Friday, November 17, 2006

Negro Comedians

In the 1881 census my great-great grandad, John Driscoll, was listed as a 'negro comedian'. Obviously this is quite an unusual occupation and I wanted to find out more about it.

Simply put, the minstrel show was a performance where white actors would darken their faces and mimic the perceived behaviour of black people. These first became popular in the 1830s in the United States, particularly New York. An example from the mid-nineteenth century can be seen above. Their popularity continued until the turn of the nineteenth century, being replaced by the more popular music hall. This is probably why after 1900 my ancestor John Driscoll starts to refer to himself as a 'comedian' and not a 'negro comedian'.

The links above are quite nice summaries and histories of minstrel shows, so rather than repeat those I thought that in this blog I'd put some extra things pertaining to family history:

Firstly, in various census entries, I have found individuals named as negro comedians, negro performers, negro actors or negro minstrels. In the 1881 English census where you are able to perform an occupation search, I found 63 records matching 'negro' as a keyword. Of these, about 10 refered to black people. As a side issue, it is interesting to note that the term negro was used here to mean Indians, Africans and Caribbeans.

One man, 'Jack', from the Transvaal is a 'negro servant indoors' in Somerset and has no surname - Another man, a lodger in Wandsworth appears not to have a name altogether and is simply referred to as 'one negro man'.

Nevertheless, I find 50 to be a very small number of negro minstrels. It is possible that those who did perform in these shows may just have called themselves actors. However, of those who did put minstrel or some such as their occupation, there only appears to be a handful living in any one town. In Birmingham at this time (1888) there were four theatres -

"Days Crystal Palace" 75 Smallbrook St,,
"Gaiety Concert Hall" 87 & Coleshill St,

"London Museum Tavern & Music Hall" 143 Digbeth,
"Steam Clock " 23 Morville St

Given that I found 5 people in Birmingham claiming to be minstrels, it looks as if that 5 would be around the number of minstrels that could find work.

I found out a couple of other things about the negro minstrels from the census records. Firstly, it wasn't just males who performed as can be seen from this husband-and-wife team in Brighton:

Also, very bizarrely, I found a group of negro comedians from Buffalo in New York performing in Hull. It is very strange to think the type of jobs that led to people from such exotic places as Buffalo going to the equally exotic Hull:

Across the internet I have also found a couple of pieces of negro comedian memorabilia including posters announcing minstrel performers and tickets for their performances.

I'm not sure how 'entertaining' these shows would have been, but it is difficult to imagine what they would be like when you live in a completely different era with different values. I'm also not sure how great the son of an Irish immigrant would be at imitating Black stereotypes - he may have been quite entertaining. John Driscoll appears to have been a comedian for at least 25 years so perhaps he did have quite a lot of fans.

Other minstrel show links:
A history of comedy, scroll halfway down the page for minstrel history
A history of Black theatre in UK
A history of American minstrels
A history of the golliwog caricature

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