in particular. Indeed Olwyn was a high achieving pupil at Mexborough Grammar school who later studied at Queen Mary’s College, University of London, graduating in 1950.


School reports and Speech day programme, Mexborough Grammar School (Add MS 88948/4)

After graduation Olwyn worked in Paris for a number of years including time at NATO and the Parisian theatre and film agency, Martonplay, which was run by Hungarian emigrees. Interestingly she also worked for King Peter II of Yugoslavia, who was deposed by the Yuogslavian Communist Party in 1945, and lived in France in the early 1950s before settling in the United States.  Olwyn returned to England in 1963 to help Ted following the death of her sister-in-law, Sylvia Plath. She worked for many years as a literary agent for her brother and others including the writer, Jean Rhys. She also ran the Rainbow Press which published fine press editions of poetry by Ted and others.

I first met Olwyn in 2009 when she contacted the Library about a small collection of letters from Ted and Sylvia that she had. Although Olwyn has been described as being rather formidable I always found her knowledgeable, good humoured and supportive. After we acquired the collection she was very helpful providing lots of useful contextual information about the letters and other papers that enriched my catalogue descriptions. The collection, the Olwyn Hughes correspondence (Add MS 88948), which includes letters from the couple dating from the 1950s and ‘60s is rich source of information about both Hughes and Plath’s early careers. It also highlights some of the siblings’ shared interests including literature and astrology.

OH press release image

Olwyn Hughes correspondence archive (Add MS 88948), copyright Ted Hughes Estate.

I will always remember Olwyn with great fondness and our condolences are with her family and friends at this difficult time.

28 December 2015

English and Drama End of Year Round-Up 2015

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 2015 has been a fantastic year for the literary collections at the British Library. Now that the end of the year is fast approaching it seems to be the perfect moment to reflect and look back at some of our favourite English and Drama highlights in the very busy past year at the library.

Amazing Acquisitions from Acclaimed Artistes

This year we have made several exciting major acquisitions including the archives of playwright and screenwriter Julian Mitchell, the D’Oyly Carte Company and actor Kenneth Williams.

The addition of Julian Mitchell’s archive adds another chapter to British drama and screen history. Mitchell began his career adapting novels for performance, starting with several novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett, then moving on to Jane Austen’s 'Persuasion' (1971) and Ford Madox Ford’s 'The Good Soldier' (1981) for television.

He is best known for his original play, 'Another Country'. The play won the Olivier Award for best play in 1981 and Julian later wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation in 1984. He also won the SWET Award in 1985 for 'After Aida' his play about the composer, Giuseppe Verdi, and wrote the screenplay for the film 'Wilde' (1997).  His archive, rich with correspondence and working papers is a welcome addition to our collections.


Boxes containing Julian Mitchell's Archive

The arrival of the D’Oyly Carte Theatre Company Archive comprises a complete record of the activities of one of the most famous, distinctive and longstanding theatrical companies in the UK. Providing an unparalleled insight into an opera company which was unusual in its repertoire, international reach, the archive reflects its focused social identity and ownership over more than a century by a single family. This company is the effective birthplace of one of the UK’s most commercially successful creative endeavours – the musical. We were thrilled to acquire this exciting and vast collection.

DOyly Carte04

One of the earliest surviving Audition Books, for the years 1905 – 1910, containing the slips completed for each artiste who auditioned for the D’Oyly Carte Company. D'Oyly Carte Archive.

The most recent new collection is Kenneth Williams’s personal archive, including 42 personal diaries and approximately 2,000 letters spanning his entire life and career from the age of 18 until his death in 1988. It is an exciting and entertaining collection to end the year with, from literary stage adaptation to the musical and finally to raw British comic talent, these new collections help build our world class research resources here at the library.


Page from Kenneth Williams' diary from 4 May 1966, courtesy of the Kenneth Williams estate

Enthralling Exhibitions from the Eminent to the Essential

Literary collections have played a large part in our exhibitions programme this year as well. The year began with the closure of the ‘Terror and Wonder the Gothic Imagination' exhibition, featuring a range of gothic literary classics. Anthony Trollope’s autobiography and ‘rules for writing novels’ featured in a display in the Treasures Gallery. Animal Tales traced the history of animals in stories. Alice in Wonderland opened in November to celebrate the 150 year anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s book.


Alice in Wonderland exhibition at the British Library (c) Tony Antoniou

One of a kind, Outstanding Occasions

In addition to the Alice in Wonderland anniversary, this year has seen the centenary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out . Over the year we have also hosted exciting events such as the International Translation Day, an in Conversation with screenwriter Sir Ronald Harwood, the Michael Marks Awards for poetry pamphlets and the book launch of John Berger’s Portraits.

2016 is already promising to be just as action packed, from our Shakespeare In Ten Acts exhibition, to the 200th anniversary of  Charlotte Bronte’s birth and the launch of Discovering Literature 20th century.


William Shakespeare associated with John Taylor, circa 1600-1610 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Merry Christmas and see you in the New Year!