A Life on the Stage: Discovering My Performing Ancestors at the British Newspaper Archive – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

Blog

A Life on the Stage: Discovering My Performing Ancestors at the British Newspaper Archive

We love hearing stories about what you’re up to in the Archive. Truly, we feel extremely privileged to hear your tales, which often make us feel like we’re on our way to Canterbury with a very cool gang of story-telling pilgrims.

newspaper story about tracing music hall ancestors

In particular, our star-struck nature means that we especially love hearing stories about music hall performers. So when professional genealogist, Matt Ball, tweeted us about his research on his music hall ancestors, we were mustard-keen to hear his story.

Through his research on ‘The Era’ magazine and other papers in the Archive, Matt has discovered some terrific stories about his illustrious ancestors. And not only stories, for when searching for info about one performer (a friend of the legendary George Robey), he suddenly stumbled upon a terrific studio photograph (pictured right) of his ancestor!

Matt very kindly agreed to be a guest blogger for us, and we’ve published his fascinating article below. So if you enjoyed watching the recent WDYTYA? programme on John Bishop’s music hall ancestors, then you’ll enjoy reading Matt’s blog post.

*********************************

Introduction and Background

The only downside I can find to being a professional genealogist is that you can find yourself neglecting your own tree and becoming obsessed instead with those of clients. So, over Christmas, I was determined to take some time to look again at a couple of brick walls in my own research and see what I could find.

One of the families in my tree that fascinate me is the Dwights, who have a long and proud history in the Music Halls in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Having found information on them in the BNA archive before, I settled down to see what, if any, new material I could find.

My GGG Grandmother’s sister, Sarah Eleanor Gale had married Henry Charles Dwight in Liverpool in 1847. She was the daughter of a solicitor’s clerk, worthy of his own blog post and he, son of a wheelwright, calling himself a Professor of Music. Fascinated by this profession a few years ago, I began to dig a little deeper.

 

Wandering Minstrels

To my surprise and initial consternation, Henry Charles Dwight founded and led, until his death in 1889, Dwight’s Male and Female Ethiopian Troupe of Maryland Minstrels. He was, for most of his career, along with his wife and children, a Black and White Minstrel. This sort of performance now seems so alien and inappropriate to us, making it even more fascinating and I was keen to find out more.

The BNA archive is an incredible resource for genealogists searching for Music Hall ancestors largely due to the availability of The Era magazine. Not only is it full of theatre listings, reviews and gossip, if you’re lucky it carried obituaries of the more prominent entertainers, with an occasional portrait and other family information. This is invaluable with my family, who often used their stage names rather than their birth names for marriage and censuses, making the hunt for them even trickier and so the names given as attendees at family events, whether as bridesmaids or mourners, can be the key to unblocking another wall in the research.

Henry Dwight was clearly a man with the theatre in his blood, two of his children were called Romeo and Juliet, though sadly Romeo died aged only three. His siblings however, thrived. Henry junior, Celia, Juliet, Gale, Albert, Ellen and Christina, all took to the stage in one form or another.

 

Favorable Reviews

And the BNA archive didn’t disappoint! In 1876, The Guernsey Star reviewed the troupe, which had been playing at The Assembly Rooms on the island. Although such songs as The Darkies Life seeming staggeringly inappropriate with the distance of time, the whole performance was well received by the audience. Following an impersonation of Tyrolese Minstrels, a rendition of ‘Willies Gone for A Soldier’ and the mystifying act with handbells, they concluded with a Burlesque Extravaganza: The Negro Blacksmiths.

newspaper story about tracing music hall ancestors

The Star – Thursday 23 September 1875

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000184/18750923/016/0002

 

Despite my modern day concerns about the material, in advertisements of the day, the troupe billed themselves as “…the quintessence of talent and respectability…Dwight’s detest vulgarity, therefore have been appreciated by the most fastidious’!

 

newspaper story about tracing music hall ancestors

The Era – Sunday 27 September 1874

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000053/18740927/027/0013

 

Thanks to The Era newspaper, I know that this troupe was active in one form or another from the 1850s until Henry’s death at the age of 62 in 1889. Of his children, both Juliet and Celia married into established theatrical families; Juliet became wife to William Revill, a famous theatre manager from Stockport, and Celia to the Glasgow theatre manager, Frank Sephton. The family often lived and worked in Liverpool and so I watched John Bishop’s recent Who Do You Think You Are? with bated breath as he looked for his Minstrel ancestor in the same city. Sadly the programme didn’t reveal any connections but the Dwights’ must have known or worked with John’s ancestor, Charles, at some point in the City.

Gale Dwight became a star of the Music Hall and The Era is invaluable in following his career. He acted first with his siblings and later with his own children and step children. The Era carried an interview with when he looked back at his career and his various partners from within his family. Gale married twice and his step granddaughter, Vera Smart married James Enrique Carreras, a founder of Hammer films and was mother to Sir Michael Carreras who was involved with Hammer until his death. A childhood fan of the Hammer Horror films I was thrilled to find this connection and later discovered from Sir Christopher Lee’s autobiography that he started his honeymoon with a few nights visiting the Carreras family.

