Entertainment ancestors

This guide was last updated in 2014

If, like Sheridan Smith, you have ancestors who performed for a living, there’s an abundance of records for colouring in the detail, writes Laura Berry.

Variety shows and music hall entertainment took off in spectacular fashion as the nation prospered from the mid-19th century. Backroom tavern concerts drew in
crowds seeking light relief from a humdrum existence in Britain’s industrial towns.

Our Victorian ancestors were spoilt for choice when it came to evening entertainment, as purpose-built venues increased in number towards the end of the century. Discreet concert halls appealed to discerning middle class audiences, whilst patrons with more disposable income frequented the theatre.

Sheridan first heard about her banjo-playing ancestors from stories told by her father. Census returns sometimes give enticing clues about performers, and successful artists may even be found on ships’ passenger lists travelling back and forth the Atlantic, taking their acts to Broadway.

However, the range of available material for finding out more about the highs and lows of your ancestor’s career is vast if you look carefully, particularly if entertaining formed their main income stream.

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