Henderson collection

The "William Henderson collection of playbills, etc.," known as the Henderson 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 historical novel Waverley, 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).

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.

Waverley and Scottish plays

The Waverley and Scottish sections contain around 2,000 of the Henderson collection's 7,200 playbills. These were surveyed by Barbara Bell of The University of Glasgow in 1988, and print-outs of the contents lists she made are shelved with the collection.

The single greatest emphasis within the Waverley and Scottish sections is upon the work of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh. The major London theatres are adequately represented--everything that one would expect to find, in terms of Waverley productions at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, is present in that section, without overemphasis, ie., while these bills are more easily come by than many, Henderson did not pad out his numbers with duplicates. The minor London theaters are similarly dealt with and towards the middle and latter parts of the century there are examples of the work of some of the more obscure London venues. However, it is in the sheer breadth and range of the provincial bills that collection's real strength lies. Bills from major provincial cities are interspersed with examples from towns and villages all over Britain, where frequently theater is more properly described on the bill as "a commodious room" in the inn. Comparison of the contents of the Waverley and Scottish sections seem to suggest that, along with individual items, Henderson had access to collections of bills from small provincial circuits, which he then split between his sections, according to his own criteria.

Certain areas are underrepresented, like Glasgow, Leeds and Birmingham, but very few places are omitted entirely, and it is more than likely for example, that Glasgow would figure more prominently in the Shakespeare section (which has not been systematically surveyed). There are also a few 'exotic' items, notably a series of bills from Demerara.


Approximately 600 manuscripts are spread throughout the Henderson collection. They include autograph letters of 19th-century authors, poets, artists, composers, vocalists, and actors such as Clara Schumann, Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir William Gilbert, and John Ruskin. Additional manuscript content consists of fragments of manuscript music, annotations, clipped signatures, and facsimiles of manuscripts.

For more information the manuscript contents of the Henderson collection, including item-level descriptions, see the finding aid Guide to the Manuscripts in the William Henderson Collection of Playbills, etc., 1801-1889.


The bills are stuck down at the corners on both recto and verso sides of the folios and there is no great consistency shown, although the recto predominates. Although providing protection from damage by knocking against the side of the boxes, the mounting paper is not acid-free and blank leaves often display offsetting from the item opposite. This at least has the merit of giving some indication of 'missing' items. It is virtually impossible to identify any changes made to the content or order of the collection whilst in the possession of Augustin Daly, but some handful of leaves would appear to be out of order. The vast majority of the bills before 1840 are in near perfect condition. There are a number of items that were evidently cut or torn before Henderson stuck them down, but there are no more than 2-3% of bills that require repair today. After 1840 the picture is not so happy and is complicated by the increasing tendency to print sheets on both sides, and for bills covering more than one day.

The fragile paper of the later bills has frequently split or is showing signs of distress along the folds necessary to contain these larger items within the mounting. Some edges are very brittle and Henderson's habit of sticking down the bigger bills by two, three, or four corners, seemingly at random, puts them at risk, for example, an item pasted by the upper two corners on the verso is at great risk of tearing at those corners from the free weight of the rest of the bill when the page is turned. Also, because Henderson made specific choices about the placing of items within the collection, it becomes difficult to examine them fully in their present state—a double-sided bill containing a production of "Guy Mannering" is, for example, pasted down with that cast uppermost, despite the fact that the name of the theatre and date cannot be seen without detaching the bill from its mounting.


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

Article history

The majority of the content of this article comes from a study conducted by Barbara Bell, The University of Glasgow, in 1988.