University of Texas at Austin

Wilson Barrett:

An Inventory of His Collection at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Barrett, Wilson, 1846-1904
Title: Wilson Barrett Papers
Dates: 1852-1975 (bulk 1871-1904), undated
Extent: 30 document boxes, 1 oversize box (13.85 linear feet), 4 oversize folders (osf)
Abstract: The papers of the English actor-manager, dramatist, and producer Wilson Barrett include manuscript works by Barrett, business and personal correspondence, extensive financial records and legal agreements, as well as photographs, playbills and programs relating to Barrett’s productions, and Barrett and Heath family papers.
Call Number: Manuscript Collection MS-54100
Language: English
Note: The Ransom Center gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which provided funds to support the processing and cataloging of this collection.
Access: Open for research. Researchers must create an online Research Account and agree to the Materials Use Policy before using archival materials. Part or all of this collection is housed off-site and may require up to three business days’ notice for access in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Room. Please contact the Center before requesting this material:

Administrative Information

Acquisition: Purchases and gift, 1966-1980 (R3040, R3641, R5539, R5936, G735)
Processed by: Joan Sibley and Amanda Reyes, 2017 Note: This finding aid replicates and replaces information previously available only in a card catalog. Please see the explanatory note at the end of this finding aid for information regarding the arrangement of the manuscripts as well as the abbreviations commonly used in descriptions.

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Biographical Sketch

Wilson Barrett was born William Henry Barrett just outside of Chelmsford, in Essex, England on February 18, 1846. His father was a farmer, and he had three siblings. Barrett’s first exposure to the theatre came in a provincial production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853. In 1857, his family lost their farm and they relocated to London, where Barrett became a fixture at a playhouse called The Queen’s Theatre (nicknamed the "Dust Hole" for its unsavory location). At the time, Barrett worked for a printer and honed his business skills, while indulging in reading Shakespeare on lunch breaks. He was also working on an act with his brother, George, and the two performed together at the Grecian Theatre in 1861. Afterwards, Barrett was able to secure employment as a “general utility” actor, and often travelled between London and Halifax for work.
While climbing the theater ranks, Barrett met Caroline Heath (1835-1887), a well-established actress and the official Reader to the Queen. The two were married on July 21, 1866 and raised a family of two sons (Frank and Alfred) and three daughters (Ellen, Katherine, and Dorothea, known as “Dolly”). Barrett and Heath performed both together and separately, while Barrett embarked on a career in theater management. He was adept at managing multiple theaters at once, and in his lifetime Barrett oversaw several playhouses, including the Theatre Royal in Hull (1877-1891) the Grand Theatre in Leeds (1878-1894), and the Princess’s Theatre in London (1881-1886), among others.
Disappointed by diminishing returns, in 1870 Barrett formed his own touring company, The Wilson Barrett Company, which originally consisted of actors he had some previous familiarity with, including his brother George and his wife Caroline. Touring the provincial towns of England was a prosperous move on his part and prepared him to take London by storm.
Upon returning to London, Barrett leased the Royal Court Theatre and brought the Polish actress Helena Modjeska to the British stage, where she became an instant smash in the Barrett-produced play, Heartsease (1880). During this phase of his career, he became entrenched in theater management and learned how to utilize publicity and advertising. Eventually he returned to the stage with Modjeska in a production of Romeo and Juliet (1881), playing the role of Mercutio. He was warmly greeted by theater-goers and critics alike, who had missed Barrett the actor.
From this point forward, Barrett’s illustrious and prolific career encompassed acting, writing and producing, and theater management, as he continually toured Great Britain and such far-flung locations as the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. He worked with leading novelists and dramatists of the day, such as Henry Arthur Jones (Hoodman Blind, The Lord Harry) and Louis Napoleon Parker (Man and His Makers), and often hired writers to pen original plays or to collaborate with him on adaptations, including George R. Sims (The Lights o’ London, The Romany Rye, The Golden Ladder) and Sir Hall Caine (Ben-My-Chree, The Manxman). Barrett’s own original works and adaptations include The Christian King, The Daughters of Babylon, Lucky Durham, The Never-Never Land, Nowadays, Pharoah, and The Sign of the Cross.
Although Barrett performed Shakespeare throughout his career (his version of Hamlet proved to be quite popular), the actor excelled at melodrama, which placed an emphasis on morality and hopefulness. In this realm, his plays generally sought to position the protagonists inside complex ethical matters that dealt with personal, as opposed to public, issues. While not always critically embraced, Barrett had loyal followers throughout the world who felt his plays spoke to them.
While Barrett enjoyed a successful career, his life was also marked by tragedy. His wife Caroline passed away in 1887, and he lost two daughters (Ellen and Katherine) and his two brothers (Robert and George) between the years 1892 and 1894. Undeterred, Barrett continued to tour, with his most well-regarded work, The Sign of the Cross, premiering at the Grand Opera House in St. Louis, Missouri on March 27, 1895. Noted for its heavy religious overtones, The Sign of the Cross was revered by middle-class audiences: it opened in London at the Lyric Theatre in 1896 and enjoyed 435 performances into 1897. It was adapted into a silent film in 1904 and remade in 1932 by Cecil B. DeMille with a star-studded cast including Fredric March and Claudette Colbert.
For the remainder of his career, Barrett never experienced the same kind of success he had with The Sign of the Cross, although he continued to produce new material, such as The Manxman and Man and His Makers. He also revived his Shakespearian productions of Hamlet and Othello and continued touring. The last play he wrote, produced, and appeared in was Lucky Durham, which opened at the Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool in January of 1904. He had signed on to manage the Comedy Theatre in London in June, but died on July 22, 1904 after undergoing an operation for cancer.


