Henderson collection

The "William Henderson collection of playbills, etc.," known as the Henderson collection and part of a larger Playbill collection, consists of over 8,000 items (chiefly 7,188 playbills) concerning music on the British stage, Shakespeare, stage adaptations of Sir Walter Scott's works, and Scottish plays (including plays with Scottish characters). It was assembled by music printer and composer William Henderson (1831-1891) some time before 1889. Henry and Emily Folger purchased it at the Augustin Daly dispersal sale of March 19, 1900.

Collection scope and contents

The collection is made up of 70 boxed unbound folio "volumes" divided into 4 topical series: Series 1: "Music on the British stage" (Mus 1-23), Series 2: "Shakespeare" (Sh 1-23), Series 3: "Waverley" (W 1-15), and Series 4: "Scotch plays" (Sc 1-9).

Playbill from July 7, 1821 production of The Heart of Mid-Lothian.

While the majority of playbill collections are amassed by theater, by period, or are concerned with the careers and tastes of individuals, the Henderson collection is arranged by type or genre. There are some specialized collections, for example, of music hall or circus materials, but Henderson's 19th century attempt at illustrating the progress of "Music on the British Stage" is unique and, particularly given his profession, worthy of closer study. Similarly, the Shakespeare section provides scholars with unparalleled opportunities for comparative studies of production styles and performance trends. A typed list of playbills in the Shakespeare series is kept in a binder at the Reading Room desk, and is also available as a PDF.

Finding aid to the Henderson Collection playbills in the Waverley section

In Scott Dramatized, H. Philip Bolton described the Henderson Collection at the Folger Shakespeare Library as “the premiere assortment of Scott-derived playbills in the world.”[1]. According to a computer analysis conducted by Dr. Barbara Bell, the Henderson Waverley collection is a representative sample of all of the Scott adaptations in the UK in the 19th century. So, while the Waverley section of the Henderson Collection does not represent the totality of performances in the United Kingdom derived from the works of Sir Walter Scott during the nineteenth century, its size and depth provide an accurate record of Scott’s popular reputation within the theater. Consisting of over 1,300 playbills from the UK and the West Indies, the extent of the Waverley section of the collection allows for investigation into multiple aspects of adaptations of Scott’s novels, English and Scottish theater of the era, and of the people involved in the Scott adaptations, including composers, playwrights, actors, and actresses.

Use the complete finding aid.

Initial survey by Dr. Barbara Bell

To read her in-depth work on the Henderson Collection playbills, please read Dr. Bell's article ‘The bills of the day’: Using Digital Methodologies to Unlock Information Hidden within the Nineteenth-century Playbill.

In 1988, while a Ph.D. student at the University of Glasgow, Barbara Bell began to compile the first annotated survey of the Waverley section of the Henderson collection. Bell’s goal was the creation of an electronic dataset of all nineteenth-century stage adaptations of Walter Scott’s works in nineteenth-century Scotland, comprising information derived from over 35,000 playbills. She ultimately created a fully-analyzable electronic database for the Scottish Theatre Archive at the University of Glasgow, representing more than 30,000 nights of performance in over 280 theaters.[2] Initially housed on a mainframe computer at the University of Glasgow, the electronic data of Bell’s efforts were subsequently lost. Thus, until now, the results of her work are no longer available in digital form but contained only in printouts housed at the University of Glasgow. Dr. Bell also printed out the portion of her larger database comprising the Waverley and Scottish sections of the Henderson collection for the Folger Shakespeare Library (1300+ items). The printout of the Waverley section of the Henderson Collection is the basis for the new digital finding aid.

As Dr. Bell points out, “when one wishes to go beyond an apt illustration, to reveal any single playbill as containing evidence of significant managerial practices or cultural trends…one comes up against the challenge of dealing with bills in the quantity that will allow such practices and trends to be identified with any degree of confidence.” Dr. Bell conducted a number of analyses on the larger dataset before it was erased.[3] The Waverley section of the Henderson Collection, found to be representative of the whole, was used to help formulate relevant search terms and assess the results derived from the larger study.

The body of Scott adaptations is particularly significant for theater history for a number of reasons, not least because they “provided a major impetus for the eventual abolition of the Theatre Patent, by gifting the burgeoning Minor theatre industry with a semi-legitimate repertoire with which they could compete with the Patent Houses.” Scott adaptations in the 19th century inaugurated the Scottish National Drama and essentially defined the genre. Bell’s analyses showed, for example, that “at the height of its popularity, works drawn from Scott appeared on the Scottish stage one night in three. They were done by every theatre and company from the Patent houses to the smallest travelling bands, and every audience saw largely the same Scott originals in their stage versions. By drawing out the frequency of performance and also the variety of that performance, noting not only when Scott dramas were performed but the variety of works from which they came, the ‘shape’ of the place within the repertoire held by this material emerged from the mass. Further, it became possible to see phases of usage affecting the choices being made about the pieces by theatre managers.”[4]

