Chapter Five 1

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 5 – page 2     


In October of 1841 Coppin, in his first performance at the Queen’s Theatre in Dublin, appeared as Billy Barlow. It is not clear, from Coppin’s biographer, whether this was also the first time he appeared on stage anywhere as Billy. Robert “Billy” Barlow had already performed in his own “entertainment’ in Dublin in 1837, at the age of eighteen.

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It is not known whether he had sung the Billy Barlow song there, but it’s highly likely that he had. Billy Barlow was known in Dublin from at least 1832. The first Billy Barlow in Ireland is still unknown to me, although there are a few likely candidates for the role.


Coppin was, by 1841, already making his mark in England, as a manager of theatre troupes and as an actor, particularly in comic parts. He developed many interesting comic characters: Adminadab Sleek, Paul Pry — from the play of this name, Jem Bags, The Artful Dodge (better known as the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, written by Charles Dickens in 1838), and dozens more over a long life on the stage. It’s difficult now, even with the help of Coppin’s detailed biography, to sort out where all the characters originated, but most seem to have been extensively used by comic actors of the 19th-century. Some of the characters have roots that are older still.

Billy Barlow rode the 19th-century wave of expansion and prosperity, changing, chameleon-like, to suit different audiences as he travelled the developing world. Within George Coppin he sailed to the colony of Australia in 1843. Coppin’s wife, Maria, was an accomplished American actress. She wanted to return home to continue their careers there, but George had his eye on Australia. With Maria’s consent, Coppin tossed a half-penny, and the result indicated Australia as their destination. Thus, the toss of a coin determined the future of the man who came to be justifiably called “The Father of Australian Theatre.”

As the couple sailed away from the shores of England, Coppin spun the fateful coin out over the ship-rail and into the ocean. Throughout his long life, Coppin was known as “Honest George”, because of his openness and lack of guile. He was also sometimes known as “The Artful Dodger”, but this was used as an Australian inverted compliment and not intended to indicate a lack of honesty, except when used on occasion by his opponents in the political world. He and Maria were devoted to each other, and no doubt either one would have been willing to follow the other anywhere.

So why should I now wonder about that coin? Why do I keep remembering the two-headed coin
my father bought for me in 1950, on one of our visits to the Magic Shop in Melbourne?
Perhaps nobody else does wonder. Forget I mentioned it !

Choosing Australia over America as a destination was a shrewd move. There was already a well-established theatre industry in America, and competition within it was great. The Coppins sailed to Australia by way of Cape Town, and Coppin appeared there as Billy Barlow, singing topical newly-composed local verses in his song. Over the next two decades performers of all types set up tours, following the trade routes much as they had always done, except that now the horizons had widened, and their travels took them right across oceans to faraway continents.

Entertainers, either alone or with a troupe, could leave New York and sail to Liverpool, then travel overland, performing in the main cities and towns throughout England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. From there they could either tour Europe or take the popular Southern route and move on to Australia via Cape Town. Once in Australia they could perform in Adelaide on the South Coast, sail to Melbourne along the Shipwreck Coast, and then tour the Central Victorian Goldfields (after 1852). Then the route took them to Sydney and on up the East Coast. A side trip to New Zealand was a possibility. From here the way took them to China and across the Pacific to San Francisco (after 1849) via the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). Once back in America they could travel overland by one of several routes back to the East Coast.

In March, 1843, the ship carrying George Coppin and his wife Maria docked in Sydney Harbour. A bright and glorious comet lit up the clear Autumn sky, a fitting tribute to the rising star arriving on Australia’s shores. Billy Barlow and Coppin’s other characters waited patiently in the background, their costumes packed in trunks. Thanks to Coppin’s meticulous note-taking, the preservation, by his descendants, of his letters and diaries, and the care taken by his biographer, Alec Bagot, we know just how Coppin’s Billy Barlow looked.

Coppin’s Billy wore a bright-yellow waistcoat, old ragged black breeches, a battered black cap, old stockings, and very large old shoes. He sounds rather like an Australian urban larrikin. None of Coppin’s surviving Australian Billy Barlow songs have the “…one boot and one shoe…” line, and the outfit of his Billy didn’t include that idea. There is a strange parallel here, though. In later life, Coppin suffered from severe gout that necessitated the wearing of a slipper or soft shoe on one foot, even for performances. We could be forgiven for believing that this is where the idea came from, except that the songs that include that line predate Coppin’s gout. In fact, Coppin was only a small child when this line appeared in print.







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

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