Chapter Four 2

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 4 – page 3


Other Actors at London’s Adelphi Theatre.


There were other actors associated with The Adelphi in the 1820s and 1830s who may have sung Billy Barlow songs in character. There is no hard evidence, but the acts they are known to have specialized in, characters involving “low comedy”, would seem to make it a possibility.

One was Charles Matthews, a brilliant fast-talking comic actor and superb mimic, who became the theatre manager of The Adelphi, briefly outshining John Reeve until he moved on. Matthews’ son, also named Charles Matthews, was another possibility. He married Madame Vestris, who was a colourful actress remembered for “breeches parts” –male roles that allowed women to show feminine figures and shapely legs. Far from being passive decorative parts, these roles often allowed women to give strong performances as lead characters. Anyone familiar with the Christmas Pantomime knows that the Principal Boy, played by a woman, is the leading part. American Charlotte Cushman went a step further, and played straight male roles in classical theatre. She had a slim boyish figure and a husky voice. With her sister as Juliet she played Romeo, redressing the gender imbalance of tradition. Madam Vestris and Charles Matthews managed several theatres including one in America.

Another actor tenuously linked to Billy Barlow was Robert Keeley. Keeley shared the stage with Reeve at The Adelphi when Tom and Jerry or Life in London was performed there. Keeley played Jemmy Green, a friend of Jerry Hawthorn, the main character who was played by Reeve. This play became so popular that the names of several of the characters and their quotes slipped into common speech. Names like Jemmy Green, Tom and Jerry, Bob Logic, and Dusty Bob were known to everybody. Many of the characters like Dusty Bob belong to English ritual theatre, and a study of their histories is fascinating, although further removed from Billy Barlow than I care to go at this time.

There were derivative plays like Jemmy Green in Paris, and this one particularly is significant when we look at Billy Barlow in Australia. Keeley played the same London street-characters as Reeve, and sang their songs. As with all the characters done as part of solo acts, there is no record of their names. Keeley was responsible for the persona of the nervous, terrified servant who crept around the set in the first dramatization of Frankenstein.

Elements of Keeley’s performance stayed with the play when it was made as a film. The play version had been a musical, and the Creature’s love of music also went on into film. In the film Bride of Frankenstein he is enraptured by the sad sweet music played by an old blind man. Significantly, maybe, in the musical the Creature had no voice, and therefore no songs of his own. In 1850 Keeley took over the management of The Princess Theatre with Charles Kean, the second son of Actor Edmund Kean, where they presented revivals of Shakespearean plays on a grand scale. Keeley’s wife and children carried on in popular theatre after his death in 1869.

One more actor briefly associated with the Adelphi who also played comic characters of the Billy Barlow type was Joseph Cowell, father of the best-known of all the Billy Barlows: Sam Cowell. Joe Cowell played at the Adelphi from 1819 until 1821, just before leaving for America, where he was to live for the next thirty years. Joe Cowell was a writer and his memoirs are full of interesting encounters with fellow actors and singers, Mississippi-riverboat gamblers, writers like Mark Twain, and Americans of all types.


He tells us very little about the characters he himself played on stage or the songs he sang. From the little evidence that does exist, it seems he played characters of the Billy Barlow type, but it’s impossible to know for sure whether he ever actually played Billy. While he was at the Adelphi his little daughter died. He apologized to his audience, and like John Reeve whose wife died a few years later, took just three weeks off. Cowell sat beside his child’s death-bed for the three weeks and then, when she died, returned to work.

On the mantle the clock it was ticking the hours as they passed by
By a cradle a mother was bending and praying her child might not die
But far away at the theatre the thousands who came to the play
Were silent though many were weeping, as sadly the singer did say:

Ring down the curtain I can’t sing tonight
My heart is breaking amid all this light
My little one’s dying, my pride and delight
So ring down the curtain I cant sing tonight.

From Ring Down the Curtain I Can’t Sing Tonight
-by Robert H. Brennen.

As for John Reeve, he died on the 24th of January 1838. He can’t have been more than thirty-eight years old. The Adelphi’s manager called him one of the theatre’s “brightest ornaments”.

John Reeve was indeed a bright, early star of the London stage.


There is a strong possibility that he may have been the very first Billy Barlow.


By the end of the 1830s, Billy Barlow was poised, ready to explode like a supernova. It’s as if he were gathering strength before spreading his star-shine all over the English-speaking world. He was about to sail to the new colony of Australia with the immigrants, and later the gold-diggers, by way of the shipping lanes. He was to criss-cross the oceans between England, Ireland, America, and Australia, following the restless wanderings of the seekers of a better life.

Everywhere he went, he left behind little pieces of himself — sometimes just his name.
Some of the human actors whose bodies he inhabited are well-known and remembered.
Hundreds have been forgotten.
Many sang his song with “unbounded” or “rapturous” applause.

From this point it is a matter of telling more of the stories of the many Billy Barlows who seem to have taken their name, and sometimes their persona, from Billy Barlow the song-character. This will inevitably eliminate some Billys who perhaps deserve to be mentioned, and will include some who don’t. That’s what happens when you are dealing with a legendary figure. In any case there is not one of them that doesn’t have a fascinating story attached to him, worthy of the telling.









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

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