"Each has his own tree of ancestors, but at the top of all sits Probably Arboreal." - Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, 8 March 2012

On the birthday of Matt Hall

In celebration of my ancestor’s birthday – he would have been 162 today – I present you with a summary of his life, not as he lived it, but as I discovered it.
When I went to old family friend Brenda Prendergast in search of information on Victorine Hayward, as well as telling me about Victorine’s life she was able to give me a little info her ancestors. It was here that I first encountered ‘Grandad Hall’, a successful music hall owner whose wealth funded his granddaughter Victorine’s private (possibly convent?) education – at least until he lost all his money, so the story goes.
To find out more about Grandad Hall, I ordered his daughter Mabel’s marriage certificate. While I was awaiting its arrival, I started combing the censuses for possibilities. Initially I had no luck in 1901, and Mabel wasn’t born by the 1891 census. Fortunately, I knew she had older siblings, and had some possible names, so I was able to search for and eventually locate the family in Lincoln:
Matthew Hall, Theatrical Stage Manager, b. 1851 (age 41), Batley, Yorks.
His address, Danes  Terrace, is not far from the Theatre Royal in Lincoln, so I assume that was his place of work. I did a quick internet search for other possibilities, but didn’t find any immediate evidence of other theatrical establishments in Lincoln at the time – but this is by no means resolved yet.
Shortly after I found this record, the marriage certificate for Mabel arrived, and confirmed that Matthew Hall, a theatre manager, was indeed Mabel’s father.
It was an interesting turn-up that Matthew was born in Batley, which is just down the road from where I was born. As far as well all knew Victorine moved to Horbury with her husband for his work, and had no prior connection with the area, whereas we now realised that her grandfather was pretty much a local! It may of course be that she wasn’t aware of the fact, and her family ending up back there was just a coincidence.
On the 1901 census I then found this record:
Matthew Hall, widower, b. 1849 (52), Shropshire, Actor.
He and one of his daughters are ‘visitors’ in the house of Florence Gibson (nurse, age 30) in Burslem, Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire. There is no sign of the other children, and the birth places are utterly wrong, but as Stoke on Trent is where his daughter Mabel married in 1911, it seemed a good possibility. Note also that Matthew is now widowed, so I assumed that his wife, Kate, had died by 1901.
And on the 1881 census I found this record:
Matthew Hall, b. 1851 (30), Batley, Gas Fitter
Matthew Hall appears here with his wife and eldest daughter. It would seem he is not yet involved in the theatre professionally, but that they have an actor, Ernest Dotteridge, lodging with them. I did wonder whether he was the influence that got Matthew into the theatre.
That is, until I found his marriage record. Matthew Hall married Kathleen Birchall Geoghegan, 1854, West Derby, Lancashire. With a surname like Birchall Geoghegan, Kathleen wasn’t too difficult to track down. Therefore, even before her marriage certificate arrived, I was able to establish that she, in fact, was the theatrical influence; both her father and mother had worked as travelling singers/actors from her birth.
In an attempt to track Matthew a bit further back, I turned to earlier census records. From these I was able to ascertain that Matthew was the son of John Hall of Batley, and Elizabeth Spurr – though John was to remarry later after his wife died. It came to light that John Hall moved his family from Batley to Middlesbrough, at some time between the 1851 and 1861 censuses.
I then made contact with one John Hall on Rootschat.com, who had written that his ancestor ‘Merry Matt Hall’ was a music hall performer who had ended up as a stage manager in Lincoln. John turned out to be a descendant of one of Matthew’s brothers.
He also provided me with this theoretical explanation of Matthew’s father’s move to Middlesborough:
