Playbills of the past

Did you know a library isn’t just for books? When I asked our organisers for stories about the history of creativity Leeds Libraries came back with these amazing posters. Turns out a peek at playbills from across the centuries gives a fascinating glimpse of past pleasures. Take a break with their senior librarian as she talks us through the designs of the times – from competitive creators to fears of a nude pantomime!

Circus poster illustration of a woman standing atop a galloping horse as men walk alongsideA common marketing image for this legendary circus that was immortalised in a 60s pop classic © Leeds Libraries

Written by Louise Birch, Senior Librarian, Leeds Libraries

It would be a mistake to assume that the only treasures held by Local Studies libraries are books. At Leeds Libraries our Playbills Collection is just one of our ‘non-book’ treasures. Comprising over 5,000 items from the 1700s to 1998. Over 50% of the Playbills Collection are for theatres no longer with us, providing insight into the programming and audiences experienced by each theatre. Today I’m going to introduce you to a few of our favourite items.

Quick change

Illustration of a series of characters lining up for a theatre curtain

1 woman, MANY characters, as illustrated in this vibrant playbill from 1912 / © Leeds Libraries

The main attraction of this 1912 Leeds Hippodrome playbill is ‘Fregolia’ in her ‘Protean Sketches’. Performing twice nightly, with matinee shows on Wednesdays. Quick change artist Fregolia portrays over 20 characters, with over 100 costume changes, ending with ‘a series of curtain calls, each curtain call necessitating a complete change of clothing, stockings included.’ The show is proclaimed ‘The greatest performance ever presented by a Woman!’

Circus drama

Old circus poster with images of lions and tigers

A grand header for this Victorian poster, but in its footer is a hint of circus rivalry! / © Leeds Libraries

One of my favourite parts of the collection are the 53 Circus Playbills we hold from the years 1832-1904. Around this time circuses showcased equestrianism, gymnastics, and clowns, however this 1894 John Sanger & Sons ‘Royal Circus Company’ playbill advertises ‘…some of the finest zoological specimens ever seen in this country’: trained elephants, performing lions, Royal Bengal tigers, kangaroos, cheetahs, leopards, baboons, and other animals. Boasting prior performances for ‘Her Most Gracious Majesty’ Queen Victoria, T.R.H. the Prince and Princess of Wales and H.R.H. The Duke of Connaught. It goes on to specify that they are ‘The original “Sangers” from London. No connection whatever with George Sanger’s Circus’, just a hint of background drama there.

Legendary links: circus to song

Old circus poster with 4 small square illustrations of horseback riders

Playbills are full of detail - such as these wood cuts used as a border for Pablo Fanque's circus / © Leeds Libraries

The Circus Playbills include several from Britain’s first Black circus owner, Pablo Fanque, real name William Darby. This 1854 playbill demonstrates various woodcuts around the outside, it is worth noting that the main image of a lady on horseback was reused on many of Pablo’s past and future playbills. Pablo Fanque died in 1871, aged 76 in Stockport, but was buried with his first wife Susannah at Woodhouse Cemetery in Leeds. It was reported that a vast crowd lined the route of his funeral procession. He is perhaps more well-known now in popular culture after being immortalised on the The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band track ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ with the line ‘late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair’.

Naked Cinderella?

Excerpt from theatre poster showing a lady's legs wearing high heels

A 1955 design for Leeds City Varieties, which adapted its offer as competition for audiences increased / © Leeds Libraries

We’re going to jump forward 100 years now, to the Victorian era music hall, Leeds City Varieties. Still going strong today, in the 1950s and 1960s it competed with cinema and tv for an audience. The owner’s solution was to turn the venue into a strip theatre, booking risqué performances. Between 1954 and 1968 nearly every performance had a strip element, save for an infrequent comedy show now and then. By the late 1960s the new owners put an end to the theatre’s days as a strip venue after discovering families were put off attending the Christmas pantomime as they thought Cinderella would be nude.

Design of the times

In 1999 Leeds Libraries built the Leodis website to hold our extensive collection of Leeds heritage photographs, (over 63,000 images and counting), the Playbills Collection was included in the digitisation work for preservation and accessibility. As with other heritage collections, it includes items displaying language, imagery and attitudes that are now known to be insensitive, upsetting and factually inaccurate. These depictions reflect the context and culture of their creators and are designs of the time. They have been included in digital collections for historical preservation purposes, they do not reflect the beliefs or values of our organisation.

All images are partial crops, to see the full playbills please go to

Find out more