Offstage Ancestors: the theatre ancestors you never knew about

Riot during Artaxerxes Covent Garden, 1763

Riot during Artaxerxes Covent Garden, 1763


Who do you think of when you hear the term ‘theatre ancestor? Actor, musician, composer, dancer, circus performer, manager, playwright, director? Of course all of these fall under the broad definition of the term, but maybe we should also consider the group of individuals known as ‘offstagers’ who were not part of the main body of theatrical folk, but were located on the fringe. Their contributions cannot be underestimated, without them the theatre would not have been able to function and their existence means that the subject of theatre ancestry is far larger than is always presumed.
   I am still fairly incredulous that the publisher I approached with the idea of a book concerning theatrical antecedents thought that the audience would be too small. My brief may have been awful of course and I am quite sure I did not include what I am about to impart. The first thought of the publisher was no doubt the same as everyone else: actor, musician, composer etc. this is of course not seeing the bigger picture and looking beyond those three disciplines for an interested readership. The term ‘offstager’ could apply to : treasurers, copyists, prompters, dancing masters, play and music publishers, property men, sceneshifters, tailors, mantua makers, milliners, ticket sellers, oil suppliers, coffee house keepers, lodging house keepers, carpenters and many more. Some of those many more are listed below.
   Now lets get this straight, with many of the above examples it will never be the case that you can build a very detailed life story and career CV, it will be more contextual research and family history than a dazzlingly biography and the Costa Book Award. Research broadly and you might get an idea of what your ancestor’s life was like: perhaps they visited the ‘house daily, listened to read-throughs from the pit or in the green room, worked over Christmas (but not Easter), built the sets, lit the lamps and candles, put out the fire caused by some hoyden who managed to entangle her ostrich head-dress in the candle chandelier that hung above the box*, that sort of thing.
   Who built the sets? The carpenters of course. I bet you had not entertained the idea that your carpenter ancestor might have worked for the local theatre? Thought not. Did you know they were also on hand during the performance in case anything required fixing? They were often employed as stage hands too according to John O’Keeffe. Their job was to bring on props when needed and change the set around; in the eighteenth century they were the ones that would bring on the famous carpet when the actors ‘died’ – that is when the character died, not when the actor gave a bad performance! Though there were many of those.

Coffee House ticket office

Coffee House Ticket Office

Continuing with the theme of looking at research from the broader perspective of family history, if your ancestor resided in a town that had a playhouse and held the assizes and/or had summer race meetings, then they were more likely to come in contact with a company of players. Theatre managers would plan their performance schedules around race meetings and assize days so they could take advantage of the large number of people visiting the town. Your ancestor may have supplied services to the theatre and company: from viands for the post performance supper, to yards of poplin, ribbons and feathers for the wardrobe; from tallow candles or oil to light the boxes, to a room at the local coffee house where the players met. So the theatrical sphere of influence spread far wider than is usually considered and may have unexpectedly touched your ancestor’s life.  

Finding documentation about ancestors on the periphery of the theatrical world is difficult though. For 18th century ancestors it is worth consulting, A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800 by Philip H. Highfill Jr., Kalman A. Burnim, Edward A. Langhans. It is a monumental work, but it contains few or no citations whatsoever. Where there are citations they are incomplete, so it is difficult to follow them-up, but perserverance may yield results. This sixteen volume dictionary contains a dazzling assortment of stage and offstage individuals as noted by JSTOR in its review, including: barber, bill carrier, candlewoman, charwoman, concessionaire, constable, cook, dresser, featherman, guard, lampman, messenger, music caller, music porter, numberer, plumber, scene painter, scowrer, sweeper, watchman, wigmaker, ‘as well as various “keepers”: of box, box office, gallery door, hall, house, instrument, lobby, lobby door, office, pit, pit office, and scene.’
   Despite the title, it does not end at 1800; if an individual’s career started before 1800 and continued into the 19th century then it is worth consulting. JSTOR also points out that it includes pseudonyms as well as original names and cites Arcangelo Bimolle, Shadrach Twanglyre and the wonderful Mynheer Von Poop-Poop Broomstickado as examples of the stagers. Unfortunately there is not an equivalent work for the latter half or indeed the bulk of the 19th century. Instead you should search through theatre account books for payments to your ancestors either as a regular wage or per job if the accounts still exist; try checking with the V&A Theatre ArchiveExplore BL and BL Archives and Manuscripts, search on Archives Hub or do a general search on Google for a specific theatre.
   When researching both stagers and offstagers it is absolutely vital to research the history and management of the theatre you are interested in; see if there is a published history and a calendar of performances (this link is just one example), if not try to construct a timeline from directories, newspapers and local history books. It might also be useful to learn about the history of theatre in general, particularly the era in which your ancestor was flourishing.
      For the majority of 19th century theatre research we are blessed with the census, civil registration, directories and newspapers such as The EraThe Stage, and The Sketch etc. To construct careers and trace a bit of background history of offstagers, you should scrutinize the adverts of the services offered to the profession in these papers and also broaden your search to include general local and national newspaper titles for adverts and playbills.
     Take a look at this 18th century playbill from the University of Kent Collection [I have edited it for the purpose of this article] advertising Garrick’s The Miss in her teens and one other entertainment on the Bill : 


