Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Collection

Scope and Content

The SMNT collection documents the history of the movement to found a National Theatre in London. The aims of the movement were fulfilled with the formation of the National Theatre Company in 1963 and the opening of the National Theatre building on the South Bank of the river Thames in 1976. The collection title is taken from the 'Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee' which was formed in 1908 from the merger of the campaigns to found a national theatre and to erect a memorial to William Shakespeare in London.

A wide range of documents in the collection describe the shifts in public and private debate over subjects such as choice of repertoire for the theatre; performance and acting style; state assistance to the theatre; endowment; the management and organisation of the theatre; the relationship of the National Theatre with the provinces; the practical work of fundraising and lobbying for support for the project; the long search for an appropriate London site and suitable designs for a national theatre. Minutes for the meetings of the many SMNT committees comprise a great part of the collection and document internal and public debate on the subject of the need for a national theatre. Together with the minutes, the financial papers and legal records are the key sources neccessary for establishing a history of the movement.

Below is an overview of the topics documented in each series of the collection with notes on the range of materials and the originating committies:

  • SMNT/1: Minutes and agenda for all the Committees associated with the SMNT movement, such as the Executive Committee and smaller committees appointed to work on specific tasks.
  • SMNT/2: General correspondence. This includes correspondence between members of various SMNT Committees and includes debate about many aspects of the movement; arrangements for attendance at meetings; correspondence with the committee's lawyers and accountants and correspondence with external stakeholders.
  • SMNT/3: The papers of the Joint Council of the National Theatre and the Old Vic, appointed in January 1946 from the boards of the Old Vic theatre and the SMNT Committee its purpose was to join the forces of these two boards to campaign for a national theatre. The papers document the relationship of the Joint Council with external stakeholders such as the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Arts Council of Great Britain and a number of issues faced by the Council such as the future role of the Old Vic in relation to the National Theatre and future state funding for theatre.
  • SMNT/4: The internal business of the SMNT after the appointment of the Joint Council, including personal views of some of the Committee members and representation of the SMNT on the Joint Council; this series also documents the relationship of the SMNT with the Charity Commissioners and aspects of the management of the SMNT trust; the trust managed the funds raised towards the National Theatre project.
  • SMNT/5 Documents the work of the Old Vic after the appointment of the Joint Council and covers areas such as management of the theatre, programming of the Old Vic season, work of the Old Vic Company, touring and the Young Vic.
  • SMNT/6: Negotiations about securing of a site for the National Theatre on the South Bank of the Thames, inluding relations with the London County Council and negotiations on the design and siting of the theatre within the context of the general development of the South Bank area.
  • SMNT/7: The public presence of the movement and promotional work. Includes press cuttings and records of events and initiatives organised to advertise and support the project. This series also includes material of literary interest such as the manuscripts of W. Somerset Maugham's plays.
  • SMNT/8: Financial aspects of the movement, including accounts, income from fundraising and donations and records of loans and investments.
  • SMNT/9: Legal records documenting agreements and other legal business in relation with the National Theatre project.
  • SMNT/10: Hansard issues and other parliamentary publications featuring content relevant to the National Theatre project; this series also includes a copy of the National Theatre Act of 1949.
  • SMNT/11: Plans, drawings and a small number of photographs for the proposed National Theatre; items in this series refer to different options for the design and siting of the theatre on the South Bank (1948-1961).
  • SMNT/12: Fact-finding and research work performed by members of the SMNT and the Joint Council, to gather details of the building, architecture, technical aspects and management of major theatres in other countries to inform the planning of the National Theatre.
  • SMNT/13: Administrative papers relating to the work of the SMNT and the Joint Council, covering items such as overheads and utilities payments and personnel matters.
  • SMNT/14: The work of associations that were connected with the SMNT movement.
  • SMNT/15: Medals issued to commemorate significant supporters of the SMNT (1916).
  • SMNT/16: Material relating to the personal lives of members of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee, or documenting their business in connection with other institutions.

Material in the collection covers the years 1903-1930 and early 1940s to the early 1970s. The period of the 1930s and early 1940s is scarcely documented in the collection. Some records are thought to have been destroyed during a fire at the offices of the British Drama League, where the papers were held, during the second world war.

Administrative / Biographical History

The earliest papers in the collection document the work of the London Shakespeare League in 1903 (SMNT/7/1/10). The aim of the League was to celebrate Shakespeare on the day of his birth and to promote the work of the poet in London and across the British Empire.

