Top resources for tracing your theatre ancestors

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24 September 2019
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Genealogist Michelle J. Holman presents her pick of the best resources for finding out the life and career of your theatre ancestors.

Genealogist Michelle J. Holman presents her pick of the best resources for finding out the life and career of your theatre ancestors.

For many of us, our first encounter with a theatrical ancestor might be in the form of an occupation mentioned on a birth, marriage, or death certificate or on a census. The 1841-1911 census returns allows us to track the career of an individual who began a lifetime of performing in the 19thcentury.

Theatre ancestors were very mobile, so we may not find them in the same place from one census to the next or engaged in exactly the same area of their profession. The official census occupations classified list is quite broad for the disciplines of acting and musicianship, so we should adapt our searches accordingly. For instance, Gertrude Smith might be shown as a singer on one census, or a vocalist or a songstress on other census returns!

1911 Census Classified Occupations

MUSICIANS

A.R.C.O*, F.R.C.O**, Band master, campanologist, chorister, chorus singer church, organist, flautist, hand bell ringer, harper, instrumentalist, music composer, music mistress, music professor, music teacher, musical conductor, musical director, operatic-artist, singer, organist, pianist, pianofortist, professor of singing, singer, songstress, street musician, violinist, vocalist.

ACTOR

Actor, vocalist, actress, ballet dancer, chorus girl, comedian, dancer, danseuse, dramatic artiste, music hall artiste, pantomimist, tragedian, variety artiste.

[*Associateship of the Royal College of Organists, **Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists]

Source, Occupations (Appendix), England and Wales, Vol. X, 1911 p. 33. 

When searching other databases where there is the option to search with a profession, e.g. the  British Newspaper Archive, it is wise to follow the same advice and search occupational variations.

There are numerous other online resources a researcher can use without having to visit a theatre archive in person, though it should be said, there are many physical documents still to be mined in archives, e.g. playbills and personal items.

Online resources

The Ellen Terry and Edith Craig Database contains some 20,000 items donated by Edith Craig to the National Trust in 1939 and references individuals mentioned in 'correspondence, manuscripts, press cuttings, programmes, publicity material, photographs, artwork, journals and books' according to the website.

Theatre calendars are extremely useful and often overlooked. They list performances at a particular theatre or across theatres chronologically and provide the location, date of performance, type of entertainment, and the names of performers. The London Stage Database based on the books of the same name can be searched online or if you want to pay a visit to the British Library, they can be viewed in the reading rooms. This particular database covers 1660-1800 and has the option to view the original pages online, however not every volume is open access. Where possible read the introductions for a wonderful overview of how theatres operated during this period.

For a similar resource, consult the Adelphi Theatre Calendar which began with the ambition to follow on from theLondon Stage Database and cover the period 1800-1900. The full ambition has not been achieved, but researchers will still find it a useful resource.

While both databases are London centric, for those whose ancestors were from further afield, they should still be consulted. After all, we rarely have information about our ancestors covering every period of their life and as a consequence, we cannot say for sure they never performed in London.

The London Stage Database took thirty years to compile. A resource of similar breadth is 'A biographical dictionary of actors, actresses, musicians, dancers, managers & other stage personnel in London, 1660-1800, by Philip H. Highfill, Jr., Kalman A. Burnim, and Edward A. Langhans. This amazing set of volumes can be searched and read online thanks to the Hathi Trust Digital Library. The project set out to document not only stage performers, but all those who worked behind the scenes in occupations rarely covered or thought of as having theatrical connections, such as carpenters.

Other theatre related professions
Treasurers, copyists, prompters, dancing masters, play and music publishers, property men, sceneshifters, tailors, mantua makers, milliners, ticket sellers, oil suppliers, coffee house keepers, lodging house keepers, barbers, bill carriers, candlewomen, charwomen, concessionaires, constables, cooks, dressers, feathermen, guards, lampmen, messengers, music callers, music porters, numberers, plumbers, scene painters, scowrers, sweepers, watchmen, wigmakers, as well as keepers: of box, box office, gallery door, hall, house, instrument, lobby, lobby door, office, pit, pit office, and scene.

While it covers up to the year 1800, it also includes individuals who continued to work in theatre well into the 19thcentury. This should be considered when using the other resources above, many performers overlapped the centuries. 

A biographical dictionary of actors, actresses etc. also includes performers who appeared in regional theatre, not just London, and who had some incredible stage names such as Shadrach Twanglyre and the wonderful Mynheer Von Poop-Poop Broomstickado.

University collections

There are also a number of universities with searchable online collections consisting of information extracted from playbills, programmes, and newspapers etc. Try searching the University of Kent's Theatre CollectionUniversity of Bristol Theatre Collection, and the University of Glasgow's Scottish Theatre Archive. The Irish Theatre Archive can be searched for theatre ancestors performing in Ireland.

It is worth remembering that our theatre ancestors were very well travelled and during the off season, they would need to find work. Many went and joined the regional theatre circuits far from home and some would have travelled to Scotland and Ireland for work and vice versa. Check all databases even if you have not seen evidence they went further afield.

The aforementioned British Newspaper Archive is an excellent site for locating performing ancestors. While it has editions of theatrical newspapers such as The Stage (1880-2007), The Era (1838-1939), and The Sketch (1893-1958), these should not be searched in isolation. Local newspapers also covered travelling theatre troupes, regional theatres, and individual players.

As well as searching for individuals using their full name, keep in mind professional players were often listed on playbills and in newspaper theatre adverts under their titles. A search for “Mrs Siddons” in the 'Use exact search' box plus “Theatre” in the 'Search all words' box brings up a number of results concerning the actress Sarah Siddons.

Legendary actors of the level of fame of Mrs Siddons often left memoirs and autobiographies. Many volumes can be found on the Internet Archive and Google Books and while we may not be lucky enough to have a theatrical ancestor who left a memoir, we should consider they might be mentioned in someone else's memoir. The Irish playwright John O'Keeffe when writing his Recollections, mentions the wire-walker Sealy:

'In 1764, Woodward got up a pantomime at Crow-street [Dublin], called “The Fair.” Amongst the diversions, was walking on the wire; and this mentioned in the play-bill: “Balances on the slack-wire by the notorious Mr. Sealy.”'

Both Internet Archive and Google Books are worth searching for books about theatre including copies of  Who's Who in Theatre, a biographical record of performers working on both sides of the Atlantic. 

For musicians, consider they might have served an apprenticeship. Search the London Roll for the Company of Musicians' apprentices and City Freedom Admission papers at Ancestry.co.uk in the collection London, England, Freedom of the City Admission Papers, 1681-1930 for information about their careersAncestry.co.uk is also an excellent resource for trade directories where professional musicians are often listed.

Finding theatrical and performing ancestors has never been an easy task, changes of name and mobility have often created hurdles, but thanks to digitalisation and searchable databases, the quest for our stage ancestors grows ever easier.

By Michelle J. Holman, Genealogist, Family History Gifts

Family History Gifts provides charts, cards, family tree research and Genealogy Gift Experience days in London for beginners to intermediate level. Michelle has her own theatre history blog here featuring articles and guest posts concerning theatrical performers, theatre family trees and the history of entertainment.

(images copyright New York Public Library digital collections)