STAR: How to get started
There are many libraries and archives which hold relevant information on the history of theatre and the performing arts.
Libraries hold published books and articles in academic journals. These are listed in catalogues, searchable by author, title and keyword. Some theatrical ancestors may have published their autobiography, diary or had their letters or biography published after their death. The majority will not have published anything but they may have known or worked with those who did, so it is useful to check in the index of relevant publications for mentions of your ancestor.
Archives are collections of unique, unpublished materials such as letters, photographs, diaries, financial and other records. It may be useful to check archives for material relating to any theatre company, theatre manager or impresario with whom your ancestor was associated.
The National Archives has an online catalogue of 32 million records of items held by them and by 2500 other archives in the UK. See
Newspapers are useful sources of information about stage productions and tours. Notices of forthcoming productions provide details of performers and venue. Reviews often give more information about the content and quality of the production; sometimes information about the audience is provided. Many newspapers have now been digitized and are available online.
The Stage and The Era specialised in the reporting of theatre and the performing arts but productions were often reviewed in national and local newspapers and The Illustrated London News.
For newspaper coverage during the First World War, see
UK Census records collected every ten years from 1810 but it is the census data from 1841 which is most useful. The earlier data only provided numbers in each household whereas later data from 1841 onwards provides information about the occupants in households such as name, age, occupation. From 1911 census data was affected by the campaign to boycott it led by women’s suffrage activists. See the National Archives’ guide on how to use census records:
Census record data focuses on accommodation, property occupation and ownership. You might want to explore where your ancestor lived at different periods of their life and what this tells you about their circumstances. How many people were living in the same property, for instance, and what their stated relationships were may reveal whether they were lodgers or rented rooms to lodgers.
Passenger Lists are useful sources of information about travel by sea. Over 51 million records are available online from the archives of the Port of New York at The Ellis Island Foundation. If your ancestor travelled on tour to USA you may be able to find information about dates of travel, the name of the vessel and names and ages of travelling companions.
There is a great deal of data available on passenger records of travel by sea. Once you know where your ancestor travelled from and to, you should consult the National Archives’ guide:
In the period covered by the Ellen Terry and Edith Craig archive, photographs of performers appeared in some newspapers and in play programmes.
Performers had professional photographs taken of themselves as a means of publicity and to be used in the casting process. Ellen Terry often had photographs taken by Window & Grove, based at 63a Baker Street, London. Edith Craig and her contemporaries who campaigned for women’s suffrage were photographed by Lena Connell and Christina Broom.
Mary Evans Picture Library holds over 500,000 images and offer a picture search service.
ArenaPal, specialist image library for the performing arts
Introductory Guides on Theatre and Performing Arts Archives
The National Archives has online guides on many different themes. One of these relates to ‘film, television and performing arts records held by other archives’. This is particularly useful for searching more recent records of your ancestors:
General introductory guides on Family History
The National Archives has a general introductory guide on this page to help begin your family history research:
There are 355 research guides available. Your theatrical ancestor may also have had a military record. They may have emigrated. It is likely that more than one of these research guides will be useful in finding out more about your ancestor.
Printed Introductory Guides
A printed guide is available in the ‘My Ancestor...’ series published by the Society of Genealogists:
Alan Ruston, My Ancestor Worked in the Theatre, London: Society of Genealogists, 2005. 79 pages; ISBN 10 1 903462 89 4
Some resources have now been relocated. The British Theatre Museum closed in 2007 and its collection is now at the V&A Theatre Collection, Olympia, London. The Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection moved in December 2010 to the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.
Two short sections on theatrical workers and circus workers are included in:
Stuart A. Raymond, Trades and Professions: The Family Historian s Guide, Bury: Family History Partnership. 64 pages; ISBN 978 1 906280 25 3
You might come across unfamiliar terms for occupations. Was your ancestor a ‘tumbestere’, a ‘limb- trimmer’ or a ‘tunist’? The following guide lists many specialist terms for different occupations, some of which are related to textiles and a few to the performing arts.
Joyce Culling, An Introduction to Occupations: A Preliminary List, second edition, Bury: Family History Partnership. 64 pages; ISBN 1 86006 103 6