FRONT OF HOUSE, BEHIND THE SCENES OR IN THE LIMELIGHT… YOUR EXPERT GUIDE
We have always sought fame and fortune, perhaps out of a desire to be remembered – an understandable reaction to the human condition. This might explain why so many of our family members sought out a career on the stage, despite the financial and employment insecurities that being a performer could face. Of course, many performers have gone on stage simply because they had the urge, the talent, or the family background, with there being many acting dynasties. Children learned from seeing their parents perform, and also appeared on stage from a young age, helping their families earn and support each other. Others may have sought the approbation of the audience, to be recognised, to travel or to make money.
In the Victorian and Edwardian periods, there were plenty of theatrical jobs to occupy our ancestors. As well as acting, singing, and dancing (and many jobs entailed all three), our family members could entertain their audiences in many different ways, from magic tricks to acrobatics, trick cycling to walking a high wire – if you had a skill, there was a way to monetise it, either in the theatres, concert halls, music halls and pubs, or even out and about, as part of open-air performances. Many actors became actor-managers; others leased theatres and brought in theatre companies to perform; theatrical agents took on actors and got them parts. Others had more practical roles, such as scene painting, set building, manning the ticket offices or cloakrooms at theatres. Theatres also employed policemen or other staff to help prevent trouble – as audiences could make their disapproval of individual actors or entire plays very clear!
Highs and lows
Life for the jobbing actor could be hard. Then as now, the actor could be faced with periods of unemployment, or have short-term contracts with little job security, or have someone renege on a contract, forcing him to take legal action, if he could afford to. Many actors, dramatists, and theatrical managers engaged in legal cases, which can be found in the pages of the Victorian newspapers
– as can bankruptcy cases, many of which involved figures from the theatre world. For example, the Penny Despatch of 11 July 1863 included coverage of a bankruptcy case against Dion Boucicault, who had written the drama Colleen Bawn. Boucicault had made a good amount of money from Colleen Bawn, but hoped to increase the amount by investing it in the Westminster Theatre. He spent some £14,000 on alterations and improvements, and aimed to set up a limited liability company both at the Westminster and at another place on Haymarket that he had contracted to buy. If the arrangement had been completed, he should have been due to receive up to £40,000; it did not, though, and his debts of £31,000 saw him appear in the London Court of Bankruptcy.
Actors and other theatrical figures, as Dion Boucicault’s case shows, were creative in thinking of other ways to make money, to insulate themselves against the possibility of unemployment. Benjamin Webster, of the Adelphi and St James’s Theatres in London, noted in 1864 that he had been ‘a very poor player, both on and off the stage, mentally and physically.’ He said that at a young age, having few resources, he had ‘linked myself to a widow with a ready-made family. Actors are prone to this sort of thing, and it often mars their advancement in life. The couple cannot always get situations together; if they do, the salary is less for the united pair than if they were two and distinct’. The husband would fight his wife’s employment battles and as a result face losing his own job; and actors ‘are very prone’ to having large families, making it more urgent to earn money by whatever means possible. Webster details one period of his life when he had no engagement, and so little money that if he had gained a theatrical job in the provincial theatre, he would not have been able to get there. Every day, he walked to a different town where he thought a theatrical company might be, to try and get work, but each day returned home jobless. Eventually, through a bit of networking, he found a job – but playing violin in a theatre orchestra for a guinea a week, rather than acting on stage. Having a second string to his bow – pardon the pun – enabled Webster to make a living when other actors would have faced destitution.
As you might expect, there are several resources you can turn to in order to track theatrical ancestors who lived, or worked,
in London. Firstly, the London Metropolitan Archives has a wealth of information, including its online guide, Sources for the history of London Theatres and Music Halls ( www.cityoflondon.gov. uk/things-to- do/ london-metropolitan- archives/visitorinformation/Documents/47-theatre- and-music-hallsources- at-lma.pdf). If your ancestor ran a place of entertainment prior to 1852, either in London or Westminster or within a 20 mile radius of those places, he or she will have had to obtain a licences from the local magistrates, under the Disorderly Houses Act of 1752. You can find such licences – where they survive – within the Middlesex and Westminster Sessions: Music and Dancing Licences, for example. The 1843 Theatre Regulation Act set down a national system of theatre licensing, where in London (including Finsbury, Marylebone, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth and Southwark), a licence had to be applied for, via the Lord Chamberlain, in order to perform drama. Theatre-related documents from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office prior to 1902 are held at The National Archives
( www.nationalarchives.gov.uk) in classes LC1 and LC7. From 1888, London County Council took over the responsibility of granting licences, administered through its Theatres and Music Halls Committee. This committee held sessions every November to look at licence applications (although they could be renewed throughout the year), and relevant records are again held by LMA.