                                                       A WOMAN KEEPS A SECRET, 

                                                        THE MISS IN HER TEENS

                                     Actors: Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Adcock, Mr. Ellard, Mr. Hartry, Mr. Foot, Mr. Venables, Mr. Eden, Miss Eales, Mr Cecil, Mrs. Barry, Miss Bainbridge, Mrs. Jefferson, Mrs. Adcock, Miss Adcock (dancer), Mrs. Cartwright


“end of the Play, a Hornpipe by Miss ADCOC[K]”

“The curtain to be drawn up precisely as Six o’Clock”

“N.B. tickets to be had at Mr. Skinners, Jeweller, in the Fore-Street; at Mrs. Heard’s, Milliner, near St. John’s Bow; and at the Theatre where Places for the Boxes are to be taken (a Book being open’d for that Purpose) and enter’d, the same as in London, from Ten till Two each Day, by Mr. Barry”. Prices- “Boxes 3s.–Pit 2s.– Gallery 1s.”

“The way to the Pit is from Goldsmith-Street, from whence also, if any Lady [or] Gentleman choose it, there is a small Passage to the Boxes. To the Gallery as usual”

 Theatre, Exeter 9th October 1765


Marvellous it mentions the actors, how dandy? – notice there are no first names – but it also mentions the ticket sellers, Mr Skinner a jeweller and Mrs Heard a milliner. Wonder if Mrs Heard provided a cap for the acting ladies or a Nivernois for the gents? How about a watch from Mr Skinner? Actors needed to be at the performance on time, not to mention rehearsals, though some were unfit, drunk and did not bother with rehearsals. On more than one occasion Mrs Inchbald wrote that she had gone to rehearsal and there was nobody there; she also mentioned she had bought a watch, but probably not from Mr Skinner.
   Inchbald joined companies that toured the theatre circuits. I have undertaken a generous amount of swotting on these circuits and it is a good idea to be aware of them if researching stagers and offstagers; it is also useful to know that companies performed in barns, warehouses and many other makeshift theatres that might be in or close to your ancestor’s town or village. The main circuits were – I use the term slightly loosely here and I have not included them all:- London: Goodman Fields, Lincoln Inn Fields, the Drury Lanes, the Hays, the Covent Gardens etc. also the north east: York, Leeds, Beverley, Wakefield, Hull, Richmond; the Norwich theatre circuit; the north west: Liverpool and Manchester etc.; Scotland: Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen; the south east: Margate, Canterbury, Brightonhelmstone, the south west: Bath, Bristol, Exeter, and Plymouth; Ireland: Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Belfast, and Kilkenny. Touring companies would travel on extended odysseys around these circuits, taking their servants and all that they needed with them. They would often stay together at the same lodging house, sometimes year after year. Mrs Inchbald often passed time with her landlady chatting and drinking dishes of tea or coffee; on one occasion she even fell asleep on her landlady’s bed. The imposition!
   Mrs Inchbald’s diaries are a wonderful resource for contextual research and provide a view of 18th century life, but are they useful for researching offstagers? Yes, Inchbald mentions all sorts of people, not just stagers; every researcher wishing to research an individual who was involved with the theatre either as a stager or offstager should be reading published memoirs, diaries, recollections and correspondence as part of their research strategy. This comes full circle to the above paragraph on researching your theatre history; if you know the personalities involved then you will know who to search for on Worldcat, or in the journals JSTORNotes & QueriesGale Eighteenth Century Collection etc. Real contextual research involves researching other people too, not just the subject of your obsession; these other people might mention your ancestor, and even if they do not, they add the texture and colour to the world they and your ancestor inhabited.
here are many other tips and resources I have purposely omitted from this article simply because it would have made it too long. Afterall I have not really mentioned researching the performers and players. I do hope it is useful, so send me your comments and your most useful resources and I will add them below (if not already above), but what I really need to do is write a book on the subject… Hmmm.


*This did actually happen. Sadly she died, sadly I made a joke of it.


MJ Holman @mishjholman

Be first to comment