6 best websites for finding musicians in your family history

By Guest, 28 August 2019 - 9:39am

Paul Merton discovered his great-great grandmother was a street musician on Who Do You Think You Are? Use these websites to find your musical connections

Covent Garden history music
Musicians performing at Covent Garden in 1808 (Credit: Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Few women’s professions are listed on censuses, but on Who Do You Think You Are?, comedian Paul Merton found his great great grandmother Caroline Plunkett described as a ‘vocalist’.

Further research revealed she was a ‘street musician’ – an early form of busker – who went to prison for supposedly assaulting someone with a banjo!

There’s a rich range of resources for uncovering the colourful lives of your musician ancestors.

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Orchestras, music schools, opera companies, music hall performers, travelling brass bands and touring skiffle trios all leave traces, whether in exhaustive performance archives, theatrical playbills, student registers or newspaper articles.

The ever-useful British Newspaper Archive is an especially important resource here, and not only in terms of national and local newspapers – the website also has issues of specialist performing-arts titles such as The Stage and The Era.

The wide interest in performance history, particularly in the realms of classical music, opera and ballet, means that there are several digital resources to try.

These sometimes include complete performance databases, or catalogues of free, digitised copies of original programmes.

If a programme hasn’t yet been digitised, you should be able to find out where the original lives.

However, keep in mind that many of these specialist libraries and archives are by appointment only – so make sure you do your leg work before setting off.

 

1. Concert Programmes

Concert Programmes

This is a database of concert programmes held in libraries, archives and museums across Europe.

In that sense it is not only a useful tool for researching “musical life from the eighteenth century to the present day”, to quote from the homepage, but is also a gateway to important parent collections.

Start by clicking the map option and zoom in on the UK.

Hundreds of pins appear – yellow for concert venue, and green for holding institution.

Click on Tiverton, for example, and you will find that the venue appears in three catalogue entries, two from the Royal College of Music and one from the music department of Cambridge University Library.

You can also browse an exhaustive A-to-Z of people and organisations, or just search by name or keyword.
 

2. Royal Opera House Collections Online

Hearth Tax Digital

This database catalogues every performance at the Royal Opera House back to 1732, documenting not only the performers on stage, but also the people behind the scenes and in the pit.

The catalogue information is divided into three levels: ‘work’, ‘production’ and ‘performance’.

‘Work’ refers to the opera or ballet being performed (composer, date of premiere, literary source, etc); ‘production’ concerns the team who brought it to the stage (director, set, costume, etc); and ‘performance’ records people on stage or in the orchestra.

The website also includes posters, costumes, a history of the building, administrative records and more.
 

3. Paris-Manchester 1918

RNCM

This exhibition from Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music (one of four member conservatoires of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) relates to conservatoires in time of war, and is for those who want to “find out about the lives of the musicians behind the concert programmes”.

There are galleries illustrated by diaries, letters and photos, looking at the history of these institutions in wartime, the lot of musicians on the Western Front and the home front, case studies of performers, and the experience of military bands.

This is a collaborative exhibition between the RNCM and the Paris Conservatoire, with content from both sides of the Channel.
 

4. Royal College of Music

Royal College of Music archives

Alongside renowned rarities that include handwritten manuscripts by Mozart, Elgar and Chopin, the college’s archive boasts thousands more manuscripts, 140 personal archives, and 700,000 concert and opera programmes.

There are various finding aids including an A-to-Z of named collections normally relating to famous performers, composers or sponsors.

The college was also the first conservatoire to stage digital exhibitions with the Google Cultural Institute.
 

5. Music in Gotham

Music in Gotham

If your ancestor was a member of a travelling company, they may well have spent time in the theatre pits, band shells and orchestras of New York.

Opera companies also descended on Manhattan for the annual seasons, and many overseas musicians joined the likes of the New York Philharmonic Society or the Theodore Thomas Orchestra.

The Music in Gotham project chronicles a slice of musical life between 1862 and 1875.

It draws on newspaper reports, other periodicals and private diaries to create an encyclopaedic database recording the performance and reception of musical events in the city.
 

6. Expert's choice: ArthurLloyd.co.uk

Arthur Lloyd
Song sheet for Sharps & Flats, or My Leetle German Band, which saw Arthur Lloyd perform in character as Bismarck (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Chosen by Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground and Circus Archive:

“This is another subject where ArthurLloyd.co.uk really comes into its own.

"This excellent website was originally set up by Matthew Lloyd, the great grandson of the Scottish singer, songwriter and variety performer Arthur Lloyd (1839–1904), to celebrate Arthur and his theatrical family.

"However, it has since developed into a treasure trove covering the wider music hall scene, boasting 'over 1,500 pages of information and nearly 15,000 images on the history of music hall and theatre in the UK and Ireland'.

"The site is very useful for researching travelling musicians or individual venues, and you can read surveys of the performing scene in specific towns and cities.

"These are listed on two pages – one for London, the other for the rest of Britain and Ireland.

"Elsewhere on the website are articles exploring variety acts and pantomimes in the 1940s and 1950s, while a page of links leads to resources for finding Victorian song sheets and music, postcards and historical maps, plus similar websites about particular theatres or performers.

"There is also a ‘People’ section including a list of the resting places of many music hall and variety artistes of the Victorian and Edwardian era, and a detailed timeline from 1800 to 1919 covering Arthur and his family’s life and other theatrical events."

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