In the recent Journeys into Genealogy podcast interview with Mish Holman we discussed several different resources for researching theatre ancestors.
This blog post brings them together alongside some tips from Mish on what to look for/where to look and some guidance on how to research them.
How to get started
- Begin by doing the usual searches for births, marriages and deaths and any census records.
- Put together a timeline of where the person was and when. NB: There may be several entries per year when you start looking for performances so allow plenty of space.
- Mish has setup a timeline spreadsheet which can be downloaded from this link: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/118atWFzpMY2PLjd-L5qL39ur_3NjJ-71wO3YOetTN0M/edit?usp=sharing
- Once you have the basic framework in place then it’s time to start adding details
- Look for any stage names the person was known by. This could be checking newspapers, the British Newspaper Archive is a good place to start. This may indicate a tour they did or a theatre they visited.
- Once you know details of the theatre then look for theatre records (see suggested resources below). Bear in mind the name of the theatre may have changed over the years. A Google search (or similar) is a good starting point. Many theatre have historical records.
- Also check local archives or museums.
The links below have been split into different subjects
Mish’s website mentioning her Adcock ancestors and lots of useful resources for the 18th century https://www.abrahamadcock.com
People who worked in the theatre may have had more than one job in the theatre itself or outside the theatre. This link shows lots of different roles within theatres. https://www.abrahamadcock.com/offstage-ancestors-the-theatre-ancestors-you-never-knew-about
17th and 18th century newspapers and playbills https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/burney-collection
https://www.hathitrust.org – search for theatre names.
Actors and the stage
London Stage Database covers a period from 1616-1800 and includes information taken from playbills, newspapers and theatrical diaries of the period. https://www.eighteenthcenturydrama.amdigital.co.uk/LondonStage/Database
A biographical dictionary of actors, actresses, musicians, dancers, managers & other stage personnel in London, 1660-1800 by Philip Highfield and others. A 16 volume dictionary available from here and it sometimes goes beyond 1800: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000149271
Adelphi theatre calendar https://www.umass.edu/AdelphiTheatreCalendar
Adelphi Bibliography https://www.umass.edu/AdelphiTheatreCalendar/bibl.htm
Theatres outside London
There are books covering Edinburgh, Liverpool and Dublin theatres.
- Theatre Royal Edinburgh: https://digital.nls.uk/playbills/history.html and https://edinburgh.org/blog/the-history-behind-edinburghs-theatres
- Liverpool: https://liverpoolhistorysociety.org.uk/articles/liverpool-theatres
- Dublin: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Dublin/TheatreRoyalDublinHistory.htm
Beyond the stage
If you know they had a second job outside the theatre e.g. teaching, then that may lead to another avenue to research. Check guild records if they were a member of a guild.
People involved in Music
If they taught others then check education resources e.g. Royal Academy of Music. https://www.ram.ac.uk/library
On eBay, I discovered (and bought) this playbill for one of my ancestors, actor A J Evelyn (this was his stage name). Plus an antique print of a front cover of another actress ancestor Ellen de Fonblanque.
- Some universities may have special collections, especially if they have a music/theatre department like Bristol University. Universities abroad, e.g. in the USA may have records relating to the UK
- Check the manuscripts available at the British Library.
- Check to see if any memoirs written at the time mention the theatre or your ancestors.
- Be aware of stage names (they may have more than one of these).
- Check eBay and Etsy for old playbills. eBay has listings of collectible playbills which include older ones pre 1940. Also some signatures for sale and antique prints.
- Look for actors / performers /stage hands at their ‘other job’ if you can’t find them in the theatre
Good luck in your searches and please let me know if you come across any interesting people and stories. I’d love to hear more about them and possibly interview you on Journeys into Genealogy.