Brokaw, John W. "Wilson Barrett’s Papers: A Theatrical Legacy." Library Chronicle, new series vol. 7 (1974), 10-20.
Emeljanow, Victor. "Barrett, Wilson (1846–1904)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, January 2008:, accessed 12 May 2017.
Thomas, James. The Art of the Actor Manager: Wilson Barrett and the Victorian Theatre. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984.
Thomas, James. "Wilson Barrett: Actor-Manager-Playwright." Doctoral thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1975.
Thomas, James. "Wilson Barrett’s Hamlet." Theatre Journal, vol. 31, no. 4 (1979), 479-500.
Thomas, James. "Wilson Barrett’s New School Othello." Library Chronicle, new series vol. 22 (1983), 67-87.

Scope and Contents

The papers of the English actor-manager, dramatist, and producer Wilson Barrett include manuscript works by Barrett, business and personal correspondence, extensive financial records and legal agreements, as well as photographs, playbills and programs relating to Barrett’s productions, and some Barrett and Heath family papers. Many of the actors, artists, authors, composers, designers, managers, and others with whom Barrett collaborated are represented, including Sir Hall Caine, Samuel French, William Greet, Caroline Heath, Sir Henry Irving, Henry Arthur Jones, Louis Napoleon Parker, and William Gorman Wills.
The papers span 1852 to 1975, with the bulk dating from 1871-1904, the period in which Barrett was most active. Most of Barrett’s theatrical career is documented to some extent, especially his most popular plays, The Silver King and The Sign of the Cross. Other plays represented include Ben-My-Chree, The Christian King, Claudian, The Daughters of Babylon, The Golden Ladder, Hamlet, Hoodman Blind, Junius, The Lady of Lyons, The Lights o’ London, The Lord Harry, Lucky Durham, Man and His Makers, The Manxman, Nowadays, Othello, The People’s Idol, and The Romany Rye, among others.
The papers are organized into four series, I. Works, 1894-1904; II. Letters, 1871-1904; III. Recipient, 1876-1903; and IV. Miscellaneous, 1852-1975. Materials in boxes 1-21 were previously described only in a card catalog. This finding aid replicates and replaces that information. Please see the explanatory note at the end of this finding aid for information regarding the arrangement of the manuscripts as well as the abbreviations commonly used in descriptions.
Additional acquisitions that were previously not cataloged are now located in boxes 22-31 plus four oversize folders. This group of papers is now organized into the same four series and described using the same method used in the card catalog. Because of the large amount of overlapping Barrett correspondence, financial records, and legal agreements in the two segments of the papers, the new descriptions have been “interfiled” in the following container list to facilitate use by researchers.
The Wilson Barrett Papers were formerly a part of the Ransom Center’s Theater Arts Manuscripts Collection, but now form a separate, discrete collection.
Series I. Works, 1894-1904, undated, includes handwritten or typed manuscripts for four of Barrett’s original plays or adaptations: Lucky Durham, The Manxman, Quo Vadis, and The Sign of the Cross. These are accompanied by a small group of manuscripts or transcriptions of speeches, testimony, or interview answers given by Barrett.
Series II. Letters, 1871-1904, undated, contains business and family letters written by Barrett, alphabetically arranged by recipient name. The letters in this series are chiefly those written by Barrett to family members while he was on tour: to youngest daughter “Dolly,” Dorothea Wilson Barrett; to brother-in-law and financial advisor Frank Heath; and to his sister “Polly,” Mary Anne Barrett, who was married to Frank Heath. A few Barrett autographs, often signed with a line of dialogue from one of his plays, are also present.
Series III. Recipient, 1876-1903, undated, holds Barrett’s incoming correspondence, arranged alphabetically by the author’s name. Among the many notables represented through letters to Barrett are: Matthew Arnold, J. M. Barrie, Elwyn A. Barron, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Robert Browning, Sir Hall Caine, Samuel Clemens, Dinah Craik, Charles Dickens, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Helena Faucit, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Samuel French, Thomas Henry French, William Greet, Thomas Hardy, Bret Harte, Henry Herman, Frank Holl, Sir Henry Irving, Henry Arthur Jones, Richard Le Gallienne, Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton 1st Earl of Lytton, Helena Modjeska, Louis Napoleon Parker, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, Charles Reade, Robert Reece, John Ruskin, Olive Schreiner, Clement William Scott, Henryk Sienkiewicz, George Robert Sims, William Gorman Wills, Sir Charles Wyndham, Israel Zangwill, and others. Also of interest are letters from courtiers of Queen Victoria and numerous fan letters, most frequently from those corresponding with Barrett about The Sign of the Cross.
Series IV. Miscellaneous, 1852-1975, undated, is now divided into three Subseries: A. Wilson Barrett; B. Barrett and Heath Family; and C. Others. The original A-Z arrangement of materials in the Miscellaneous series has been revised to simplify access to these materials.