The flyer in SMNT/7/1/1 records the foundation of the Shakespeare Memorial Movement and of the Shakespeare Memorial Committee (05/09/1904). Although a theatre was included amongst the possible outcomes of the movement, early work of the Committee was primarily focussed on celebrating the work of Shakespeare, with the aim of erecting a monument to the poet in London. The Shakespeare Memorial was run by its Executive Committee, the General Committee having a more of a public relations function.

In 1908, the Shakespeare Memorial Committee joined forces with the more loosely structured, but influential movement to found a National Theatre, whose lead figures were William Archer and Harley Granville Barker. A new Executive Committee was formed, with members from both organisations and incorporating aspects of both movements into its purpose and its title as the 'Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee' (SMNT): the foundation of a National Theatre as a memorial to William Shakespeare was the primary object of the SMNT. The flyer in SMNT/7/1/5 provides an overview of the early history and aims of the movement, and includes details on the amalgamation of the two organisations.

Although George Bernard Shaw, William Archer and Harley Granville Barker campaigned publically for a national theatre and their contributions are recorded in the collection, Professor Israel Gollancz, the Honorary Secretary of the SMNT from the beginning of the movement until he died in 1930, was the key figure in organising and sustaining the movement. In preparing his history of the National Theatre movement Gollancz's successor as Honorary Secretary of the SMNT, Geoffrey Whitworth, described himself as "‘lost in a ‘kaleidoscopic maze of committees – General, Special, Advisory, Executive, and I know not what. And behind them all, flitting to and fro, one glimpses the mercurial figure of Israel Gollancz, Professor of English Literature at King’s College, Strand, benign, discreet, master of intrigue, Hon. Secretary of all the Memorial committees, with every thread in his hands, and alone capable of unravelling the tangled skein when the right moment came"’ - The Making of a National Theatre (Faber and Faber, 1951).

The work of the Committee during its first 30 years is largely documented in the correspondence in SMNT/2/1, in the papers of the Executive and General Committee and the smaller committees answerable to the Executive (SMNT/1). Work during this period ranged from the organisation of promotional events, fundraising, petitions to the government and attempts at securing a site for the theatre. Some notable initiatives during this time include the erection and running of the Shakespeare Hut and the formation of the New Shakespare Company. The Shakespeare Hut was erected on the site purchased for the theatre in Bloomsbury. Run in collaboration with the YMCA it housed New Zealand soldiers on leave during the First World War and programmed Shakespeare-based entertainment and education for the soliders; during the war the Queen visited and served tea to the troops. The site was sold and the Hut demolished in 1923. The New Shakespeare Company was formed in 1919 in co-operation with the Governers of the Stratord Memorial Theatre, it was intended to replace Frank Benson's Shakespeare Company following his resignation and to keep alive the idea of a national theatre while the prospects of building it in London seemed poor - Benson's company had for many years been responsible for the spring and summer seasons at Stratford.

Following Gollancz's death in 1930 Geoffrey Whitworth succeded him as Honorary Secretary of the SMNT; he had already supported the movement through the work of British Drama League, which he founded, and by arguing for the need for a national theatre in the League's publication 'Drama'. The period of Whitworth's secretaryship is poorly documented in the collection - SMNT papers are known to have been destroyed in a fire at the offices of the British Drama League during the second world war. Events recorded for this period include fundraising galas such as the Shakespeare Matinee (1935) and the Coronation Costume Ball (1937). In 1937 the Committee purchased a new site for the theatre in South Kensington, referred to throughout as the Cromwell Gardens site. Edwin Lutyens was appointed as the architect and the scheme progressed to the laying of foundations, however, the start of the second world war put a stop all work. In his 'The Making of a National Theatre' (p. 213) Whitworth described the moment: "And darkness was on the face of the earth, and in September 1939 the Committee met again for the sorrowful business of disbanding the staff and closing down the appeal." (p.213). Lutyens' plans for the theatre can be found in SMNT/11, he died in 1944. In 1945 the Cromwell Gardens site was exchanged with the London County Council (LCC) for a site on the South Bank of the Thames river. Lutyens' plans were adapted for the new location but soon thereafter his neo-classical scheme was deemed unsuitable for the South Bank. His technical consultant, Cecil Massey, would stay on the National Theatre project to work with the next appointed architect, Brian O'Rorke.

