Papers of Henry Pettitt

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The archive comprises fifty-one volumes of Henry Pettitt's playscripts, for the most part manuscript and annotated. Enclosed within them are theatre programmes, colourful fliers and posters redolent of the period, sketches and memorabilia. There is also a selection of Pettitt’s personal letters and papers, his main correspondent being the novelist Charles Reade (1814-1884). The archive constitutes a useful source for studies of art history, popular culture, drama and the theatre in the late nineteenth century.

Administrative / Biographical History

Henry Alfred Pettitt was born on 7 April 1848 at Smethwick, near Birmingham, the son of Edwin Pettitt, a civil engineer, and his wife Lucy. Henry was educated at a school run by the Reverend William Smerdon, but he was forced to leave at the age of thirteen, when his father got into financial difficulties and had to leave the country.

On leaving school Pettitt pursued various occupations in London, including two years as a clerk at the offices of Messrs Pickford and Co., the carriers. He took up writing, producing short pieces for periodicals, and publishing several novels under the pseudonym Herbert Glyn, the first being The Cotton Lord (1862). Around 1869 he was appointed junior English master at the North London Collegiate School in Camden Town. Pettitt lived and worked in London for the rest of his life.

Pettitt began writing for the stage in the early 1870s. In October 1872 his three-act play British Born, co-written with Paul Meritt (1843/4-1895), was produced at the Grecian Theatre. In July 1873 Pettitt received the sum of £5 for a play entitled Golden Fruit, which was produced at the East London Theatre. This was the start of a long and successful career for Pettitt. Apart from the occasional comedy, Pettitt's work consisted mainly of melodramas, and in the early years of his career his main collaborator was George Conquest (1837-1901), although Pettitt did produce some plays exclusively. Other works during this time were co-written with Paul Meritt and the popular entertainer Gilbert Hastings Macdermott (?1845-1901). Pettitt was a prolific writer, producing several plays each year which were performed at various London theatres including the Grecian, the Britannia and the Surrey.

The writing partnership of Henry Pettitt and George Conquest came to end in 1879. The 1880s were the most successful and prosperous period of his career, with the production of scores of melodramas and comedies at major theatres in London, the provinces and overseas. His pantomime Harlequin King Frolic, produced for the Grecian Theatre, is said to have had the longest run of any pantomime ever. On 31 July 1880, The World, by Paul Meritt, Henry Pettitt and Augustus Harris, was produced at the Drury Lane Theatre and served to reinforce Pettitt's popularity with the theatre-going public. His plays enjoyed runs in America and Australia, and in 1880 and 1881 he travelled to America to oversee his production of Le Voyage en Suisse.

Pettitt's main collaborators during this period up to his death in 1893 were Paul Meritt, Augustus Harris (1826-1873) and George R. Sims (1847-1922), although he did write a play entitled Love and Money, with Charles Reade (1814-1884), a popular novelist of the era. His plays were produced at many theatres, but principally at the Adelphi and the Drury Lane. Pettitt's last play, Life of Pleasure, co-written with Augustus Harris, was produced at the Drury Lane Theatre on 21 September 1893, and transferred to the Princess's Theatre where it ran until February 1894.

Henry Pettitt was a hugely popular and successful playwright, although the Dictionary of National Biography described his style as being without literary merit. His plays showed considerable knowledge of dramatic effect, but his characters were 'conventional and do not dwell in the memory'. Nevertheless, when Pettitt died of typhoid fever at the relatively early age of forty-five on 24 December 1893, he left the sum of £44,935, a sure sign of his popularity and success.

Arrangement

The archive is divided into two series, reflecting the order of the archive when it was received at the Library:

  • PET/1: Bound playscripts;
  • PET/2: Correspondence and other papers.

Conditions Governing Access

The archive is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

The archive was purchased by the John Rylands University Library of Manchester from Faustus Bibliographics Ltd of Jermyn Street, London, on 27 May 1994.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The previous custodial history of the archive is not known. However, the small amount of material from the early 20th century suggests that the archive remained in the hands of the Pettitt family until at least the early 1920s.

Related Material

JRUL also has custody of the G R Sims Collection (GRS); Sims was a friend and collaborator of Pettit.