Some music hall superstars, such as Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno, made their fortunes on the stage, but for many it was a harder life. Most music hall artistes struggled to get by and were dependent on their next booking. Even those who had full bookings could struggle to make their way and this was how life was for Sam Ranson and Blanche Slater or as they were known to their families, Michael and Blanche Connor. Far from enjoying a life of glamour and wealth they travelled up and down the country to a different music hall almost every week with some gaps in their schedule particularly towards the end of their careers. They ended their lives in poverty, their young family dependent on the support of the close knit music hall community.
Michael was born in Leeds in 1855, the youngest son of Michael and Catherine Connor but in 1866 within a few days of each other his parents died and he went to live with his older brother William who was already married with a young son. Michael was working as an apprentice sawyer in 1871 but by 1875 he’d left the sawmill and the town of his birth behind and was making his living as a music hall artiste.
At first he performed with Mr and Mrs F Alberto, and the trio was booked up solidly throughout 1875, reviews were good and they took five or six curtain calls every night according to reviews in The Era. But the travel must have been rigorous as they moved to a different theatre almost every Monday, only occasionally staying at the same theatre for two weeks. Between 5 September and 31 December 1875 they appeared in Blackburn, Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Newcastle, Oldham, Rochdale, Hanley and Dublin (for 3 weeks). A busy schedule!
In 1876 Sam parted company with the Albertos and started working with Harry Rawlings whom he worked with until at least 1880 apart from a very brief period in 1879 when Sam took out a newspaper advertisement announcing that they would no longer be working together and that he would be working with Harry Risdon instead. This new partnership didn’t last very long and a few months later he and Rawlings were working together again. What did their act consist of? Quite a bit is the answer! They were described as song and dance artists, comedians, instrumentalists, big boot, pump and clog dancers so they probably did a bit of everything and varied the routine depending on the venue. They appeared at the same theatres again and again and they would have had to vary the routine to keep audiences coming back for more.
At the Star Theatre in Swansea in January 1879 there was a: ‘Grand Contest against time for this Night only: Messrs Rawlings, Ranson, and Vining will appear in the Great Trap Scene, and match themselves to make One Hundred and Fifty Leaps, Jumps, and Dives, in Five Minutes, at the conclusion of which Mr Melville intends presenting them with Three Silver Medals’. 
Life in the music hall was not without its off stage drama too: in September 1878 they lost various items including clogs, shirts and sheet music as did many other artistes when a fire which began in a soap works spread to the South of England Music Hall in Portsmouth. The theatre seated 2,000 people and was destroyed apart from the walls. Music halls were prone to fire and work in the music hall was dangerous.
Marriage and children
Sam and Blanche may have met when they both appeared at the Grafton Theatre of Varieties in Dublin in December 1875. Marie Blanche O’Loughlin was from Ireland, the daughter of Charles, a commercial traveller. She worked as a serio-comic, singing serious and comic songs along with a form of stand-up comedy between. However, in the months after that they were rarely in the same place at the same time and even after they were married in December 1877 they often appeared in different places so early married life must have been difficult for them.
They began performing together from October 1880 and were regular panto performers (oh no they weren’t!) and in the Christmas season of 1882 to 1883 they appeared at The Britannia Theatre in Hoxton in The diamond statue or the King of the Genii and were top of the bill.
Even after the births of their children, Blanche barely stopped performing, she was back on the stage shortly afterwards. When they buried their son Albert Edward on 7 March 1880 there was no respite for Sam who was on stage that very same day – the show must go on. By 1891 they had had 8 children and three, Norah, Alfred and Kathleen, were living with them at the time of the census. What must life have been like for these children who were on the move every week? Two other surviving children were living with different members of the family: Eva born in 1882 in Sheffield was living with Michael’s niece Catherine in Leeds and Blanche, born in 1886 in St Helen’s with his widowed sister-in-law Ellen in Salford. They had three other children who died young.
Life on the stage (and the road) took its toll on the couple and Blanche died in April 1892 of tuberculosis and exhaustion aged just 36. Michael struggled to find work for himself and his daughter Norah who had also begun performing appearing as Little Norah at the age of 7 and he placed advertisements in newspapers looking for work. Other performers made a collection for him after his wife died and perhaps his own health was already beginning to suffer by then as he died just a year later also of tuberculosis which he’d had for 10 months.
What happened to their young family? Norah continued to perform after her parents’ deaths and to support her brothers and sisters. She lived with Thomas and Susannah Riley and married their son Joseph Riley in 1898. She also performed as Norah Kebble with Edie Kebble.
Norah’s sister Kathleen lived with her and married in 1910, giving her father’s name as Sam Connor! As he died when she was just 6 perhaps she only knew him as Sam and not by his real name of Michael.
Researching music hall ancestors
Researching music hall ancestors can present some challenges and the main problem is discovering their stage name. Although I’d been able to trace them through the censuses I didn’t know what names they performed under. I only found out by chance when I found a death announcement in The Era for their son which gave his mother’s name as Blanche Connor and identified her husband as Sam Ranson and I was then able to find a marriage announcement for them as Sam Ranson and Blanche Slater which took place the same day as the marriage of Michael and Blanche. Without that lucky break it would have been very difficult to trace them. But having discovered the names of your music hall ancestors, finding out what they were up to week by week is much easier than it is for many other professions as advertisements and reviews appear in The Era, The London and Provincial Entr’acte and local newspapers and provide a wealth of detail. This makes it possible to plot their journeys around the music halls of the country. The University of Sheffield also has a superb collection of material, catalogued on their website.
 South Wales Daily News, 18 January 1879, p.1
- Pall Mall Gazette 13 September 1878 p.6
- The Era 21 February 1875 p. 3