Search for your theatrical ancestors with new family history guide

  • Date

    Mon 7 Aug 23

Archive image of two women, and a young girl, theatrically dressed and posing

Could you have a comedian, budding music hall star, or even an animal impersonator hidden in your family tree?

Research by literary historian Professor Katharine Cockin, of the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, shows more of us have theatrical ancestors than we realise, and she’s written a practical guide detailing how to find them.

Based on years of theatre history research, Tracing Your Theatrical Ancestors includes interviews with amateur genealogists who have uncovered theatrical ancestors like David Abrahams, an animal impersonator famed for his performances as cats and poodles in Britain and America.

It offers tips on getting started, lists of sources and guides for using them, intriguing case studies and examples as well as a unique collection of interviews with theatre and family history experts, librarians and archivists.

“Be prepared to be surprised” is Professor Cockin’s advice to anyone delving into their family’s theatrical past.

She has spent decades researching theatre in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and explained why this period provides such rich sources of information for those exploring their family history:

“The 1860s through to the 1930s was a flourishing period for commercial and amateur theatre in Britain. It became a dominant and respectable form of leisure entertainment; tours were made possible by improved transport; and after 1919 in Britain, amateur theatre was promoted as a strategic cultural movement for community rebuilding.

“Its dominance means that many of us will have ancestors connected to the theatre, even if only as audience members. Theatrical ancestors are surprisingly plentiful but they can be hard to trace because they moved around a lot and often used stage names.”

Tracing Your Theatrical Ancestors is the result of years of work inspired by the National Trust-owned archives of theatre pioneers Ellen Terry and Edith Craig. In 2008 Professor Cockin launched the Ellen Terry and Edith Craig database, containing descriptions of 20,000 historical documents. Finding it was being used by people researching their family history as well as academics and historians, she secured funding to develop the Searching for Theatrical AncestoRs (STAR) online resource, providing genealogists with a further 14,000 records from other archives. Both projects were funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

As well as offering practical tips, Tracing Your Theatrical Ancestors provides insights into the associations between theatre, charity work and political activism, showing how performing arts were used to further fundraising efforts during World War I and to promote campaigns such as women’s suffrage and divorce reform.

Tracing Your Theatrical Ancestors is published by Published by Pen and Sword Family History.