John Bishop

The comedian learns about his musical and military forebears

John Bishop

Following a career in pharmaceutical sales, John Bishop came late to stand-up. But have any of his relatives followed a similarly unusual career path and maybe even worked in showbiz? The answer, as John will discover, is most definitely yes.

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First, John researches his great-great grandfather, Charles Bishop, who’s listed as a lay vicar in the 1861 census. An earlier record reveals that Charles, then a soldier himself, married a soldier’s daughter, Catherine, in Montreal in 1852. But how to reconcile what seem to be church and military careers?

The answer is music. Charles joined up as a boy. His service records reveal he was in his regiment’s band. Charles rose to become a sergeant and bandleader, yet bought himself out of the army at considerable cost to take a job at Chichester Cathedral. The term ‘lay vicar’ is slightly misleading. It actually means he was employed to sing in the choir.

Away from the church, Charles also composed his own music, and John gets to hear the jaunty dance tune ‘Watergate Polka’. Charles was evidently a success, because he moved on to work at York Minster.

Then came another career change. By 1874, Charles was working in a minstrel show. John’s view of a man he previously saw as rather stern has completely shifted. “I don’t how I’m going to explain this to my kids,” he says, “or my dad!”

Meeting theatre historian Jim Davis, John learns that Charles would have blacked up to go on stage. This now seems shocking, but minstrel shows were regarded as respectable family entertainment. Bass singer Charles would have been well paid and he even performed in New York. John has found an ancestor who evidently shared his own sense of being at home on stage. John also learns that Charles’s company, Sam Hague’s Minstrels, were based in Liverpool, which helps explain how his family settled in the city.

Another of John’s great-great grandfathers, Thomas Beaton, was also a military man, joining the Royal Navy aged 17 as a stoker. Shoveling coal may sound like a menial job, but it was a coveted position with good prospects for a working-class lad.

Thomas had an eventful career. He served aboard HMS Tiger, a ship that ran aground during the Crimean War in 1854 and was captured by the Russians. Following a prisoner exchange, he served on land at the siege of Sevastopol. Later, he faced a court-martial over the loss of the Tiger, but this was largely a formality because naval regulations demanded all crewmen be called to account for the loss of a ship.

The same can’t be said of the time when Thomas was jailed after reporting back late for duty. This incident didn’t seem to affect his prospects too badly, though, because later he served aboard the royal yacht, HMY Victoria and Albert.

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“It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” says John, as he considers the lives of Charles and Thomas, “what matters is to make the most of your life.”