The Joe Orton Collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of original library book covers/dust jackets defaced by (later) playwright Joe Orton and his partner and mentor Kenneth Halliwell between 1959 and 1962, as wells as material relating to the couple while resident in Islington, London. This material dates from 1962 onwards and includes news cuttings, articles, exhibition and performance publicity and books by and about Joe Orton.

Administrative / Biographical History

In 1962 aspiring writer Joe Orton (1933-67) and his partner and mentor Kenneth Halliwell (1926-67) were each sentenced to six months imprisonment for theft and malicious damage to Islington Public Library books.

They were found guilty of theft of library books and defacing the library book covers by adding alternative images from other sources or inserting new text and narrative. In the process Orton and Halliwell produced guerrilla artwork, motivated by what they believed to be the endless shelves of rubbish that they found in public libraries. Following the couple's trial, the offending covers were returned to Islington Public Library Service, where they were held by the special collections librarian until being passed to Islington Local History Centre some years later.

The collage work in Islington had begun after Orton and Halliwell moved to the area in 1959. The couple also removed illustrations from library art books to wallpaper their bedsit flat at 25 Noel Road. Imprisonment proved difficult for Kenneth Halliwell and he tried to commit suicide while inside. Joe Orton's incarceration, however, proved inspirational and he embarked upon what was to be a successful but all too brief writing career, cut short by his murder at the hand of his jealous partner in 1967.

Fortunate to survive after the court case the now infamous doctored book covers, together with material collected by Islington Library and Heritage Services relating to Orton and Halliwell, form the Joe Orton Collection held at Islington Local History Centre.

Access Information

The original Islington Public Library book covers defaced by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell are closed; Islington Museum (at Finsbury Library) has four original covers on permanent display. Surrogate copies of the covers are available for consultation.

Material collected by Islington Library and Heritage Services is open for consultation by appointment.

Other Finding Aids

A box list for this material is available at Islington Local History Centre.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopying is carried out at the discretion of staff, depending on the condition of the materials and according to the Local History Centre's photocopying policy, which is available on request. No photographs over 50 years old and no material over 100 years old may be copied. Copies of material still in copyright can be supplied for research use only. Written permission must be obtained from the archivist to publish or reproduce any material held in the Local History Centre. It is the responsibility of the researcher to obtain any necessary copyright clearance from the copyright holder.

Custodial History

The surviving original covers, totalling 40, were returned to Islington Public Library Service following the trial of Orton and Halliwell in 1962. They were held by the special collections librarian until being passed to Islington Local History Centre in 2003.

Most of the material collected by library and heritage staff relating to Orton and Halliwell was previously placed in other areas of the Local History Centre collections, including the book, pamphlet and news cuttings collections, but were transferred to this collection in 2012.


Ongoing accruals to S/ORT/2 (materials collected by Islington Library and Heritage Services) are expected.

Related Material

The University of Leicester holds The Joe Orton Archive. This manuscripts, letters and other original material written, compiled or collected by Joe Orton, plus correspondence and memorabilia received and collected by members of the Orton family. It includes scripts and drafts of plays (published and unpublished), correspondence (mostly with his agent, Peggy Ramsay), a diary of his stay in Tangier, scrapbooks and press cuttings, programmes, photographs and personal memorabilia of both Orton and his lover, Kenneth Halliwell. Also included is the screenplay of Alan Bennett's Prick Up Your Ears, based on the biography of Joe Orton, written by John Lahr. The Archive was purchased from the Orton Estate in 1997.


The following book is based on this collection: Malicious Damage: the defaced library books of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton by Ilsa Colsell (Donlon Books, October 2012).