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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.

Cap­i­tal en­ter­tain­ment

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 (­oflon­ 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

(­tion­ 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 li­brary; email li­

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 to­tent/cen­trals-his­tory; it also has a search­able li­brary cat­a­logue at http://tinyurl. com/ya3­fy­d7e.

In Scot­land, al­though the Royal Con­ser­va­toire of Scot­land ( 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 about_us/ li­braryan­dit/ar­chives/ for more de­tails.

Track­ing ca­reers

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://, but past is­sues can also now be searched on the Bri­tish News­pa­per Archive site ( www.british­news­pa­per­ar­chive. 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 home. html. For Scot­land, you can ac­cess the Scot­tish Theatre Archive – part of the Uni­ver­sity of Glas­gow’s Spe­cial Col­lec­tions – at http://

spe­ 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://dig­i­­tish-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 – see­htxf8.


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

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