If your family member started out as an actor in the early part of the 20th century onwards, they may well have received some formal training. In 1904, the famous actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree set up an Academy of Dramatic Art, which was located at His Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket, London. The following year, it moved to Gower Street, and charged six guineas a term for training (a sum that doubled in 1906). Those who were also the children of actors only paid half that sum – presumably because they were assumed to have learned informally through their parents’ work. In 1920, the Academy gained a Royal Charter, becoming the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Today, RADA has an extensive library, which started back in 1904 when actors and writers started donating material to it. It is now housed in a purpose built space on Chenies Street, and comprises some 30,000 acquisitions, including plays, theatre history and biographies. External readers can make an appointment to visit the library, although a charge of £10 is made for access (for more, see www.rada.ac.uk/about/ library; email firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, also in London, is only two years RADA’s junior, having been started by Elsie Fogerty at the Royal Albert Hall in 1906. Its students not only made theatre appearances and took part in verse-speaking competitions – they also worked with children in deprived parts of the city. For more information about the institution’s history, go to www.cssd.ac.uk/content/centrals-history; it also has a searchable library catalogue at http://tinyurl. com/ya3fyd7e.
In Scotland, although the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland ( www.rcs.ac.uk) was formerly the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, its drama department only started in 1950. However, its musical roots are far older, dating back to the Glasgow Educational Association of 1845, which then became Glasgow Commercial College. This, in turn, became part of the Glasgow Athenaeum in 1847. Today, the Conservatoire’s archives and collections – which include manuscripts, photographs, ephemera and memorabilia, can be accessed by researchers – see www.rcs.ac.uk/ about_us/ libraryandit/archives/ for more details.
Once an actor was established on the theatre, their name might appear in various records. Firstly, you should search for them within the pages of the two key British theatrical newspapers – The Stage or The Era. The former was established in February 1880, and for its year was a monthly publication known as The Stage Directory. In March 1881, it shortened its name and became weekly. Appropriately, its first offices were opposite the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and it competed with The Era by trying to undercut it, selling The Stage for just a penny. The Stage Online Archive has long been available for a subscription via http:// archive.thestage.co.uk, but past issues can also now be searched on the British Newspaper Archive site ( www.britishnewspaperarchive. co.uk). Also on BNA is The Era, which started back in 1838 as a publication representing licensed victuallers. It then moved into sport and theatre coverage, and by 1856 was proudly boasting about the space it allotted to ‘reviews, news and general theatrical information and gossip’. It soon became known as the ‘theatrical newspaper’, and continued until the start of World War 2.
Actors would use these newspapers in various ways. They might simply advertise their services – stating whether they were currently ‘disengaged’ or whether, if they were in work, where they were working, and when this engagement would end. They would let people know what roles they specialised in – and
Adverts served not only to advertise their availability, but also to stress their success
these could be quite specific – and where they were currently staying, so that communication could reach them. These adverts served not only to advertise their availability, but also to stress their popularity or success by highlighting the work they were currently doing.
Alternatively, they, or their agents, might let the papers know about recent contracts being signed, overseas tours taking place, or simply a provincial tour. The actor and his or her representatives knew the value of publicity, and would eagerly promote their careers. A theatre, too, would advertise its current and forthcoming programme in the press, and although many adverts simply named the bigger stars, or those playing the main roles, you can find mention of more minor actors either in the adverts, or in the subsequent newspaper reviews. A warning, though: Victorian reviewers could be scathing in their more negative reviews!
Away from the newspapers, there are many UK-based theatre collections where you can research your ancestor. Several are under the remit of universities, such as the collections at the universities of Bristol, Kent and Hull (see the boxes), but others are not. For London, the East London Theatre Archive (ELTA) is a database of ephemera including playbills, programmes and press cuttings, and its collections range from 1827 to the present day. You can browse material by collection, theatre, place, subject or even by title; and there are also themed essays and maps showing theatre locations on the site, which is at www.elta-project.org/ home. html. For Scotland, you can access the Scottish Theatre Archive – part of the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections – at http://
special.lib.gla.ac.uk/STA/search/. This has much of interest to those with ancestors who performed, for example, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, including an event search. If you search for events between 1880 and 1890 at the Royal Lyceum, for example, it will give you a list of the performances that took place on dates within that decade, as well as information about performers at that time, where they were appearing, and what in. The National Library of Scotland also has theatre-related archives, and information about what it holds – including digitised 19th century playbills - can be found at http://digital.nls.uk/scottish-theatre/resources.html. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the Irish Theatre Archive is held at Dublin City Library and Archive, and has around 100,000 individual items. For more information about what it holds - including newspaper cuttings, correspondence and handbills – see http://tinyurl.com/ycehtxf8.
Actors had earlier faced destitution if their work dried up, or if they got too elderly and infirm to perform (although most would continue to act in some capacity as long as they were able to, and as long as the engagements kept coming). In the early 20th century, it was recognised that actors might need care as they got older and retired, and so several retirement homes for actors were established. Denville Hall,
This page and opposite: Images from a pantomime, from a ‘behind the scenes’ series in The Days’ Doings, December 1871
Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in Hamlet, 1892, and Pygmalion, 1914
Top right: A duel scene from The Corsican Brothers, a play by Dion Boucicault Below: Dion Boucicault
One of the more unexpected places to find out about a theatrical ancestor – this plaque is in Postman's Park, London
A scene from Charles Dickens’ The Haunted Man at the Adelphi Theatre in 1848
The stage door of London's Adelphi Theatre, where William Terriss was murdered
The saloon at Covent Garden, 1820
Above left: The green room at Drury Lane, 1820
Images from a pantomime, from a ‘behind the scenes’ series in The Days’ Doings, December 1871