Format of the finding aid

In order to produce multiple access points to the information contained on the individual playbills, Bell encoded each playbill according to the fields described below. These fields are retained in the finding aid, which is formatted in PDF and so accommodates simple searches. It will guide subsequent efforts to convert the Waverley collection as well as Bell’s Glasgow printout back into an electronic database.

performance venue; In some instances, the theater was assigned by Barbara Bell based on evidence within the playbill. Assigned theaters are indicated with [A].
date of performance
genre of production as shown on playbill
number of acts. Compressed or truncated works are noted in the SPEC field.
title of main production as shown on playbill
title or description of supplementary production preceding main performances or after it.
playwright of main production as shown on playbill
composer of main production or of specific elements (e.g. medley overtures)
title of Scott novel/poem from which main production derived. “Alien” signifies instances where title is in doubt.
identification number assigned by Folger staff in preparation for Barbara Bell's research; identification letter(s) assigned by Barbara Bell. The “W” indicates that the playbill is part of the Waverley section of the Henderson Collection.
catalogue entry in Richard Ford’s Dramatisations of Scott’s Novels (Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society, 1979).
cast list and roles. Whereas H. Philip Bolton includes the entire cast, Bell concentrated on the major roles only.
songs and performers in main or supplementary productions. Bell also included instances of Scottish music/overtures/songs also mentioned on the playbills.
special features of playbill, which may include: days of week of performances; references to benefits, royalty and others in attendance; new scenery, music, and costumes; notable additional performances, e.g., acrobats, equestrian, juveniles, etc.; cross-dressing by cast members.

Using the finding aid

Six main thematic points stand out as areas of interest, which are summarized according to Barbara Bell’s original fields:

  1. Venues
  2. Timeline of performances
  3. Types of performances
  4. Titles of plays and adaptations
  5. Individuals
  6. Special features of playbills


Major theaters in Edinburgh and London are well-represented within the Waverley section, including the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh, Covent Garden, and Drury Lane in London. More obscure and minor venues, particularly in London are also included. The collection’s real strength, however, lies in the breadth and range of the provincial bills. Bills from major provincial cities are interspersed with examples from towns and villages all over Britain. Certain areas are underrepresented, like Glasgow, Leeds and Birmingham, but very few places are omitted entirely. There are also a few “exotic” items, notably a series of bills from Demerara, as well as at least one American performance in Boston in 1833.

Timeline of performances

The earliest playbills with verified dates include performances based on Scott’s poems Marmion and The Lady of the Lake from the 1810s.

Playbill for a production of Marmion.

Well over half of the playbills in the Waverley section date from the 1820s and 1830s, during Scott’s most popular years and following his death. Analysis of the dates of performances derived from individual works provides information charting the popularity of those specific works. The last three decades represented in the Henderson Collection show a dramatic downturn in the number of playbills. However, whether this reflects the decline of the popularity of Scott’s works on the stage or changes in William Henderson’s collecting interests cannot be determined.

Types of performances

Performances of Scott’s works ranged from burlesque shows in West End music halls to grand operas such as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The extent to which Scott was adapted across varying types of theater and performances is highlighted in the playbills in the Henderson Collection, illustrating the wide appeal Scott held.

Locations of performances can be viewed as a determining factor in the types of presentations produced. The size and resources of theaters could affect whether a reading of individual scenes or a larger production could be staged. The extent to which music played a role in particular productions is also seen by the inclusion of lists of songs within the playbills.

Titles of Scott’s works and derivatives

Performances documented in the Henderson Collection include those directly based on Scott’s works, as well as those more loosely derived from his novels and poems. Guy Mannering and Rob Roy represent the most popular titles reflected in the playbills. Barbara Bell’s original encoding of the playbills allows for research into the various titles based on Scott’s works and how those works were transformed by adaptations. For example, Daniel Terry’s popular adaption, Guy Mannering; or The Gipsy’s Prophecy is well-represented in the collection, perhaps hinting at the importance of the characters of Meg Merrilies and Dandie Dinmont within adaptations of Scott’s second novel. Performances were sometimes based on single works, whereas others were combinations of scenes from various Scott titles. First night performances of works, such as the 25 January 1820 Covent Garden production of Terry’s adaptation of The Antiquary are also found within the collection.


At the heart of the Waverley section of the Henderson Collection is Sir Walter Scott himself. Yet the numerous individuals from playwrights to composers to performers who brought his works to the dramatic stage were often integral to the success of particular productions. Adaptations by the playwright Daniel Terry for ‘’Guy Mannering’’ are prevalent throughout the collection, illustrating his close association with Scott and his works. Others, such as Thomas Dibdin and Isaac Pocock, and the English composer Henry Bishop, are also well-represented, as are works composed by Donizetti and Berlioz.

The performances of Scott’s work presented a who’s who of dramatic actors and actresses from the British and Scottish theater. Prominent throughout the collection are depictions by noted performers such as Henry Siddons, Harriet Siddons, Charles Kemble, Lucia Vestris, Thomas P. Cooke, and Julia Nicol, Charles Mackay, among others.

