A chance discovery of an unknown relative in a Victorian photo led Liz Taylor to uncover a fascinating family showbiz connection. Claire Vaughan finds out more…
An enigmatic, smiling young man in a Victorian family photograph led Liz Taylor to discover a showbiz ancestor in her family tree
How long have you been doing your family history?
I’ve been researching my family history since my 20s, when I moved to Leeds after finishing university. I had always believed my ancestors came from the south of England, however, after living in Leeds for several months I was surprised to learn that my dad knew the area intimately despite having not yet visited! He told me that my paternal grandparents and great grandparents had lived just a couple of streets away and my great grandfather had died in the hospital I was working in – back in 1948. I had to find out more.
What had you found out before hitting your brick wall?
By the time I was in my teens, I had already lost the majority of the maternal side of my family. My godmother sat me down one day and told me about some of them. She was distantly related to me and had some family photos, which she passed on. One of these was a group shot of my maternal grandmother Grace (aged about 14) with her family, taken in the early 1900s. In it she had two brothers and a sister. I had heard stories about her sister Gwenllean and her brother Eric, but was surprised to see an older sibling I’d never heard about. He was a very dapper young man who clearly enjoyed being in front of the camera, even sneaking a smile – a decidedly un-Victorian thing to do in a photo. When I started to research, I learnt that this was John Stanley Marsh, who was born in Battersea in 1884.
What was stopping you from progressing?
I found details of John Stanley’s birth and early life quite easily using censuses, birth certificates, etc. In the 1901 census, I learnt that he was a commercial clerk, but by the 1911 census was calling himself Stanley and was listed as an actor. At that point, I hit a brick wall and he seemed to disappear from the records. Did he die perhaps in the First World War? Did he emigrate, or was I just missing something? If he had survived why hadn’t I heard of him?
What else did you try?
With no more published censuses, I tried to find him in marriage records, army lists, death and burial indexes and trade directories, but the trail had gone cold. It continued this way for several years, during which time I intermittently tried again in the hope something would turn up.
In his interviews, he spoke about his hopes to get into the “talkies”
What was your eureka moment?
This came when the British Newspaper Archive came online. The search engine allowed me to scour a vast range of newspapers using any keywords I wanted, so I spent many an hour trying different combinations of surnames, addresses, and occupations with great anticipation at what I would uncover. I was not disappointed. Having found lots of useful information on my great grandfather using this resource, I turned my attention to Stanley.
How did it solve the mystery?
To my amazement, the newspapers revealed that Stanley survived the e war and had a long and successful caree er in the theatre. He worked in severa al repertory groups firs st in London, then Derby and later around Burnley and d in the 1920s he featured almost weekly in review pages of the Derby papers. The reviews were fascinating – not only showing that he was well-regarded as an actor, but also giving an insight into his character and revealing much about his life both on and off stage. I was very excited to discover a couple of photos, which helped to prove that I had the right man, while an interview in 1929 and his obituary in 1950 helped to fill in many of the missing details of his life. In the First World War, Stanley served with the Royal Garrison Artillery and was on the first boat to sail through the Bosphorus to Constantinople after the war, preceded by a mine-sweeper, an experience which he said several on board found “windy”. He served in Salonika and Mesopotamia and after the Armistice he ran the 37th Brigade concert party. Before the war he worked as an accountant, then moved to India where he worked for the travel company Thomas Cook and Son in Bombay, Calcutta, Colombo and Rangoon. In his interviews, he spoke about his hopes to get into the “talkies” and tells how he had an attack of malaria during a performance, but managed to continue on to the end – after which he was off for six weeks. He even lightheartedly recalls a backstage incident where one of the stagehands dropped a curtain on his head!
How did you feel?
Going from having so little information to having such detail was amazing, as it really gave a full picture of this man who had previously just been a face in a photo. It also explains why he was so confident in front of the camera. I wonder if he would have made it into films today? I’m very glad I got to know him and feel very proud of him.
Did you discover anything else along the way?
During my research I discovered that Stanley married Louise Campbell, an actress who was part of the same repertory company. They had three children, two boys and one girl, all of whom went onto the stage despite Stanley saying in 1929 that he hoped the boys would be engineers! The Marsh Brothers performed in music halls including Leeds City Varieties, which takes me full circle as that’s where my family history journey started.
What is your advice?
When you’re struggling to find someone through the usual family history routes such as censuses and births, marriages and deaths, it can be worth thinking laterally. A search of newspapers, the “books” section of Google or putting different combinations of names into a search engine can sometimes open doors.
Liz was intrigued by the enigmatic smiling young man in this Victorian family photograph
These newspaper cuttings reveal Stanley’s successful acting career in London, Derby and Burnley