Subseries A. Wilson Barrett, 1867-1906, undated, is sub-arranged into nine categories of materials: copyrights, financial ledgers, financial records, legal agreements, licenses, photographs, productions, writings re Wilson Barrett, and miscellaneous. Financial, legal, and production records make up the majority of this subseries.
The financial records, 1870-1904, are arranged chronologically and are comprised of accounting ledgers and other financial documents detailing Barrett’s productions, his management of various theaters, and his company tours of the English provinces as well as those to America, Australia, and South Africa. In addition to the accounting ledgers, there are also balance sheets, treasury reports, salary lists, box office receipts, expense notes, cost reports, and more revealing the myriad of details of his extensive theatrical operations.
Barrett’s legal records date from 1867 to 1904 and are also arranged chronologically. There are a large number of agreements, contracts, indentures, leases and other legal instruments concerning acting engagements, assignment of rights, copyrights, performing and production rights, the writing and adapting of plays, royalties, theater management, and tours, as well as more mundane debt assignments, powers of attorney, trusts, and legal disputes with personnel or collaborators.
Materials for the bulk of Barrett’s productions, 1881-1904, are arranged alphabetically by production title and include playbills, photographs of Barrett and other performers, programs and souvenir programs, publicity clippings, and tour booklets. Also present are set design drawings for The Golden Ladder, Hoodman Blind, and The Lord Harry; costume and property designs for The Lord Harry; a photocopy of Barrett’s promptbook for his production of Hamlet; and a plot book for the Princess’s Theatre for his productions of The Lights o’ London and The Romany Rye.
Subseries B. Barrett and Heath Family, 1852-1975, undated, is sub-arranged alphabetically into nine groups of papers for several of Barrett’s family members: daughter Edith Dorothea Wilson Barrett (1870-1959); brother George Edward Barrett (1848-1894); daughters Katherine Margaret Barrett (1868-1893) and Ellen Anna Barrett (1867-1892); grandson Wilson Barrett “the younger” (1900-1981); wife Caroline Heath (1835-1887); brother-in-law Frank Heath (died 1914); and sister Mary Anne Barrett Heath (died 1942). The materials held for each person varies, but generally include either works, correspondence, or miscellaneous materials.
Daughter “Dolly” Barrett’s papers document some of her own efforts at playwriting and her correspondence includes letters she received both during her father’s lifetime and after his death. Among her correspondents are Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Sir Hall Caine, Margaret Clement Scott, Eugene Field, Ben Greet, Henry Arthur Jones, John Ruskin, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and others. Some of the letters concern posthumous productions of Wilson Barrett’s plays or their film rights, especially of The Sign of the Cross.
The papers of grandson Wilson Barrett “the younger” include a wealth of information about his grandfather. The manuscript of his unpublished biography of Barrett entitled "And Give Me Yesterday" was based upon the primary materials that now form the Wilson Barrett Papers. Also present are letters from John Beaumont, Lillah McCarthy, and Austin Melford, who either supplied information or agreed to interviews for the biography. (The remnants of an earlier unfinished biography of Barrett by Richard Le Gallienne are located in Subseries A. in the writings about Wilson Barrett.)
Some of the earliest materials in the Wilson Barrett Papers are found in Caroline Heath’s papers. Incoming letters include an 1852 letter from the English actor-manager Charles Kean, 1860s letters from persons associated with Queen Victoria (equerry Charles B. Phipps, secretary Charles Grey, and dresser Marianne Skerrett), and from dramatist Charles Reade. There are also several letters by Heath to her family, including her mother and father, but mainly to her brother Frank Heath and his wife “Polly,” who was Wilson Barrett’s sister. There is one playbill advertising Heath productions of Dangerous and East Lynne from 1874.
Because Frank Heath helped his brother-in-law Wilson Barrett with his financial recordkeeping and was later executor of his estate, his correspondence, financial ledgers and records, and legal agreements in this subseries provide an important source of information about productions of Barrett’s plays, particularly after his death in 1904.
Subseries C. Others, 1876-1967, undated, contains mainly third-party correspondence written by or to individuals other than Wilson Barrett or his family members. Some of the items may originally have been enclosures with correspondence or records elsewhere in the papers that became separated over time. There is a letter from one of Barrett’s two sons, Alfred Wilson Barrett (1870-1945), addressed to a solicitor in 1898. Other correspondents include Samuel French, Charles Frohman, and Henry Arthur Jones, among others. The subseries also contains a paper on Barrett’s Shakespearian acting style written for a drama class in 1967 that made use of the Wilson Barrett Papers. Several autographs and a small amount of unidentified material are also present, including three pages with mounted images of period costumes that are probably from a scrapbook.