Where casts and/or songs from a performance mirrored those from earlier dates in that performance’s run, Bell indicated these duplicates by using “As in” or “See” and the referenced date of performance in place of a re-listing of the cast or song. Searches for particular individuals or songs across performances should bear this in mind.

Special features of playbills

Various qualitative aspects of specific performances are included in the SPEC field as outlined by Barbara Bell. Information contained within this field provides a view into the value placed upon certain aspects of individual performances as well as the larger repertoire of Scott’s works by theater managers, performers, and audiences. According to Bell, the field includes material coded for access, including benefit performances and visits by royalty and visiting foreign leaders. At least two performances held in honor of Scott around the time of his death (bills W12:127 and W15:97) are found in the Waverley Henderson Collection. The information contained in the notes field also allows for investigation of other forms of entertainment found on British stages of the nineteenth century, such as equestrian performances. Issues of race and ethnicity are seen in the presentation of a play (W4:38) in which “Native American Indian warriors,” actual members of the Seneca nation, performed, and a performance by the “Negro melodist” Piccaninny Colman (W10:129R), performing in blackface.


Production of finding aid and plans for the future of the database

Thanks to receipt of a Fulbright Fellowship by Molly Anne Rothenberg, Professor of English at Tulane University, Bell’s work was transformed to electronic text in 2014 in order to create a finding aid at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Plans are underway to transform the finding aid into an electronic database on which complex analyses can be performed. This database will then serve as the template for the conversion of the Bell printout of all Scottish adaptations of Scott, currently held at the University of Glasgow.

Encoding and presentation of the information derived from individual playbills within the Henderson Collection will allow for a dynamic analysis of varied points of access for researchers. As opposed to a traditional electronic finding aid focusing on the arrangement and description of the collection contents, or handlists and catalogues compiled by scholars such as H. Philip Bolton and Richard Ford, the goal of the database design is its use as a research tool that will allow for the generation of aggregated data and sophisticated analysis. The database of the Waverley playbills provides the means for examination of the various fields of information contained within the playbills and allows for the identification and interpretation of trends and patterns across the various fields.

Dr. Bell has published some of her analyses of the complete collection, produced before her database was lost; in these articles, the power of analyses of such aggregated data becomes visible, making clear the importance of reproducing the original database.


The Folger Shakespeare Library granted Professor Molly Anne Rothenberg readership in fall 2005, at which time she was introduced to the Henderson collection and the Bell printout by then Curator of Art and Special Collections, Erin Blake. In 2014, Professor Rothenberg dedicated some of her funding from the Weiss Presidential Fellowship for Undergraduate Teaching at Tulane University to creating an electronic version of the Bell printout, as a thank-you gift to the Folger. With the cooperation of Erin Blake and Eric Johnson at the Folger, Professor Rothenberg initiated a Fulbright Fellowship project to include the production of an online finding aid for the Waverley section of the Henderson collection as well as to establish collaborative ties with the director of the Corson Collection of Walter Scott materials and the Walter Scott Digital Archive, Dr. Paul Barnaby. The successful application to the Fulbright would not have been possible without guidance from Professors Evan Gottlieb (Oregon State University) and Tara Ghoshal Wallace (George Washington University). Professor Rothenberg is extremely grateful to Professor Penny Fielding and her colleagues at the School of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh for supporting her Fulbright application and providing so many collegial opportunities around the project. She gives special thanks to Dr. Paul Barnaby, editor of the Walter Scott Digital Archive at Edinburgh University Library, for his guidance. We are grateful to the librarians at the National Library of Scotland for their expertise. Patrick Henry, doctoral student at GWU, assisted Professor Rothenberg in the initial survey of the Waverley collection, photographed the Bell printout, established the protocol for producing the finding aid, and began the painstaking work of digitization. Chris Harter, Director of Library and Reference Services at the Amistad Research Center, completed more than half of the digitization and collaborated on the writing of the Folgerpedia article. None of this work would have been possible without the pioneering efforts of Dr. Barbara Bell, who not only performed all of the initial work but also has provided the history of her involvement with the Henderson collection as well as analyses of the data contained therein.


Bell, Barbara. “The Nineteenth Century” in Bill Findlay (ed.), A History of Scottish Theatre. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1998.

Bell, Barbara. “‘The bills of the day’: Using Digital Methodologies to Unlock Information Hidden within the Nineteenth-century Playbill.”

The collection was described the brief article "A Library of Old Playbills" in Scottish Notes and Queries for October 1889, pages 76-77.


  1. H. Philip Bolton, Scott Dramatized. London: Mansell Publishing, 1992: xi
  2. Barbara Bell. Nineteenth-century Stage Adaptations of the Works of Sir Walter Scott on the Scottish Stage: 1810-1900. An unpublished Ph.D. thesis submitted to Glasgow University, April 1991. Only this printout remains, as a consequence of the loss of the database on the University mainframe computer.
  3. The software used was Famulus77, designed for bibliographic records. The project ran on Glasgow University’s mainframe computer, an ICL3980. Today a laptop could perform the same functions.
  4. Bell, pp. 7-8