No genealogist should be without one..or Monday madness

Posted on: June 28th, 2010 by pj
It’s character building to have a thespian in your ancestry.  Trust me.  My acting ancestors have made me laugh, cry and tear my hair out in frustration and it has nothing to do with their professional abilities!  As part of the Monday madness meme over at Geneabloggers let me share my adventures tracking down my favourite board-treader who’s driven me nuts over the years.Several factors contribute to the difficulties in searching for Victorian actors.  Using a stage name is the most obvious. Professional name and ‘real’ surname for some appear to have been interchangeable on official documents seemingly at whim.  Then there is mobility.  Theatre actors didn’t often stay in the same venue for more than a few weeks at a time which, if they had a fairly common name, makes looking for them on a census a long winded process.  If you do manage to track them down they’re often listed at the end of the household as ‘Vistor’ or ‘Boarder’ on their own and the link broken to the rest of their family.  As if that wasn’t bad enough there are the age discrepancies.  Of course that can be a problem with any ancestor, transcription errors and mistakes occur regularly but with actors we have the added complication of a desire to appear a different age to their actual age.  Usually younger. Lily Blanche was born into a family of actors.  Her father Joseph and mother Emma were both actors and by the time Lily was 10 (maybe) Joseph was manager of the Theatre Royal in West Bromwich, UK.  In 1879 Lillie Blanche made her acting debut, along with her parents and for several years is billed in The Era as ‘Little Lillie Blanche’.  I can find no record of her birth and almost every official document contradicts each other placing her birth at any time during an enormous timespan of 19 years!

Her death certificate informs us that she died in 1925 aged 56 = born 1869
The 1881 census tells us that she was aged 8 = born 1873
The 1891 census tells us that she was aged 18 = born 1873
The 1911 census tells us that she was aged 23  = born 1888  (really Lily? So you were born 7 years after the 1881 census)
Her marriage certificate states that she was 32 in 1916 = born 1884

Ahh you’re saying, 1873 looks promising except that Emma, her mother was appearing in stage productions pretty consistently throughout that year.  A heavily pregnant woman acting in a Victorian play?  So maybe her parents played fast and loose with her age to the census enumerator to fit in with the ‘Little Lily Blanche’ tag?  I begin to wonder sometimes if they might have plucked the child from an orphanage as she seems to have appeared from nowhere.  After 1891, when she’s still in West Bromwich with her parents on the census, I lost her.  She disappeared completely until by chance, I came across an article in The Era about an actress called Lillian Herries.  It said that Miss Herries came from an acting family, her mother and father being Joseph and Emma Rainbow!  I sat staring at the page..omg omg..I’ve found Lily!!  Without that link I would never have discovered what happened to her later in her life, when she toured in the USA and South Africa and married another actor, Vincent W. Carlyle.   I still have plenty of questions about Ms Rainbow/Herries/Carlyle that need answering.  Why did her cousin, giving information for her death certificate, say she was a spinster when she’d married only 9 years earlier?  Was she really born in Middlesbro (sic) and exactly when would that have been?

In all seriousness I’ve had a lot of fun tracing my acting family and there are many positives amongst the difficulties.  Once you actually find them its often possible to track them around the country as they go from town to town and each production is advertised in the local newspaper, many of which have their archives online.  Then there are the reviews where you may pick up those gems that tell you about the personality of your ancestor, and finally how brilliant is it to find a theatre poster with your ancestors’ name ‘in lights’ – even if they are little ones.  Good luck with tracking down yours…sorry…break a leg!

EDIT: 12/3/2014 Further research has revealed that Lily was almost certainly born on April 7th 1872!
  • Anonymous

    Hi
    I have just read your article and am really excited as I have just had a breakthrough on my family tree and need to share this.My great grandfather was William Howard Lennox  and I have just found out his stage name- Vincent Carlyle.  He was my father’s mother Phyllis’s  father , her mother was an actress Emily Hazell who married William in 1899 and became Emily/Amelia Howard Lennox in Margate.  I have been guided towards newspaper articles on Find My Past and William/Vincent was charged with bigamy in Oct 1909 as he had married in about 1905 and had a child in 1906 having thought Emily was dead.  So he then married Lillian in 1916- have just sent off for marriage  certificate.  My father knew nothing about his mother Phyllis other than she mentioned Bath which is where she was in 1911 aged about 16. She married my grandfather in 1918, had my fatehr Ronald Stanton and they went to Canada for a few years. Interestingly Ronald’s birth certificate mentioned Phyllis as being a Cinema Artist.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Debbie Vass