Chapter Seven 1

Hey Ho Raggedy-O

Chapter 7 – page 2

From 1847, for the next ten years, there are frequent references to Barlow as “The American Barlow”. These come from English and Australian newspapers. The implication is that he toured in America between 1845 and 1847 and returned as a minstrel with a new act and a new popular song as his signature piece. Did he add the title, “American”, in the sense that he was “American” by conquest? This idea comes from classical times. Nineteenth-century audiences understood such references.

In 1848 there are two news items mentioning Barlow’s performances. One is at the Star Assembly Room, Oxford, where, “Trenkly, Moody and Barlow, were the life of the party” at a concert given by a Mr Matthews, a local violinist. (Jane’s relative?). There is mention of Barlow’s “nigger effusions”. The other performance is at Tenby Theatre Royal where Barlow’s “clever eccentricities” were included in a program of plays. Appearing in London the same year, at Vauxhall Gardens was, “a new group of Ethiopian Serenaders, brought over by Pell, the celebrated ‘Bones’ of the St James Theatre…”.

Gilbert Pell (born Gilbert Ward Pelham) was the leader of a minstrel troupe that had great success in America and the British Isles. They played long seasons in London and Edinburgh during the 1840s and 1850s. Pell called his troupe The Ethiopian Serenaders. Barlow and Ledger are not among the five minstrels who usually formed this troupe, as we see them on many covers of sheet-music, but they briefly teamed up with Pell in 1857. This was during a tour of England that took place after the Barlows had settled in Australia. Gil Pell, a minstrel called Ledger, and Barlow were billed as, “The Original Ethiopian Serenaders”. This is a curious name. Could it be that Barlow was in fact an early member of Pell’s troupe? And Ledger too? Barlow was in the same places as Pell in England, Scotland, and America, during the 1840s.

In late 1852 until early 1853, Barlow appears on newspaper advertisements as a member of “Rowe’s American Circus”. That he has a contract of some sort with Rowe is implied by another advertisement where he appears at The Mechanics Institution in Melbourne. Here he is “the celebrated Ethiopian Singer, by kind permission of Mr J. A. Rowe”.

Barlow is playing the rock harmonicon and also singing a “popular ballad” with Rainer’s Ethiopian Serenaders. J. C Rainer, leader of this group, was to settle in Central Victoria as licensee of the Theatre Royal in Castlemaine. Barlow was to appear with Rainer on several occasions during the 1860s. Both men were accomplished singers and musicians.

It may have been the discovery of gold in Central Victoria that lured Robert Barlow there. He was to be among the first gold-seekers on at least three rushes. The pot of gold always eluded him, however, and he made and lost several fortunes during his long life. In 1855 Barlow was appearing in theatres on the Victorian goldfields. He was still using the title “American Barlow”.

By 1857 he had settled as a farmer in Central Victoria. Until 1865 he performed here and in Melbourne. The towns of Ballarat, Creswick, Clunes, Lamplough, Mamsbury, and Castlemaine are all mentioned in his advertisements, which he wrote himself. The Star Concert Hall in Ballarat, Rainer’s Theatre Royal in Castlemaine, The Kangaroo Theatre and the Theatre Royal in Lamplough, Rosekilly’s Lyceum Theater in Creswick, The Kent Hotel in Clunes, and The Albert Hotel in Castlemaine all featured him. As well, he performed in smaller venues all over Central Victoria.

An advertisement in the Mount Alexander Mail, on the 10th of February 1857, for a performance at Lamplough’s Kangaroo Theatre, still calls him “The Inimitable American Barlow”. The advertisement says he is a “Negro delineator” and that he plays American-style banjo. He is performing alone.


In his book, Some Yankies on the Central Goldfields, Raymond Bradfield, in the entry for Robert Barlow, states that:
” ….he (Robert Barlow) collaborated with William Rainer, a vocalist, who had a highly successful Nigger Minstrel group, whilst Rainer had the licence for the Theatre Royal, Castlemaine.”

There is no date mentioned and no reference given. Barlow is presented as an American. “William Rainer” is probably J. C. Rainer. The author of this book did not have the current material available to him and it was a modest little publication. Bradfield must have used local newspapers in its preparation. I am indebted to him for starting me off on this whole journey into the world of all the Billy Barlows.

In May, 1857 Barlow returned to England via India and China. As already noted, in England he teamed up with the well-known Gilbert Pell for at least part of this tour. American-born Pell had settled in England. Barlow briefly toured in New Zealand around the same time as this, leaving there the memory of a loved performer who was to be enthusiastically welcomed back several times.

In the early months of 1861 he performed in China with Lewis’ Australian Hippodrome. The article tells us that Lewis’ company had been there before, in December of 1859. Barlow may well have been with them on this occasion too. He was fascinated by exotic places, and he’d already toured there in 1857. During the tour of 1861, General Gordon gave the performers “safe passage to the front”. Afterwards, there was a shipwreck. I have not been able to find an account of this tragedy. I know about it only from Jane’s 1907 obituary in the Gympie Times. The article says that the Barlows lost “the whole of their valuable effects”. There is no mention of a circus. Perhaps it’s better that way. Tragedy enough that Robert and Jane lost everything. Perhaps they’d left the circus by then.

The dancing horses — perhaps they were safe.

After his tour in 1857, Barlow seems to have dropped the title, “American Barlow”. Over the next decade he added more characters to his performances. Many were based on his observations as he travelled the world. He also added more songs, dances, and instrumental works on more instruments. More and more, he sang his own songs and played his own compositions. He began to perform what he called “Entertainments”. These were short pieces involving monologues, anecdotes, songs, dances, and instrumental pieces. He changed costumes and makeup for each one.








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


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