Related Material

Additional Wilson Barrett materials at the Ransom Center include letters by Barrett located in the literary manuscript collections of Richard Le Gallienne, John Ruskin, and Robert Lee Wolff.
Among the Center’s performing arts collections, the B. J. Simmons & Co. Records include costume designs for The Sign of the Cross (for example, see and The Simmons Production Portfolios include clippings and other printed materials documenting Barrett productions. The Playscripts and Promptbook Collection holds a marked typescript of The Manxman (1894-1895 production). The William Winter Papers contain correspondence he received from Wilson Barrett.
A photo album in the Center’s photography collection Literary File for actress Lillah McCarthy documents her years as a leading actress in Wilson Barrett’s touring company.
The British Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the University of Leeds Special Collections Library each have a substantial number of letters by Wilson Barrett. The Victoria & Albert Museum Theatre and Performance Archives holds designs by Edward William Godwin for Barrett’s productions of Juana, Claudian, Hamlet, Junius, and Clito.
The papers of Wilson Barrett the younger (1900-1981), a grandson of Wilson Barrett who was also an actor-manager and toured with his own Wilson Barrett Company, are located in the Scottish Theatre Archive at the University of Glasgow.

Index Terms


Barrett, Caroline, 1835-1887.
Barrett, Wilson, 1846-1904.
Barrett, Wilson, 1900-1981.
Caine, Hall, Sir, 1853-1931.
French, Samuel, 1821-1898.
Greet, William, 1851-1914.
Herman, Henry, 1832-1894.
Jones, Henry Arthur, 1851-1929.
Le Gallienne, Richard, 1866-1947.
Parker, Louis Napoleon, 1852-1944.
Wills, W. G. (William Gorman), 1828-1891.


Actors -- Great Britain.
Arts, Victorian -- England.
Dramatists, English.
Theater and society -- England -- History -- 19th century.
Theaters -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
Theatrical managers -- Great Britain.
Theatrical producers and directors -- Great Britain.

Document Types

Business records.
Legal documents.
Plays (performed works).
Souvenir programs.
Theater programs.

Container List