Theatre Royal (Exeter) Playbills Collection, 1890-1955

Scope and Content

The playbills contained in this collection relate to the New Theatre Royal, Exeter. Nearly 2,400 playbills are held, relating to all types of production at the theatre over a 50 year period. Included are bills for ballets, plays, variety and revue performances, musicals, operas, pantomines and film showings.

Administrative / Biographical History

The first Theatre Royal in Exeter opened in 1821 as a successor of the New Theatre which was gutted by fire in 1820. The Theatre Royal had its home at West Southernhay/Bedford Circus, but was likewise destroyed by fire in 1885. The Exeter Theatre Company was formed and the second Theatre Royal opened, in Longbrook Street, in 1886. This theatre also burned to the ground in 1887 in tragic circumstances, with the (New) Theatre Royal opening on the same site in 1889. The theatre went into decline in the 1950s and was demolished in 1962, to be replaced by an office block. The present Northcott Theatre (situated on the University of Exeter main campus) opened to all intents and purposes as its successor in 1967.

The theatre ran productions of all kinds, ranging from plays, musicals, variety and pantomimes, with occasional ballets, operas and film showings. The theatre closed regularly every summer, and staged s huge pantomime each Christmas. These ran for one or two months and were very popular. As well as the home repertory company, touring companies also visited, including the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company with the great comic actor Sir Henry Lytton. Many other famous theatre names guested, including Harold Neilson, Mrs Patrick Campbell, local-born Violet Vanbrugh and Charles Hawtrey. Early appearances by Harry Secombe and Morecambe and Wise were also made.


The playbills have been arranged chronologically, with a running numerical sequence within each year.

Conditions Governing Access

Usual EUL arrangements apply.


Description compiled 3 September 2003 and entered by Charlotte Berry, Archivist, 9 September 2003.

Other Finding Aids

An access database of item-level descriptions for the collection was created by Caroline Gale in 2001/2 during the Backstage cataloguing project funded by RSLP (see Also included in the database are indexes of the following: authors, actors, composers, designers, directors, plays and seasons. The database is available at Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

Usual EUL restrictions apply.

Custodial History

It is not known how or when the collection came into the ownership of the University of Exeter, although it is suspected that at least some of the items may have previously been in the possession of a local electrician who worked at the theatre for many years.

Related Material

Some playbills (1756-c.1890) relating to Devon theatres are held at the Westcountry Studies Library in Exeter. A small collection of playbills of the Theatre Royal, Exeter, is also held at the University of Kent at Canterbury (Templeman Library). See the Margaret Toms Collection at the Theatre Museum, London, which contains copy playbills relating to Exeter theatres and numerous research materials concerning the history of Exeter's theatres. Images of playbills and prints of the Exeter Theatre Royal are available on the Applause Southwest website (, which is hosted by Plymouth Library.


See W.E. Cotton (1887). The story of drama in Exeter during its best period 1787-1823, Exeter: Pollard, Harvey Crane (1980); Playbill: a history of the theatre in the West Country, Plymouth: MacDonald and Evans; Margaret A. Toms (1967). The seventh star: an exhibition of the history of Exeter theatres; Dick Passmore (2002). The story of the Theatre Royal, Exeter, Exeter: Mint Press; Eric R. Delderfield (1950). Cavalcade by candlelight: the story of Exeter's five theatres 1725-1950, Exmouth: Raleigh Press; David Anderson (2002). The Exeter Theatre Fire, Royston: Royston Entertainment Technology Press

The website of the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, also provides information on the history of theatre in the Exeter area (see

Corporate Names