Chapter Five 2

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 5 – page 3



The Song Billy Barlow in Australia


In Sydney, as in The British Isles, Billy Barlow was instantly popular with working- class audiences. One or more of the Billy Barlow songs may have reached Australia ahead of Coppin, and many of the convicts transported to New South Wales used the name Billy Barlow as an alias, but it was 1843, the year of Coppin’s arrival, that saw the emergence of Billy Barlow in Australia or The Maitland Version of Billy Barlow. The tune, the refrain, his name, and the first verse link it with the Old-Country Billy Barlow songs:

When I was at home I was down on my luck,
I earned a poor living by drawing a truck;
But an old aunt died, and left me a thousand — Oh, Oh,
I’ll start on my travels, said Billy Barlow.
Oh Dear, lackaday, oh
So off to Australia came Billy Barlow.

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Following this introductory verse there is an account of Billy’s misadventures as he tries to set himself up as a squatter. If it hadn’t been for the fact that here, as in the British Isles and America, Billy became so well-loved as a little battler, this song would have disappeared more completely than it has. It is a narrative song with no room for adaptation. It was composed by “a Gentleman of Maitland”, and first used between performances of plays at Maitland in August 1843. The City of Maitland is north of Sydney, inland on the Hunter River. The city was the centre of business for the district from an early date, and it was also here that one of the penal colonies of New South Wales was established.

Poor Daddy got five years or more as everybody knows,
And now he’s down in Maitland Jail broad arrows on his clothes.
He branded Old Brown’s cleanskins and never left a trail,
So I’ll relate the family’s fate since Dad got thrown in jail.

So stir the wallaby stew. Make soup of the kangaroo tail
I tell you things are shockin’ crook since Dad got thrown in jail.

From Wallaby Stew as learned in the 1950s
from an unremembered source.

The “Gentleman of Maitland” was not positively identified until Alec Bagot wrote George Coppin’s biography, which was published in 1965. Ten years before this Colin Roderick, in his introduction to the play Jemmy Green in Australia had made a studied guess that it was Benjamin Pitt Griffin. According to one of Coppin’s letters this was indeed correct. Did Griffin base his song on one of Coppin’s Billy Barlow songs? I think so.

On the 5th of August 1843, a group of businessmen from West Maitland applied for permission to stage “a few Amateur Theatrical performances” at the Northumberland Hotel. The proceeds were to be given to the Benevolent Asylum. The main instigators of the scheme were William Lipscome, Jeremiah Ledsam, and the brothers, Phillip and Simeon Cohen. The man nominated as licensee for the performances was, Benjamin Pitt Griffin, Lipscome’s father-in-law. Griffin resided in Sydney where Coppin was performing his Billy Barlow to packed houses.

The Maitland theatrical performance was duly given, and it was a great success. Even more successful was one of the songs sung in character between the two plays. It was Billy Barlow in Australia: “an original song.” The singer has been forgotten, and the lyric-writer’s name was, for over one hundred years, a matter for speculation, although descendants of Griffin nominated him as lyricist. Coppin finished his season of performances in Sydney with, The Maitland Version of Billy Barlow. Twenty years later while he was touring in America he wrote in a letter that he met, among other Australians,

“….Ben Griffin, from Maitland, that wrote Billy Barlow.”

Soon after the Maitland performance, Billy Barlow in Australia was published and sold at threepence a copy. It was sold in Maitland and in Sydney from 1843 to 1846, placing Billy firmly in Australia, and helping to spread his name through New South Wales. William Lipscome, speaking at an election meeting in East Maitland in 1845, made the comment that the squatters

“had produced more Billy Barlows than any other class”.

A song called Billy Barlow at Singleton was performed in 1845 in the town of Singleton, further up the Hunter River from Maitland. It was said to have been based on the “disasters of the real Hunter River Billy”. It merited an encore but was not repeated, “owing to its length”. There seems to be no memory of this song now.

Soon after Coppin’s arrival in Sydney, several letters, unrelated to the Billy Barlow character, but signed with his name, appeared in a Sydney paper. George Coppin was efficiently staking out his territory. Coppin presented his own Billy Barlow, using his own topical verses, based on the tried-and-true formula of previous songs. Such were Coppin’s performing and promotional abilities, that another unidentified performer in Sydney withdrew his claim to being the authentic or original Billy Barlow. To make absolutely sure of Coppin’s ownership of the Billy Barlow title, lectures by “Mr. William Barlow Esq.” were advertised in the Sydney papers. This same idea was also used by Sam Cowell in America in 1860.

Bagot says that Billy Barlow was even given a wife in the form of Maria Coppin clutching armfuls of little urchins. Perhaps this is a reference to the play called, The Barlow Family, written by Charles Alexander Dibdin, which was performed, in Sydney, by Coppin and his company. Coppin played Billy Barlow (an eccentric individual) and Maria was Harriet Fleetly (a giddy young lady). As part of a long list of characters, who are members of the Ancient Barlow Family, there are nine children whose names are: Masters ~ Short, Long, Stout, Lanky and Head and Misses ~ Tail, Limbs, Jaw and Clubfoot.

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Billy Barlow was often attacked by theatre critics and other spokesmen for high culture wherever he appeared in the larger Australian cities. The type of humour he presented was denounced as “low comedy”, vulgar and crude. Ragged clowns and raw speech had no place in the “legitimate theatre”, but belonged with the lower classes, who frequented the public houses and later the music-halls. In November of 1844 the drama critic of the newspaper the Australian lashed out at Coppin’s Billy. “……Then followed the nightly infliction of Billy Barlow! against which, on the part of the respectable part of the audience, we earnestly protest. It is an intolerable nuisance, suited only to please a few, among whom it is an established form to call for this abomination in triplicate! It damages the interests of the Theatre, and is alowable (sic) only at intervals, few and far between.” It must be said that, by this time, the critic had endured probably many hundreds of renditions of Billy Barlow. Coppin took it to heart, however and soon afterwards he gave the first of many Farewell-to-Billy-Barlow concerts. Coppin was a clever man. He knew that among a host of well-crafted characterisations of all types, it was Billy who was the favourite with audiences. Over the course of a long and eventful life, George Coppin was to play Billy Barlow on stages all over Australia, North America, Canada, and the British Isles. He was actually eighty-two when he appeared as Billy Barlow for the last time. It is not recorded whether or not this last appearance of Billy was performed as a farewell.

At the end of 1844, Coppin left Sydney for a tour of America, by way of Tasmania but the ghost of his Billy Barlow along with Maitland’s Billy Barlow remained in New South Wales.






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

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