Samuel French Ltd – London’s longest-established theatrical bookseller, play publisher and licensing agency – is celebrating its 175th anniversary with a fortnight of festivities from today to 15 June 2005. The celebrations will include daily competitions and prizes in the shop at lunchtimes (12.30pm-2.00pm on weekdays and 1.00pm -3.00pm on Saturdays) as well as a birthday party on 11 June when authors and customers are being invited to join staff for a glass of wine and a slice of birthday cake.

In addition to the in-store celebrations, Hampstead Theatre is also hosting a series of informal Samuel French literary evenings to aid Hampstead’s ongoing fundraising campaign as well as mark the 175th anniversary. On 14 June, Samuel French’s Managing Director Vivien Goodwin will interview Tim Firth, who wrote the screenplay for Calendar Girls, the play Neville’s Island and the book to the Madness musical Our House, amongst other things, at 7.00pm.

Samuel French Ltd’s long and illustrious history is rooted in the theatrical past. Thomas Hailes Lacy, a respected actor manager who had dabbled in publishing, gave up the stage to devote himself full-time to play publishing and established his business in Covent Garden, London in the mid 1840s. His extensive knowledge of theatrical literature proved to be of great service in the early days of the business, which expanded rapidly as Lacy acquired more and more titles. He did this by buying up the plates of earlier publishers; Dunscombe, Webster, Oxberry and Cumberland all came into his grasp. The works of John Cumberland were the most extensive, and Lacy became proprietor of Cumberland's British Theatre (printed from acting copies as performed at the Theatres Royal, London) and Cumberland’s Minor Theatre. Lacy also published his own editions and by 1873 Lacy’s Acting Editions of Plays ran to 99 volumes and contained 1,485 pieces.

In 1854, in New York, Samuel French was starting a similar enterprise to Lacy’s. Five years later he came to London on a visit and about this time the two of them were doing business together, each acting as the other's agent across the Atlantic.

By 1872 French decided to settle in London, leaving his son Thomas Henry French in charge of the New York business. Lacy was now 62 and having no-one in his immediate family interested in carrying on the business, he sold out to French for £5,000. Two years later Lacy died.

The business continued to prosper under Samuel French and a young manager French had appointed, Wentworth Hogg. When French died in 1898, it is doubtful if there was then a single famous English playwright of the previous 60 or 70 years that had not been represented by his firm.

In the 19th century, two important Acts of Parliament were passed which helped to regenerate drama in Britain. The first, known as Bulwer Lytton’s Act 1833, gave the author the exclusive right to control performances of his own plays - provided they had been published; the second was the Theatres Act of 1843. Prior to these, the two Patent Theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, had the monopoly of the spoken word, and both were too big for the more intimate and intelligent drama so they were forced to aim at popular appeal with spectacles and large-scale effects of melodrama. The Minor Theatres were limited to plays that consisted of mime and music. As the quality of the plays published improved, so French and Hogg became increasingly selective in the material they sought and accepted.

It was the London end of the business that developed the idea of controlling the performing rights and the collection of royalties on them. Samuel French acquired not only the publishing rights but also the rights of performance of plays throughout the British Isles, later adding the same rights for America.

When Thomas Henry French died in 1902, the London end of the business was bought by Wentworth Hogg; and the New York by a partnership headed by Thomas R Edwards. This separation into two financially independent firms did not affect the co-operation that had always existed between London and New York; information, rights and stock continued to be exchanged across the Atlantic.

The Hogg family ran the London business until 1975 when the two firms merged again under the direction of Abbott Van Nostrand, a grandson of Thomas Edwards.

Nowadays, Samuel French is a worldwide operation, with offices based in New York, London, Hollywood and Toronto. The London office handles the rights for amateur performance to some 2,000 titles, and has a list of nearly 1,600 Acting Editions in print.

Based in Fitzroy Street in Fitzrovia, around the corner from Warren Street tube station, the Samuel French shop is open daily from Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 5.30pm and on Saturdays from 11am to 5pm.

- By Mark Shenton