Garrick Collection of English Plays

Spines of colourful volumes standing upright on a shelf, each bearing David Garrick's coat of arms in gold
Plays in the Garrick Collection bear the distinction of his coat of arms.

Use the play books once owned by actor-manager David Garrick (1717-1779) to trace the heritage of English dramatists, from William Shakespeare to lesser known playwrights of the 16th and 17th centuries.

About the collection

Printed plays were popular in the early modern period, but were not yet highly treasured. By the 18th century many had been lost, so the collection of 1,300 individual and collected plays bequeathed by David Garrick to the British Museum in 1780 was a significant gift. It constituted 90% of all English plays in the Museum until the arrival of King George III’s Library in 1828. 

The plays were used by the famous Shakespeare commentator George Steevens and by Charles Lamb for his Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare (1808).

Garrick’s Collection includes:

The collection now contains 1,169 individual plays since many were sold during the British Museum duplicate sales that ran until 1832. Some plays were added to the collection from the Thomason Tracts and from elsewhere. Some imperfect copies were ‘perfected’ in the 1840s by adding in pages from other copies. Others were mutilated by T J Wise in order to ‘perfect’ his own copies, now in the Ashley Library.


What is available online?

Catalogues and finding aids

Digital facsimiles

Around 475 Garrick copies of plays are digitised in full-colour and freely available online on Explore the British LibraryYou can search by title or shelfmark  (e.g. 644a*, 644b*, 644c*), then select the option to 'View Online'. 

You can see images of some of Garrick's plays and find out more about them on our website:

Of associated interest is David Garrick’s annotated copy of The History of King Lear, an adaptation by Nahum Tate (this copy is not part of Garrick's Collection of English Plays).

Find help online, Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm using  'Quick Chat'.

For specialist assistance, contact rare-books@bl.uk.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Printed copies of Garrick's plays

Registered Readers can request Garrick's plays to the Rare Books & Music Reading Room using Explore the British Library Garrick copies are held at British Library shelfmarks 643.a-d.; 644.a–i; C.34.; and C.21 (find copies by shelfmark on Explore by typing 643a*, 644a* etc).

A small number of Garrick's plays are restricted from access. Please contact rare-books@bl.uk for more information.

Printed Specialist Catalogue

A printed catalogue - The Garrick Collection of Old English Plays: a Catalogue with an Historical Introduction (1982) - is held on open shelves in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room at shelfmark RAR 822.008.

Digital copies of Garrick's plays: Early English Books Online and Historic Texts

You can use Library networked PCs to access electronic facsimiles on subscription-based databases. In some cases the copy used for the facsimile is the Garrick copy (you can check by looking at the shelfmark of the item).


What is available in other organisations?

Until 1832, the British Museum sold duplicate copies of books to fund further acquisitions. Around 10% of the Garrick plays were sold so it is possible to find copies in other libraries.

Digital facsimiles of other collections of early modern printed playbooks

  • Early English Playbooks, 1594-1799 - Boston Public Library presents full colour facsimiles from its collection of 1,500 chiefly individual editions of English stage plays issued between 1594 and 1799.



Further information

The fundamental reference source for using the Garrick Collection is:

  • G.M. Kahrl and D. Anderson, The Garrick Collection of Old English Plays: a Catalogue with an Historical Introduction (1982).

Other useful reference sources


How to guides

Using the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

How to use the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

Guide to researching provenance of books now in the British Library

Where do the British Library’s old printed books ‘come from'? Who owned or read them in centuries past? Why does it matter?

How to request items not in the catalogue

You can use 'Request Other Items' to order items which have no record in Explore the British Library. Also to order most items found in Expore Archives and Manuscripts.

Guide to the British National Bibliography

A guide to help you use the British National Bibliography catalogue, covering: login, search, and how to manage your results

Guide to Explore the British Library

A guide to help you use the catalogue, covering: login, search, how to manage your results, how to order/view items

What collection items can I view online?

You can see books, manuscripts, maps, playbills, scores and much more. Researchers can use our collection of electronic resources and databases to help them find material relevant to their research.

Can I take photographs of British Library material myself?

You can take photos of our collection items yourself in British Library Reading Rooms

Can I copy material in the Reading Rooms?

What you need to know about copying British Library collections in our Reading Rooms

How to handle books

See the techniques you should use to keep our books in good shape.

How to handle rolled items

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Using gloves with books and manuscripts

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Breaches of British Library Reading Room Conditions of Use

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Electronic resources

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Terms of use for Google Books

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Free Discovery and 1-2-1 sessions: 2019

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How to handle archives

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Search for resources in microforms

How to search for resources in microforms

Find and request Lord Chamberlain's Plays

How to locate items in our largest single manuscript collection

How to handle folded items

Find out how you should hand items like large maps and book inserts.

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