ASC Rewind: Dr Henry Farmer’s Scrap Book

This series revisits our Book of the Month archive to highlight some of our favourite articles and explore the ASC collections they describe with new eyes. 

This article was originally published in July 2007 by Zoé Durrant and the full article can still be found on our website in the Book of the Month archive 

For today’s ASC Rewind post we’re looking again at Dr Henry Farmer’s Scrap Book (Ref Sp Coll MS Farmer 616) which offers a fascinating glimpse into life in Glasgow in the first half of the twentieth century.

Detail from programme for the “Glasgow Civic and Empire Exhibition, held at the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, 29th May – 13th June, 1931

The scrap book was compiled by Dr Henry Farmer between 1911 and 1940, and it contains many theatrical and concert programmes together with some photographs and letters. The contents of this book represent some of the performances that Farmer was involved with and his varied interests; it also gives the reader a strong sense of Glasgow and some insight into the popular causes at the time, the political opinions that shaped the city, entertainment and other major events, such as the Empire Exhibition, Ideal Home Exhibitions and the Grand Flower Show.

Dr Henry Farmer (1882 – 1965) was a bandsman, musical director and orientalist. He spent most of his working life in Glasgow and was fully involved with many musical projects within the city. He had a strong connection with the University of Glasgow as he was a scholar of Oriental music (particularly Arab music and musical instruments) and worked for sometime as a librarian within the University. Farmer first came to Glasgow in 1914 when he was offered the musical directorship of the Coliseum Theatre, a theatre owned by the Moss Empire franchise; later that same year he transferred to the Empire Theatre and remained there for thirty-three years.

Throughout his time conducting in Glasgow, Dr Farmer pieced together this scrap book of programmes, flyers, letters and photographs, relating to the many performances he was involved with. The majority of these performances were for special events in aid of different causes and charities, or for organisations that Farmer had a special interest in. This scrap book highlights many issues that were of significance in Glasgow at this time, and looking through the book the reader gains a sense of the promotion of community, national pride and socialism that were important issues to Farmer and which were also prevalent generally during the interwar years and the depression that followed, in Glasgow.


The period from 1911-40, in which these items were collected, covers the First World War, the interwar years and the first year of the Second World War. The consequences of the cataclysmic events of war are evident in the contents of the book. There are many examples of programmes for shows staged in remembrance of soldiers. For example, there was a Matinee Performance, on Wednesday 1st November, 1916, for the Lord Kitchener National Memorial Fund; it is illustrated with an image of a British Soldier pointing to Victory. The cover of a Warriors’ Day Matinee, on Friday 18th March 1921, incorporates a very powerful image of a mother with her two fatherless young sons flanked by two soldiers standing on guard with “Lest We Forget” printed in large, red letters underneath.

Along with shows to raise money for causes resulting from the war, the scrap book contains programmes for variety shows that were performed at Glasgow’s Stobhill Hospital to entertain wounded soldiers at the hospital. These shows were put on by Dr Henry Farmer’s Empire Orchestra, in August and September 1915, and they were clearly something he was proud to be involved with. As well as the programmes from the shows in the scrap book, there are photographs and newspaper clippings of Henry Farmer and the Empire Orchestra with the soldiers.

Original photograph of Dr Henry Farmer, members of the Empire Theatre Orchestra and patients and staff of Stobhill Hospital, Glasgow, published in “Evening Times”, 1st September, 1915


Detail from “Matinee” for the Glasgow Eye Infirmary Building programme, Tuesday 4th February, 1936, Empire theatre, Glasgow

Another hospital cause strongly featured is the Glasgow Eye Infirmary. The infirmary, which was founded in 1824 by William Mackenzie, was a place of great importance in Glasgow. As well as treating patients with ophthalmologic problems, it was an important centre for students and doctors to learn about diseases of the eye.

The infirmary expanded and moved buildings many times and the variety shows put on for the infirmary – at the Empire theatre, in 1934 – were to raise money for the Infirmary Building fund. There are three programmes for these shows contained in this scrap book; from these it can be seen that they were prominent matinee shows, starring some of the best variety performers of the time, including Harry Lauder and Harry Gordon.

