Photo of Tara Oldfield

Author: Tara Oldfield

Senior Communications Advisor

On the 26th of May 2018, Theatre Heritage Australia celebrated the official launch of their digitised collection of early Australian theatre books. The project, which saw the digitisation of ten JC Williamson Ltd scene books dated from the 1890s to 1930s, was completed with the help of a Local History Grant, awarded in 2015.

The ten books provide a visual record of early theatre in Australia and include photographs and sketches of sets, photographs of cast and even lists of administration such as salaries and other expenditures. 

JC Williamson Ltd

In 1881 JC Williamson Ltd was founded by American actor James Cassius Williamson who controlled a chain of theatres throughout Australia and New Zealand as well as a number of radio stations and film studios. It became the largest production company in the world, producing plays and operas up until the 1970s. When JC Williamson Ltd folded in 1976, some of the organisation's archival records were purchased by the National Library of Australia and others by the State Library of Victoria. A selection of scene books were kept by ex-JC Williamson staffers Ross Turner and Paul Kathner, who went onto run their own company Scenic Studios.

Digitising the scene books

Fast forward to 2015, Theatre Heritage Australia's Judy Leech described first laying eyes upon the records held at Scenic Studios:

"All in all, there were seven volumes, in varying shapes and sizes, covering the first twenty to thirty years of the 20th century. In addition there were three smaller albums with significant London origins and connections. Since the actual volumes themselves - not the majority of the contents - mostly date from the late 19th century, it is not so surprising that their condition was not exactly pristine, although the photographs within had not been affected by time or by use."

an open album
A look inside one of the books before digitising.


an open photo album
A look inside one of the books before digitising, showing the state of the pages and photographs.


a woman working with books
Judy Leech hard at work on books five and six.


The group successfully applied for a Local History Grant and went about digitising this unique collection. The books were safely wrapped and transported to AMS Imaging in South Melbourne where over 2000 pages of photographs, floor-plans and sketches were scanned. The scans are now available to view via the Theatre Heritage Website. 


people on stage
Loose photo found within Scene Book 8, Unknown production, potentially from the 1940s.


a flyer
A clipping from Scene Book 5.


Judy told us that of the ten books, six are dedicated to photographic records of the theatrical productions of JC Williamson Ltd including shots of sets, back-cloths, lighting-rigs, curtains, etc. One book contains plans and elevations. Each of the volunteers on the project had their own favourites among the scene books. Judy's was number five which included the plans and elevations. 

"I have some experience in stage design and was particularly interested in the working processes of the designers and set builders of these earlier times."

Included in the books are cast lists with likes of Nellie Stewart, Dion Boucicault, Maggie Moore, Julius Knight, Florence Young, Roy Redgrave, Pansy Montague, Gregan McMahon, Gladys Moncrieff, Frank Harvey to name a few! 

"Students and teachers of theatre production courses, theatre practictioners, historians and researchers, scenic and set designers and other interested parties should find these records invaluable. To quote Dr Mimi Colligan 'Theatre is an ephemeral art and although the researcher might have access to theatre programmes, reviews and play texts, these insights can be enhanced by looking at the images of stage sets (some with actors present) of the period covering the 1890s to the 1930s.' This year, the Australian Ballet, The Gilbert and Sullivan Society and The Melbourne Theatre Company all have productions with links to those found within these ten volumes," Judy said. "We hope that many individuals, groups and organisations will benefit from our unique project."

two people performing on stage
Photo from Scene Book 1, The Desert Song, His Majesty's Theatre Melbourne Cast: Virginia Perry, Marie Bremner and Lance Fairfax  15 Sept 1928-27 March 1929.


a sketch
Sketch from Scene Book 9, After Dark, First performed in Australia at Theatre Royal Melbourne Act 1 Scene 5 "Temple Bar"  20 February 1869.


book page with photographs
Page from Scene Book 3, Joseph and His Brethren & The Gay Grisette.


a sketch
Page from Scene Book 5, The Story of the Rosary, Act 2 Details of elevations.


The latest round of grant recipients

The 2017-18 round of Local History Grant recipients have just been announced. To view the latest grant winners visit the grants section of our website here. 

The next round will be open for applications later in 2018. 

Material in the Public Record Office Victoria archival collection contains words and descriptions that reflect attitudes and government policies at different times which may be insensitive and upsetting

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples should be aware the collection and website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.

PROV provides advice to researchers wishing to access, publish or re-use records about Aboriginal Peoples