January 1946 saw the appointment of the Joint Council of the National Theatre and the Old Vic, following negotiations and enquiries into ways in which the SMNT movement and the Old Vic theatre could work together. The Joint Council was composed of representatives from the SMNT and the Old Vic and effectively replaced the SMNT Committee in the public role of campaigning for a national theatre (SMNT/3). In 1949 Parliament passed the National Theatre Act, enabling the Goverment to pay up to £1m towards a National Theatre. The Joint Council also oversaw the prolonged negotiations with the LCC on the siting of the theatre on the South Bank. From 1945 to the late 1950s, three different sites were taken into consideration, between Waterloo Bridge and Westminster Bridge. The papers documenting negotiations surrounding the South Bank site are in series SMNT/6.

The SMNT Committee continued to exist as an entity separate from the Joint Council as it was still formally responsible for the management of the money of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre trust fund. The internal papers of the SMNT from ca. 1945 may be found in series SMNT/4. On the formation of the Joint Council in 1946 Kenneth Rae was appointed as Secretary. Rae also succeeded Whitworth in 1951 in the secretaryship of the SMNT. Robin Whitworth, Geoffrey's son, held the position of Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Shakespeare Memorial National, theatre in 1959 and was involved with the Joint Council of the National Theatre and the Old Vic, he also took on the Deputy Chairmanship of the British Drama League from 1953. A full run of the publication Drama was later donated by Robin Whitworth to the National Theatre Archive and is available to consult in its research room.

In 1964, following the transfer of Trusteeship of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre fund to the South Bank Board and subsequently the recently established National Theatre Board, it was decided that the SMNT Executive Committee should be disbanded and the General Committee reconstituted with a reduced membership. The new function of the General Committee was reduced to giving formal approval to the Annual Accounts and the original objectives of the SMNT movement were transferred on to the South Bank Theatre and Opera House Board and the National Theatre Board. Kenneth Rae was appointed the first Secretary of the National Theatre Board in 1964. His Assistant Yolande Bird was then appointed as Secretary of the SMNT. The Collection covers minutes of the SMNT General Committee up to 1970.

The collection documents the work of many figures involved in the movement to found a National Theatre. Brief notes on some of these figures are included below.

Richard Badger (died 1907)

Badger was responsible for initiating the movement for a Shakespeare Memorial in London, in 1903-1904. The memorial was intended by Badger to take the form of a monument, he started the fund for the Shakespeare Memorial with a donation of £3,500. On his death, Badger left a donation for the Shakespeare Memorial project in the form of investment funds, to be released at a point in the future when the project would be suffciently advanced.

The Lyttelton Family: Alfred Lyttelton (1857-–1913), Edith Lyttelton (1865–-1948) and Oliver Lyttelton, 1st Viscount Chandos (1893–-1972)

Alfred Lyttelton was a member of the SMNT Executive Committee from 1908 and became a Trustee of the Shakespeare Memorial Fund in 1909. His death was announced at meeting of the Executive Committee on 07/07/1913. Following the death of her husband Alfred, Edith Lyttelton devoted herself to the National Theatre cause and to the spiritualist Society for Psychical Research. She was a cousin to Arthur Balfour, the Prime Minister (1902- 1905). When the Joint Council of the National Theatre and the Old Vic was established in 1946, she was appointed as one of the representatives of the Trustees of the SMNT on the Council, from which she resigned in 1948. Oliver (Lord Chandos) the son of Edith and Alfred, would become the first Chairman of the National Theatre in 1962; their family name is commemorated in that of the Lyttelton Theatre. Oliver Lyttelton was the first Chairman of the Joint Council from 1946 to 1951, then took up Chairmanship again in 1955; he also held the office of Trustee of the SMNT fund.

Carl Meyer (1851–-1922)

Carl Meyer joined the Executive Committee of the Shakspeare Memorial National Theatre in 1909 and was appointed a Trustee of the Shakespeare Memorial Fund in 1913, an office which he held until his death in 1922. In 1909, Carl Meyer contributed the sum of £70,000 to the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre fund.

William Archer (1856-1924)

Together with Harley Granville-Barker, William Archer had a leading role in the movement for the foundation of a National Theatre in London, which was merged in 1908 with the Shakespeare Memorial Committee. Apart from his position on the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Executive, Archer served on a number of Sub-Committees. In 1912 Archer made the suggestion to the Committee of the South Bank as the ideal site, a suggestion they rejected considering the area disgracefully scruffy. In 1922, out of frustration with the prevarication of the Committee, Archer penned a fantastical petition for a National Theatre. Supposedly published in 1950, it recounts a fairytale history of the National as if set-up in 1922. Archer resigned from the Theatre Sub-Committee in 1924, dissatisfied with the progress of the movement - his resignation letter is at SMNT/2/1/20 - he died soon thereafter.

