Sheridan Smith adores her father. “I’m such a daddy’s girl,” she says. Her father, Sheridan adds, has “always wanted to find out about his family history”.
By appearing on Who Do You Think You Are? she hopes to be able to help him discover more. Considering her parents, Colin and Marilyn Smith, are country and western musicians, Sheridan also thinks she might find “musical bones”.
Before embarking on her research in earnest, Sheridan heads for her childhood home in Lincolnshire, “my safe haven” according to an actor who first found fame in the sitcom Two Pints Of Lager… and has gone on to enjoy a hugely successful TV, film and theatre career. Here, she sees an old family picture of three musicians holding banjos. But who are they?
It’s genealogist Eileen Butcher who first helps Sheridan learn about the trio. Sheridan’s great-great grandfather, Benjamin Doubleday, who was born in the Union Workshouse, near Sleaford, Lincolnshire in 1856, played the banjo. And to a high standard. According to a review: “His rendering of ‘Home Sweet Home’, with variations, was received with enthusiastic applause.”
But how would a working-class Victorian lad have come across the banjo, let alone mastered it? According to musician and academic Professor Derek Scott, the banjo first became popular in the UK in the aftermath of an 1843 tour by the Virginia Minstrels, white musicians who performed in make-up that mimicked African-American colouring.
By the 1880s, the middle and upper classes had taken up the instrument so that a banjo concert by the virtuoso Bohee Brothers was held at the Sheffield Albert Hall, which held 1,000 people. Benjamin Doubleday was also on the bill.
Identifying with a forebear making his way as a performer, Sheridan’s next stop is to buy her own banjo and begin to learn to play.
Despite his humble roots, Benjamin Doubleday was clearly ambitious. As bawdy music hall morphed into the more respectable variety, he founded the upmarket Royal American Choir and, as a budding impresario, performed at Sheffield’s 2,000-seater Sanger’s Circus. Sadly, the choir didn’t pull in the crowds. It’s a reminder, says Sheridan, that while it’s good to take artistic risks, sometimes these risks don’t pay off.
By 1893, Benjamin had become a pub landlord, running the Woodman Inn in Sheffield. Clearly, things weren’t going well as an 1895 newspaper report suggests Doubleday may have attempted to burn down his pub for the insurance. “This… seems like a different person,” says a shocked Sheridan. His wife, Sarah Jane, had left him and, appearing in court, Benjamin was in such despair he didn’t even want to apply for bail.
So is there a happy ending here? Of sorts. Benjamin was found not guilty of attempting to defraud his insurers. He became a music teacher and, according to Sheridan’s second cousin Louisa Gingell who has been researching the family tree, carried on performing in the Darrell Trio, a group that also featured his daughters, May and Harriet. These are the three musicians in her father’s picture.
Less happily, Benjamin was just 50 years old when he died, officially of heart disease but because he drank too much according to family stories. Sheridan is delighted by what she’s found and can’t wait to tell her father, who also plays banjo, about Benjamin. “I just wish I could have met [Benjamin],” she says.