Chapter Eight 2

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 8 – page 3


W C West


Another singer of Billy Barlow songs was W C West. He went to America and founded West’s Minstrels. He is known to have sung Billy Barlow, but it is not known whether this song was a usual part of his act or, if it was, for how long. Billy Barlow may have joined the Minstrel Show along with West.

Benjamin Oliver Conquest


Music-hall manager Benjamin Oliver Conquest once sang Billy Barlow for twenty-eight weeks in succession in the Pavilion Theatre in London before he took over The Eagle in 1851.

Up and down the City Road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes –
Pop! goes the weasel.

From the singing of Dorothy Barnham. (Author’s mother)

It is not recorded whether Conquest went on singing Billy Barlow, although he continued to sing as part of his running of the Eagle Tavern. Conquest’s son George became a music hall manager later in the 19th century, but by then Billy Barlow seems to have been less popular in England, and it’s unlikely that George ever echoed his father’s Billy Barlow song.


John Lawrence Toole


To please you still further, my best I will try –
Don’t look at me ladies, you make me feel shy –
You’d all like to have me; – but alas it’s no go!
You can’t all be married to Billy Barlow.
Oh, dear, raggedy, oh!
Just one at a time best suits Billy Barlow.

From John Lawrence Toole’s Billy Barlow

John Lawrence Toole was not born into the theatre. He was a wine merchant when he joined the Histrionic Club in London in 1850, at the age of thirty. It was Charles Dickens, among other friends, who persuaded Toole to take up acting as a profession. Toole made his debut at the Queen’s Theatre in Dublin, at the age of thirty-two. This was the theatre where Coppin had played Billy Barlow for the first time, back in 1841. Robert-Billy had performed there even earlier in 1838. From here Toole went to Edinburgh, where Sam Cowell had performed, for the first time outside America, in 1840. Toole became a comedy favourite in Edinburgh, as he did everywhere he went. Everybody loved the cheerful, kindly actor who was capable of serious as well as comic roles. He performed at many of London’s theatres, including the Adelphi, where he played for nineteen years.


In 1877 he opened the first of his own theatres in London. Throughout a career that spanned forty years he toured the British Isles and America. He visited Australia and New Zealand in 1890, when he may have been managed by George Coppin. He was so loved in Australia that no one seemed to be able to do enough for him. He was given presents everywhere he went, including a kangaroo, which he sent home to his life-long friend Henry Irving. The kangaroo subsequently lived out its life happily in the London zoo. An Australian magpie travelled home with Toole and for years afterwards roamed free in his London garden, where it made rude remarks to visitors.

A music-booklet of Toole’s Billy Barlow song still exists in the National Library of Australia, giving us a look at Toole’s Billy. The picture on the cover, probably a drawing from a photograph, shows Toole in his Billy Barlow costume. He is wearing a heavy ragged overcoat, pants torn off at the knee, striped stockings, and one boot and one shoe. His hair sticks out in tufts from under a battered top-hat. His nose is painted and his face appears clown-like. Over all, although based on one of Cowell’s versions of Billy, this appears to be the most clown-like Billy Barlow picture of all.

Toole, remembered with great affection by his many friends as warm-hearted and congenial, always avoided the drinking parties in the green-rooms of the theatres. He never succumbed to the lure of alcohol as did so many actors and singers of his time. He was of the opinion that time off for gardening in a quiet little plot was the solution to most of life’s problems, and that more people should do it. His modest home in London was a sanctuary for him and his family, as well as for his jaded friends — many of them well-known poets, writers, painters, and actors. He and his friends, Charles Dickens and Henry Irving, frequently roamed London’s East End searching out colourful characters and listening carefully to the conversations around them.

Toole died in 1906 at the age of seventy-six, having retired from the stage in 1895, when he became paralysed and bedridden. This cheerful, loving actor endured much sadness. His adored wife died in 1889, the year after the death of their young daughter, Florence. Their only other child, Frank, had died in 1879 while in his early twenties.

There is no record of when John Lawrence Toole last performed as Billy Barlow, but the fact that Australia has a copy of his Billy Barlow song suggests that he performed there as Billy in 1890, leaving behind sheet-music sold during the tour.

Other British Actors Who May Have Played Billy Barlow

Records show that from the early 1800s there were many actors of characters of the Billy Barlow type performing in the British Isles. Many of them toured America and elsewhere. There is the possibility, although no confirmation, that any number of the following British actors at sometime played Billy Barlow:
Robert Keeley, Charles Matthews, or his son, Charles James Matthews. Frederick Robson a master of serio-comic roles who suffered from almost crippling stage-fright. His most famous photograph shows him as a sad little tramp dressed in a ragged suit. James Munyard and William Henry Liston. Edward Wright who made Queen Victoria laugh. John B. Buckstone — who specialized in lovable clowns — and who still walks the corridors of the Haymarket Theater as a grey-suited ghost. John Pritt Harley who played wise-cracking servants and clerks. Billy Rogers. William Evans Burton who greatly admired John Reeve and who was born to play comic roles while secretly longing to be a tragedian.

On the subject of comedians and tragedians, John Lawrence Toole said,

“I have often thought that the tragedian scores against the low comedian when there is a bad house. For instance, in Hamlet, if the melancholy Dane sees that there is a bad house it rather helps than injures his acting. The melancholy Dane becomes all the more melancholy when he sees a miserable account of empty boxes, and that is all the better for his acting, his melancholy is all the more natural; but the low comedian who has to make the audience laugh, it is very hard for him; he finds no assistance in the bad house; it lowers his spirits, and he lets off his jokes as if they were camp fireworks, and he knew they would fizzle, and that’s just what they do.”








A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)


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