George Bernard Shaw (1856–-1950)

Irish playwright, music critic and social reformer, Shaw worked closely with Granville Barker in funding and providing plays for his proto-National Theatre venture of repertory theatre at the Royal Court theatre from 1904-1907. George Bernard Shaw was a member of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Executive Committee from 1908 and was involved with a number of Sub-Committees, including the Committee appointed after the purchase of the site in Bloomsbury, to work towards utilisation of the site (1914). He was still a member of the Executive in 1935; the date of his resignation from the Committee is not known. Shaw was renowned for adopting contrary points of view, which led Alfred Lyttelton to comment on his backing of the National Theatre movement: "‘Now that we have the happiness and strength of his support, I suppose Mr Shaw is suffering the anguish of for once being in agreement with several human beings."’

Harley Granville-Barker (1877-–1946)

Actor, playwright, director, scholar and pioneer of the National Theatre, Granville Barker provided, with William Archer, in 'A Scheme and Estimates for a National Theatre' (1904) the intellectual foundation for the National. He was a member of the Executive Committee from its formation in 1908 and served on a number of sub-committees, including the Sites Committee in 1910, on which he served as expert advisor, and the ad-hoc Committee appointed to investigate and report on the Bloomsbury site prior to its purchase, in 1913. He frequently complained of the lack of progress and impractical suggestions made by the committee but would remain a supporter of the movement throughout his life. In 1930 Granville Barker revised his and Archer's 'Scheme' as 'A National Theatre' (Sidgwick & Jackson), therein he argued for the need for two auditoria and returned to William Archer’s proposal of 1912 that the South Bank was the ideal site for a national theatre.

Oliver Esher (died 1963)

Oliver Sylvain Baliol Brett (Lord Esher) was a member of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Executive Committee from 1907, as well as serving on several sub-committees. He was also Chairman of the Joint Council of the National Theatre and the Old Vic from 1951 to 1955. Oliver Esher died on 8 October 1963; the National Theatre Company was officially established on 22 October 1963.


Notes from the accession of the collection reveal that a previous attempt at cataloguing the earlier papers in the collection (up to the 1930s) had rearranged them into chronological order. Our approach has been to try to recover some semblance of original order by arranging this material by committee and according to the functions of SMNT committees as this approach offers the researcher a structural understanding of the organisation and is a better fit with the arrangement of the later papers for which the orginal order had been retained. Consequently, the papers are largely ordered by committee and topic throughout.

Access Information

Open by appointment.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright for most of the material in this collection belongs to the National Theatre, it being the successor body to the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee; copyright in incoming correspondence is held by individuals and their estates. Requests for publication and reproductions from the collection should be directed to the National Theatre's Archivist:

Custodial History

The collection accumulated within the offices of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre. During Geoffrey Whitworth's time as Hon. Secretary of the SMNT and for some time thereafter the papers were held in the offices of British Drama League before being handed over to the National Theatre soon after the opening of the building in 1976. The collection was transferred to the NT Archive on its set-up in 1994.

Related Material

Below are a number of archival collections that are of related interest to the history of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre (all links working as on 25/06/2013).

The Papers of Alfred Lyttelton and Dame Edith Lyttelton, and their son Oliver Lyttelton (1st Viscount Chandos), Churchill College Archives Centre, Cambridge

The papers of Clemens Richard Atlee (1883-1967), prime minister at the time when the National Theatre Act was passed, Churchill College Archives Centre, Cambridge

The William Archer Collection, Theatre & Performance Collections, Victoria & Albert Museum

The Archive of the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association), Birmingham University, Cadbury Research Library Special Collections

Sadler’s Wells Theatre Archive, Islington Local History Centre

The Archive of the London Old Vic Theatre, Bristol University Theatre Collections

A select bibliography:

'A National Theatre, Scheme and Estimates', by William Archer and Harley Granville-Barker, London: Duckworth & Co., 1907

'The Making of a National Theatre', by Geoffrey Whitworth, London: Faber and Faber, 1951

'William Archer: a Biography', by Peter Whitebrook, London: Methuen, 1993

'The Memoirs of Lord Chandos', by Oliver Lyttelton, London: Bodley, 1962