Chapter Six 3
Chapter 6: page 4
In 1895 Coppin chose the beautiful and talented operetta singer and actress, Billie Barlow, as his “Principal Boy” for the Christmas pantomime, The House That Jack Built, that he was presenting in Melbourne. Billie is the only female Billy Barlow on record who was a professional entertainer. She was born Florence Wilton or, by another account, Minnie Barlow. On the advice of W S Gilbert, partner of Arthur Sullivan, she adopted the stage name Billie Barlow. Billie was not quite sixteen in 1878, when she began her career with the London company, Opera Comique, in the chorus of H.M.S. Pinafore. The next year, using the new stage-name Billie Barlow, she played Isabel in a New York production of The Pirates of Penzance.
By 1888, following great success as an operetta star, Billie switched direction and became a music-hall and variety performer. There is no apparent evidence that she identified with Billy Barlow the “low comedian” in any way, except to use his name, but her path led her to the very same audiences. She is remembered most for this part of her career and for her performances in “breeches” parts, particularly in pantomime. Her popular songs were, It’s English, Quite English, You Know and See me Dance the Polka. Billie toured and performed in her home country of England as well as in America, South Africa, and Australia.
Cigarette cards collected from America show her in various cute or demure poses in her colourful costumes. There is no picture of her in a raggedy outfit, which would have been an interesting idea. Her voice can be heard on several early recordings.
Billie Barlow died in 1927.
Over the sixty-three years George Coppin lived in Australia, he founded, in Adelaide and then in Melbourne, many organizations, and established theatres, actually building one theatre. In Melbourne he bought and developed a grand pleasure garden and menagerie, which he named Cremorne Gardens. It was from here that he organized the first balloon-flight in Australia, importing two balloons from England for the purpose. After amazing Melbournians with this wonder, he sent the balloons, and their crew of two, to Sydney for the first flight there. Later he sold Cremorne Gardens and it became Melbourne’s “Lunatic Asylum” — a name still current in the 1950s, when I was a child growing up in Melbourne.
Coppin named and developed the seaside town of Sorrento, where he built his country home. He also named a beautiful little inlet on Victoria’s West coast, Apollo Bay, after his ship, The Apollo. It was Coppin who brought to Australia: the first shipment of ice, the first roller-skates, the first equestrian show, and the first camels.
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He entered — and became active in — politics where he championed the cause of the common man, and always proudly gave his occupation as “comedian”. He made and lost several fortunes. All the while, Billy Barlow was with him, making comments on current events, satirizing the attitudes of the pompous toffs of the establishment, and sympathizing with the workers and ordinary people. On one occasion in Melbourne the Billy Barlow tune was played in Coppin’s honour by a brass band, with a special arrangement for solo trombone.
George Coppin never did really say goodbye to his loveable alter-ego Billy Barlow. He was forever giving farewell performances of him, which the public refused to accept as final. They were always ready and eager to join him in a chorus of:
Hey Ho Raggedy Oh!
You’ve got to keep going with Billy Barlow.
– George Coppin
According to Coppin’s biographer, Billy’s last official appearance within the body of George Coppin was in 1881. Here Coppin gave out autographed photographs of himself in his various costumes. It’s said that these photographs turn up from time to time as rare items in collections of memorabilia.
I live in hope!
There was another public performance by Coppin in 1901.
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It is not noted whether this included an appearance of Billy Barlow, but there is a good chance that it did.
It’s certain that in 1906, in Melbourne, Australia,
this manifestation of Billy Barlow died along with the great George Selth Coppin.
IN THIS SECTION:
HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:
A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)
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