CHAPTER 5: I’ll Start on My Travels, Says Billy Barlow
George Coppin and Billy Barlow – Coppin and Billy in Ireland – Billy Barlow in New South Wales, Australia – The Song – Billy Barlow in Australia – Coppin on Tour – James Tucker the Convict Writer and Jemmy Green – Dusty Bob – The Australian Ghost of Billy Barlow
In 1819 and in 1820 two key players in the spread and popularity of Billy Barlow — the character — were born in England: George Selth Coppin and Samuel Houghton Cowell, respectively. They were to become the main disseminators of the various versions of the song as well: Coppin in England, Northern Ireland, Australia, and, to a lesser degree, America; Cowell in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and especially in America, where he lived from the time he was two years of age until he was twenty. Neither one was the first Billy Barlow in any of these countries, (except possibly in the case of Australia where the first Billy Barlow may have been Coppin) and they were certainly not the only ones at any one time. They were, however, the most well-known, and I believe that the information left to us about the 19th-century character, Billy Barlow, springs mostly from them.
In 1819, also in England, Robert Barlow was born. He took the name Billy Barlow and at least for a time sang Billy Barlow — the song. He became a well-known and popular entertainer, particularly in Australia where he settled, and he helped to make Billy’s name a household word here. It seems though, that he did not identify with Billy Barlow — the character, in quite the same way as did Coppin and Cowell, although he certainly had the tendency to bob back up from adversity in much the same way. Strangely, this unsinkable quality can be seen in most, if not all, of the Billy Barlows.
George Selth Coppin
George Coppin was born in England, into an acting family, and taken on stage to begin his acting career while still a baby. When he was ten years old, in 1829, he and his family stayed for a time, between tours, with members of their extended family at the King’s Lynn Lunatic Asylum. The family owned and ran the asylum, and the young George studied the inmates keenly.
Coppin claimed that it was here that he found the real-life Billy Barlow, who was to become the basis for Coppin’s own character of that name. Did Coppin actually study the street clown referred to by Mayhew’s Billy as the “original Billy Barlow (?) ….He was a great drunkard, and spent all he got in gin. He died seven years ago — where most of the street performers ends their days — in the workhouse.”
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By another account this was the Whitechaple Workhouse.
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This Billy almost certainly spent some time in poorhouses around the country on-and-off throughout his life. Coppin refers to the Billy he met at the asylum as, “….the simpleton, Billy Barlow, an apparently daft but shrewd commentator upon the idiosyncrasies of the sane”
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This could well describe the “original Billy” at any point during his sad decline, drink having reduced him to the state described by Coppin.
When Coppin struck out on his own he was seventeen. His only assets were his fiddle and his already formidable talent as an actor, singer, and dancer. He had no money at all. He walked the lonely, dusty roads, busking with his fiddle for his food and shelter. By the age of eighteen, however, he was already a theatre manager as well as manager of his own acting career. It cannot be said that he never looked back — he was to earn and lose many fortunes, but his buoyant spirit, his talents and his trusty fiddle never failed him.
IN THIS SECTION:
HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:
A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)
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