 

An Untimely End

The eldest of all the siblings, Sarah, married Thomas Browning and founded another theatrical family. Thomas was a musician and composer and took the stage surname of Kent, probably as a Dover man the county name was an easy choice. Thomas featured in an article in The Era from 1875 regarding the sad death of his brother in law, Henry James Dwight, described as a ‘negro artist’ who died in an accident and the paper records the fateful events as they were later described to the Coroner who held his court at the local inn.

newspaper story about tracing music hall ancestors

The Era – Sunday 03 October 1875

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000053/18751003/022/0009

 

As a boy, Henry had featured in another article, accused of kicking away the music sheets of a fellow performer, but the magistrates dismissed the case as unworthy of their time!

 

newspaper story about tracing music hall ancestors

Dover Express – Saturday 12 November 1864

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000330/18641112/009/0003

 

A Victorian Parachutist!

It’s the children of Thomas and Sarah that I was particularly trying to trace over Christmas. Daughter Beattie, who married prominent comedian Tom Collins, Cora, who married another comedian, Bert Burrows and best of all, Miss Cissie Kent; a Victorian parachutist, Cissie would launch herself from hot air balloons at a height of up to 12,000 feet. Jumps were made with no reserve chute with a free fall of around 200 feet before the chute would open! The BNA archive has numerous reports of her dare devil antics, including one descent made in 1892, when, ascending on a trapeze at the side of the hot air balloon, the parachute remained stuck and she drifted further up, eventually managing to untangle herself before landing in a timber yard, having narrowly avoided ‘the iron point of a church spire’ as she later told a reporter!

 

Last Act

I was also looking for Julia Kent and her husband, Arthur Alexander, who himself came from a famous family of performers. Thanks to the BNA archive, I was punching the air as I struck gold. In September 1895, The Era carried A Chat with Arthur Alexander, including an outline of his father’s career, his own early career and current successes. At forty, he was very much the rising star, married to a highly successful comedienne and performer.

Sadly, within four years, The Era was carrying his obituary. Arthur died aged only forty four, following a short battle with pneumonia. But what an obituary it is – packed with information and, best of all, and carrying a studio photograph of a performer in his prime! Not only does the piece give his address but also the cemetery he was buried in and the names of mourners who attended and those who sent wreaths. A clue to his status and success might be found in that a wreath was sent by the young George Robey, one of the giants of the Music Hall era, later to be knighted and known universally as the Prime Minister of Mirth.

newspaper story about tracing music hall ancestors

The Era – Saturday 23 December 1899

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000053/18991223/034/0011

 

All of this material certainly made my search worthwhile. Current coverage for The Era runs from 1838 until 1900, with more editions to be added in the future, and I know I’ve only just scratched the surface in looking at the resources the BNA holds for my music hall ancestors. Being able to bring them to life in this way over several decades of their lives is a wonderful experience; I just wish it were possible for everyone one in my tree!

 

Notes and References

Matt Ball is co-founder and director of The Great British Ancestry Company.

You can follow Matt and the GBAC team on twitter at @tgbac.

Tags

8 comments On A Life on the Stage: Discovering My Performing Ancestors at the British Newspaper Archive

  • One great resource I have used extensively to trace one of ancestors who was an actor was The Era. It has a section covering most of the UK theatres. I would check each report and when one was found then check the newspapers for the area. The Era was like having an index to the theatres.

  • I was very interested in this story. I have researched the life of my late husband’s aunt Alice Emma Mary Holland who was a ‘speciality dancer’ in the early 1900’s,performing in many theatres up and down the country,earning about £10 per week.There are many reviews of her performances in copies of The Stage magazine,and a great many appreciative messages from fellow performers. She was obviously well thought of.Her stage name of Dolly Golden referred to her lovely hair.She performed ballet dance and was famous for her clog dancing.On her marriage she retired from her theatrical career.

  • I have a music-hall ancestor, CHARLES BAYUDA BENNEWITH or he might have called himself CHARLES FLAHERTY. He was born 15.2.1886 at West Ham or environs. Have searched for years but he seems to have disappeared – no marriage or death dates. I have a photo of him. In 1926 said to be with the Moss Empire Company, London. Appeared at the Empire Theatre Stratford in a vaudeville & musical show.
    Can you help? Many thanks, June Castle, Auckland, New Zealand

  • I have been using the British Newspaper Archive for many years to help me research my music hall/pantomime/circus ancestors, musical acrobatic clowns – Great Little Huline & his sons who performed as the Huline Brothers. Reading through I am sure that our ancestors probably appeared on the same stage at some time – they were very well known during the Victorian period performing not only in Great Britain but also in Australia, USA, Russia, Germany, Spain, Italy & France and others. I have quite a lot of material on their professional lives (up to 1904 when the two remaining brothers died) and have also found references & reviews on them in Australian newspaper archives. I enjoyed reading through this article, it’s always good to read about the lives, & work , of our entertaining ancestors.

    • Dear Donna I know your post was some years ago but I’m researching pantomime artists and clowns who played monkey roles in the 19th century in the UK. I was wondering what information you have on Little Huline who I believe was William Huline, father of James and Henry (the Brothers Huline). I know that William died in 1890 aged 74 but have not found any obit for him. Any information would be most appreciated. Thank you.

  • Thanks everyone for your comments and pleased you enjoyed the article. It was fascinating and lots of fun to research and write. The BNA archive is invaluable.

    June – please can you email me direct at enquiries@greatbritishancestry.co.uk and I’m sure we can help, I just have’t got any contact details for you!

  • I have just remembered, Charles could have also called himself DENE WILLIAMS!
    jUNE

  • Oh that’s great! We’re really pleased to hear that the website is useful to you. Good luck with the project!

Leave a reply:

Your email address will not be published.