Chapter Nine 2

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 9 – page 3


The drawings and photographs of Cowell show him in various costumes: the serious actor’s neat well-cut black suit and waistcoat; the velvet suit with a cap that was his Railway Porter’s costume; tailcoat, cravat, and tall top-hat for Lord Lovell; and the raggedy outfits that belonged to his version of Billy Barlow. He began his Billy Barlow songs with:

Oh! Ladies and gentlemen how do you do?
I’ve come here before you with one boot and one shoe …

These first lines appear in all three of the early Billy Barlow songs that came out of the American publishing houses of Deming in Boston, Osbourne in Philadelphia, and Endicott in New York, and are also the first lines in some of the British broadsides. Cowell was about twelve years old when the first of these was published, but he claimed these lines as his own, or maybe others claimed them for him.

Weary Willie

Billy was only one of Cowell’s characters but, as with George Coppin, Billy was the big favourite with audiences. Cowell’s Billy Barlow must have looked very different from Coppin’s. Sam Cowell had a small, delicate-looking body. His face appears fine-featured, except for his eyes, which are big and soulful. He never seems to be smiling, in the pictures that are available; his expression is either wistful and reflective, or downright miserable, the perfect depiction of the ultimate sad clown. Contemporary accounts of his demeanor off stage and on, however, tell us that he seemed effervescent and gregarious, sometimes to the point of mania. In public he was everybody’s favourite friend. He kept the horrors of alcoholic depression strictly private until the very end.

When you place pictures of Sam Cowell as the sad, ragged clown, or as the poor rat-catcher, beside photographs of modern Hobo Clowns or Tramp Clowns, the similarity is so striking that you wonder where Sam Cowell and Billy Barlow fit into the family tree of these American clown types. Cowell’s flip-lidded, battered top-hat, that he wears as the rat-catcher and — according to author Hugh Anderson — wore as Billy , turns up on many of the 20th-century Hobo or Tramp Clowns, along with the patched suit that has seen better days. How close is the connection between Cowell’s Clown and Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie, or Red Skelton’s Freddie the Freeloader, or Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp?

Was Woden the wandering Shaman/Trickster still in our midst right up until the turn of another century? Did he ride the rails with the hoboes, probing their minds and asking questions? Did he take his character on out of the disappearing music-halls and into the movies? Where is he now ? What name is he using in this, the 21st century?

Sam Cowell may have sung many of his songs in the character of Billy Barlow. The evidence about exactly which ones is circumstantial, but when you look at the occurrences of Billy, in America especially, it appears that a number of them may be linked with Cowell’s songs. It was certainly true that whenever Cowell performed, in whatever guise, his audience shouted for “Billy Barlow!” He must have had to switch characters quickly at times to accommodate their wishes.


A good example of a character song that would have fitted with Cowell’s Billy Barlow is The Rat-catcher’s Daughter. There is a picture on a music-booklet that shows Cowell as the rat-catcher. He is not wearing the overcoat of his Billy Barlow but the outfit is ragged and patched, and his top-hat is battered. He could well have passed for an overcoatless Billy. A quick change of characters from the rat-catcher to Billy would have been easy.

The tune and the words of this nasty little ditty were written by Cowell. It was sung in Cockney dialect and tells the story of a rat-catcher’s “Cupid-netted” daughter, who sells sprats. Her lover is a lily-white sand-seller with a donkey who is presumably smart enough to understand the funny words. The lovers, in their besotted states, mix up their sellers’-cries, and she offers sand while carrying sprats on her head, and he tries to sell rat-catchers’ daughters. The bystanders are puzzled and the donkey laughs. The love-sick couple agree to marry but she has a dream that she is about to die and she does, falling into the water like an early Darlin’ Clementine. He cuts his own throat and stabs the poor little donkey.

The humour has not aged well, but for many years this song was very popular in England and in America. Some singers still perform it, for its quaint Victorian awfulness.








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


NOTE: in order to read the notes please allow pop-ups for this site


This e-book is being made available free of charge but we would welcome a purchase from our shop.