From November 2017, over 30 Darlington Culture Volunteers have dedicated 2,022 hours to cataloguing, scanning, photographing and organising the theatre’s collection of memorabilia. Initially the collection of 65,000 items was stored across three sites, but with the support and hard work of the volunteers, our collection is now not only catalogued, photographed and neatly stored, but is starting to offer glimpses into the lives and experiences of past staff, crews and casts of the Hippodrome. We thought we would share how our archive has progressed over the last three years and share some of our volunteers’ favourite finds!

The programmes

Meeting every Tuesday, the volunteers have been steadily working their way through different types of material including programmes, posters, photographs and postcards. We started in November 2017 by cataloguing and scanning the collection of programmes, including a programme from the theatre’s opening night in 1907. While the programmes were a very important resource in helping us create a complete list of all the shows over the last hundred years and are visually fascinating, they only make up about 6% of our total collection!

The changing design of the programmes has been a source of interest for our volunteers but recently we have been looking at the types of adverts within the programmes themselves. The adverts are an interesting way to look at the variety of businesses in Darlington and the changing nature of consumption over the last century. For example, there is a steady increase in the number of car adverts from 1949 until 2018, due to the increased availability and affordability of cars.

However, two of the archive team’s favourite adverts has been an 1907 ad for H Porter, Gent’s Outfitters highlighting the fashionable choices at the store with ‘all the latest styles in ties, collars, scarves, braces and new range of fancy socks in colours’. Heavisides Commercial and Temperance Hotel, which offered: 'The best and cheapest dinner in the north. Refreshments at any hour of the day. Well-aired beds' was also another favourite! See these adverts at the top of this blog!

The Building

While exploring types of shows, range of acts and development of technical tricks has been our primary focus, the volunteers have also been exploring the building itself.  Originally opened in 1907, the building has undergone several changes over the last 100 years, with the addition of a projection box in the 1930s, the Borough Road extension in the 1990s and more recently the 2016/2017 restoration. Our volunteers have discovered a variety of photographs and plans that chart these changes; one collection of photographs shows the changing façade of the building, while a selection of 79 plans think there’s something missing here!

One of our regular volunteers has enjoyed the variety of the archive and the challenges it has presented:

"I absolutely love it. It’s so varied - one week we are photographing and measuring posters then the next week I’m cataloguing old plans of the theatre."

The Show Files

Our most recent project and probably our biggest to date is cataloguing the show files. Making up 43% of our total collection, the show files are A4 lever arches filled with all the contracts, correspondence, receipts and invoices for each show.  With our collection starting in 1973, and ending in the mid-2010s, the show files are a fascinating example of the move from handwritten or typed correspondence to emails, as well as the development of shows and customer feedback.

While the majority of the show files document a wide variety of shows  - from the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra to The Yetties - 40 of the files are dedicated to pantomime, with each production from 1974 to 2014 having its own unique file. These panto files chart the development of a pantomime production including the first contracts, casting, set design, marketing plans and final financial settlements.

Amongst the mix of contracts, handwritten notes, sketches and even bar tabs for the press on opening night, our volunteers’ favourite finds have all been the correspondence. The majority of the files are made up of professional and personal letters which have fascinated the volunteers as they’ve followed the trials and tribulations of actors’ digs, producers complaints about telephone costs, and thank you letters from audiences. One volunteer has said:

"I love looking through everything, recording my findings and discussing with my fellow archivists. I think my favourite find was an extremely well written, very humorous thank you letter."

We will continue to share some of our favourite items and stories with you over the next few weeks and would love to hear about your own experiences at the Hippodrome.