Kathleen Barker Archive


The archive material bequeathed by Kathleen Barker (1925-1991) to the University of Bristol Theatre Collection is in itself an imposing memorial to a lifetime of meticulous research into her specialised subject of regional theatre and other forms of entertainment during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Basically, the archive comprises eighty stout arch-files, each one containing between 600 and 800 quarto or A4 sheets, most of them double-sided, on which virtually everything that ever appeared in print, in newspapers and theatre journals, relating to provincial entertainment has been painstakingly reproduced, mainly by a manual typewriter. Only later in her life did Kathleen resort to photocopiers.

Her authoritative history of the Theatre Royal, Bristol, from 1766 to 1966, is related in 267 pages, but the reference material she assembled covering this period fills twenty-four files, or something in excess of 16,000 pages.

A Herculean labour of equally awesome proportions is represented by the ten files in which are reproduced the dates and cast-lists of every production staged at the Theatre Royal from its opening until the foundation of the Bristol Old Vic Company in 1946. These were transcribed, again on the manual typewriter, from original playbills held in the archives of the Bristol Record Office. They are of enormous benefit to the Theatre Collection which receives many requests for information on 18th and 19th century plays and players in Bristol. These enquiries can now be dealt with immediately and directly, thus avoiding what could be for some people the inconvenience of a personal visit to the Record Office.

In her short but informative and entertaining book Bristol at Play, published in 1975, Kathleen explored a wide spectrum of popular entertainment from the 15th century to 1975. Her research for this resulted in six hefty files labelled 'Bristol at Play' covering an astonishing variety of entertainment from fairs, circuses, equestrian spectacles, travelling showmen, sword-swallowers and freaks, music-hall, pantomimes, concerts and, of course, the ‘legitimate’ theatre.

A further fifteen files are filled with the results of Kathleen’s research into theatre and popular entertainment in Nottingham, Sheffield, Newcastle and Brighton in the 19th century. Once again the sheer scope and variety of the material and its impeccable collation is staggering. This enormous undertaking was justly rewarded by a Ph.D. in Victorian Studies at the University of Leicester in 1982 for her 432-page thesis, Provincial Entertainment 1840-1870: The Performing Arts in Five Provincial Towns.

Everybody who knew Kathleen will remember her keen, sharp, perceptive eyes. They missed nothing and certainly now when they scoured every page of every issue of The Era between 1840 and 1879. The result was some seven thousand pages accommodated in ten files and containing every reference in that paper to entertainment in the provinces.

By the time she launched into this massive project Kathleen had graduated to A4 paper and the photocopier, but a large proportion of the material, whether a four-line announcement or a substantial article covering two or three pages in typescript, was transcribed by her faithful and evidently robust typewriter.

There is enough material for a book in her file on Harry Clifton (1832-72), the music-hall artist famous as the composer of 'Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green' and ‘motto’ songs such as 'Paddle Your Own Canoe', which became as popular in the drawing-room as they were in the halls.

A curiosity is the file on the lesser known but fascinating Harvey Teasdale, ‘the converted clown’. Born in Sheffield in 1817 Teasdale was a minor theatrical manager, clown and skin performer on the northern circuits and occasional manager of a number of public houses in Sheffield. He appears to have been an unscrupulous rogue with a self-confessed “appetite for strong drink”. He had a turbulent marriage which ended when his wife left him, together with their two daughters. Teasdale spent a good deal of time pursuing her through England and Ireland, convinced that she was “on the game” and was bringing up their daughters in the same way. The climax came in the summer of 1862 when he forced his way into a house in Sheffield where she was staying and made a typically botched attempt to kill her and then himself. For this he was sentenced to two years hard labour in Wakefield Prison. During his confinement he experienced a spiritual conversion (which didn’t stop him from repudiating his unfortunate wife’s claims on him) and after his release he returned to Sheffield where he joined a group of temperance evangelicals known as the Hallelujah Band. At a meeting of the local Temperance Hall he publicly ripped to pieces and burned his costumes, monkey suit and scripts, thus severing his connection with the stage and the iniquities of his past. In 1881 he published his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Harry Teasdale, the Converted Clown and Man-Monkey. It went into twenty editions and sold 40,000 copies, though only three are known to exist today. Kathleen, in her inimitable way, tracked down one of these and a photocopy of it is in her file on Teasdale which provided the source for one of her lively lectures. In one of them she said “… it is even more true of early Music Hall than of the Theatre that the provinces are terra incognita in historical consciousness…”, but no-one has done more than she in exploring and illuminating these shadowy areas. Her lecture on Teasdale is a typical illustration of her conviction that in any period of theatre research the minor figure is likely to be more significant that the major one.

Fortunately all of Kathleen’s lectures are preserved in typescript. She began one of them by saying: “Hands up all those who knew anything about Thomas Youdan before they saw the title of tonight’s talk.” We can be sure that by the end of it her audience had not only learned virtually all there is to know about Thomas Youdan but also experienced a vivid insight into the world in which he lived and worked.

Curiously, the archive contains files on only one individual 19th century actor – the Norfolk-born Charles Dillon. Equally curious is the fact that there is no entry under his name in either the Oxford Companion to the Theatre or the Cambridge Guide. Kathleen, however, accumulated enough material from newspapers, theatrical journals and other sources from all over Britain and abroad to fill no less than ten bulky files. Was she contemplating a biography of Dillon? I can remember her joy when the Theatre Collection acquired a tuppence-coloured print, complete with sequins, of Dillon as Richard III – a joy now explained.

Christopher Robinson (Keeper of the Theatre Collection)

What the collection holds

This archive is the cumulation of thirty years research into provincial entertainment by the theatre historian, Dr Kathleen Barker.

The online catalogue for this collection can be viewed here: 
KB - Kathleen Barker Archive

Further information

Book: "Scenes from Provincial Stages: Essays in Honour of Kathleen Barker". Edited by Richard Foulkes. ISBN 085430 055 4

Kathleen Barker
Kathleen Barker (1925 - 1991) Image credit: University of Bristol Theatre Collection
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