“It would seem that John Hall Jnr, our Granddad’s Granddad, left Batley, West Yorkshire, with his second wife and all his children... Matthew  included, and made a new life in Middlesbrough. His granddad Thomas Hall outlived John’s father John Hall Snr. Thomas Hall was a wealthy wool merchant and farmer born in Liversedge, near Dewsbury. In his will he divided his estate between his children, but as our John’s father was already deceased he missed out on the inheritance and the position in the family he would have received through his father. Thomas left John and his other grand children £10.00. John Jnr would have seen his uncles take over the woollen mill business with their children, his cousins in the better jobs and must have thought he would now be the poor relative. It would be then that he decided to leave the area, to make his future in the new town of Middlesbrough.”
I’m not totally convinced by this, as Thomas Hall died in 1838, at least 13 years before John Hall moved his family to Middlesbrough, but possibly it was a factor. I still need to do more research of my own into this aspect of the family history.
Following this discovery, I began searching for records of Merry Matt Hall as a performer – no luck, unfortunately, although John was able to tell me from old family stories that his catchphrase was "Make way for Merry Matt Hall"!
I did, however, find obituaries for Matthew in the Stage archives:
Hall, - Suddenly on July 23rd 1922, at Barnsley, Matt Hall (Merry Matt). Peace, perfect peace. "To forget is a vain endeavour, A father's love lives forever" – Amy, Marion and Victor Hall.
Hall - On July 23 1922, Matt Hall passed peacefully away. A devoted and wonderful father. Never forgotten by his ever-loving and sorrowing daughters, Mona and Mabel Hall
I also found another record of Matthew working as theatre manager after his time in Lincoln, from the Theatres Trust records. He and a man named Basil Stuart own and manage the Hippodrome in Burslem, Stoke on Trent  from its opening in 1896. In 1908 a new proprietor appears. However, based on Kelly’s directory of Staffordshire for 1912 (available on Ancestry) it appears Matthew continued to manage the Hippodrome for some time.
Around this time I was starting to widen my net. A search of the National Archives turned up Matthew Hall’s petition to divorce his wife in 1896, for adultery with two men. His address is still given as Lincoln at this point, but, presumably, it is the breakdown of his marriage that prompts his move to Stoke on Trent. Interestingly his wife’s father is also based in Stoke on Trent around this period, managing the Gaiety in Hanley, which makes one wonder what the relationship between the two men was like! It also raises a question about Matthew Hall’s marital status as widow on the 1901 census.
Interestingly, on the 1911 census, the nurse with whom Matthew was living in 1901 now appears to be named Florence Hall, a ‘widow’ and ‘boarding house keeper’ with two daughters aged 8 and 5. I haven’t found a marriage record as yet, but it is a possibility that they were a couple for the time and that Matthew may have fathered her children (though ‘widow’ is somewhat misleading). I haven’t managed to locate Matthew on the 1911 census yet, but if and when I do it may clarify things somewhat. I also intend to order the birth certificates for Florence’s daughters.
My final discovery on Matthew Hall’s life, sent to me by a historian I am currently working with, speaks for itself. Perhaps more than anything else I have come across it gives a real sense of his character:
“Not to be forgotten was the old Burslem Theatre, the Hippodrome, situated between the top of Scotia Road and Baddeley Street.  Its popular name was ‘The Blood Tub’, although the ‘Blood Tub’ was originally the Wedgwood Theatre of 1903, which was demolished to make way for the new Town Hall of 1911.  The Hippodrome was a big, and eventually decrepit, one-storey wooden building closed in 1940 and demolished soon after World War II.  In its early days it was run by a man named Matt Hall.  Most of the plays were of a ‘villainous’ nature, alternating with boxing and weightlifting competitions.  One one occasion a pallid potter was trying to lift an enormous barbell.  ‘His futile efforts brought forth derisive yells from his workmates in the audience’.  This so exasperated him that he dropped one of the barbells on the stage, with a huge bang, and shouted to his tormentors, ‘Thee bloddy well come and try!’  Matt Hall was so convulsed with laughter that he became seriously ill and was rushed home!”
From A Sociological History of the Borough of Stoke-on-Trent (1977), Ernest Warrillow, p. 680
L x

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