The scrap book does help to give the reader an impression of the political feelings of Dr Farmer and of Glasgow in general in the period 1911-40: the contents have a strong leaning towards socialism and the left throughout. This can be seen partly through the many philanthropic causes represented, but also from some programmes that are directly related to these political interests.


“Keir Hardie: Memorial Meeting”, Sunday 2nd October, 1921, St Andrew’s Halls, Glasgow

The interwar years were a time of many conflicting political ideologies that affected everyone: Glasgow, like other British industrial cities, began to look to the left and the labour movement. The conditions in Glasgow, at the time, saw many skilled workers living in poor conditions, unable to own homes and facing unemployment due to new developments in technology. This gave workers a desire to take possession of their means of production, and they began to see socialism as their solution.

This feeling affected many different aspects of life in Glasgow. Performances for Independent Labour Party meetings and the Glasgow Socialist Festival Association, with Socialist choirs and other sympathetic artists, are examples of the powerful impact this branch of politics had. In Glasgow the Independent Labour Party had a strong support base even after its popularity diminished throughout other parts of Britain. In this, Farmer’s scrap book helps to provide a snapshot of life in Glasgow in this period, and the thread of socialism can be seen throughout many items collated here.


Many of the items contained in this book are also for music hall and variety shows; a large proportion of these were held at the Empire Theatre, where Farmer was based for thirty-three years. Music Hall was unique because of its immense popularity throughout the country: at the heart of the community, it was entertainment that was by the people for the people. It might well have started off in the side-rooms of public houses and in small, cheap theatres, but when luxurious Music Halls – like the Glasgow Empire – were built, it gave a sense of empowerment to the working population.

The Empire Theatre was closed and reopened again in 1931, after it was reconstructed and extended to the corner of Renfield Street. For the special re-opening show a book about the new Empire was commissioned and this is included in the scrap book. It contains many details of the refurbishment of the theatre with sketches showing the grandeur of the building. The emphasis of this pamphlet is to present the Empire as a state of the art theatre for the people: “We give you this perfectly appointed theatre with all its beauty of modern craftsmanship, we give you the actors with their comedy and their drama – but that is not enough to make the Theatre. We must have also the audience – you! And that is why we must call it ‘our’ New Empire.”

The programme gives an extensive tour of the theatre and there is a section on the “Empire Builders”, referring to the many different Glasgow craftsman involved in creating the new theatre, giving credit to the workers of Glasgow. This is a fascinating and very detailed publication that demonstrates the excitement surrounding the reopening of this theatre, The Empire remained the most popular variety theatre in Glasgow until it was demolished in 1963.

Flyer for “Grand Concert, in aid of musicians disemployed through ‘Talkies'”, Sunday 6th April, 1930, Empire Theatre, Glasgow

Music Hall and Variety theatre began gradually to decline during the years after the First World War. The Empire Theatre continued to be successful because it belonged to the largest Music Hall theatre chain, the Moss Empires, so it could attract big names from films and television; however, many theatres were shut down and turned into cinemas. Cinema really began to affect the popularity of the theatre with the introduction of ‘Talkies’ and this phenomenon can be seen from Farmer’s book.

Always greatly involved with helping out musical causes, now that many theatre musicians were being put out of work, Farmer became involved in performances to help raise money for musicians who were less fortunate than himself. These performances included a Grand Orchestral Concert, held on the 31st March 1918, for the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union and a Grand Concert on 6th April, 1930 “in aid of a special distress fund for Glasgow Musicians displaced by the ‘Talkies’.”

Farmer’s scrapbook serves as an effective introduction to the life of Dr Henry Farmer, his interests and his collection. This was gifted to Glasgow University Library Special Collections in a number of donations between 1930 and 1965. The collection contains items on a variety of subjects, including music and variety theatre in Glasgow and socialism and trade unionism.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections


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