Chapter Thirteen 4
Chapter 13 – page 5
The Character – Billy Barlow After 1865
Evidence of the use of the costume, the makeup, the persona, and the name of Billy Barlow, the ragged clown, after this date, may lie buried in the diaries, memoirs, and letters of 19th-century actors and singers. George Coppin’s last performance, in 1901, probably included his Billy Barlow. Sam Cowell played him during his American tour in 1860-1862, and probably continued as Billy after returning to England, shortly before his death in 1864. John Lawrence Toole performed up until 1896, but it is not recorded when he played Billy Barlow for the last time. He did play Billy in Australia in the 1890s. There is no evidence that Robert “Billy” Barlow actually sang Billy’s song, or dressed in Billy’s outfit, after his early performances in London in the late 1830s and the 1840s.
There will probably never be any way of testing the theory already mentioned, about the migration of the character Billy Barlow into the bodies of the American Hobo and Tramp Clowns. These clowns are said to have come out of the depression of the 1930s. They became well-known stage and film characters after this time. With their female equivalent, the Bag-lady Clown, they remain as one of the main clown-types. If this is the place where Billy Barlow came to rest he did not take with him his name or his song.
George Coppin is on record as having continued to play Billy Barlow, in character, until about 1901. It is my opinion that he was the last complete Billy Barlow.
The trinity of Name, Character and Song.
He was also one of the first.
The life of his Billy Barlow dates from before 1841 in England to about 1901 in Melbourne, Australia.
Conclusions and Some Answers
My soul-mate, who was at first my teacher of song accompaniment, taught me to always go back to the source before finding my own interpretation of a song.
Back to the source! has become my mantra for studies beyond the singing of songs, and echoes in my ears whenever I contemplate the Billy Barlow phenomenon. This has meant searching out pictures, sheet-music, and first-hand accounts that date from the time when Billy Barlow existed in the flesh, and comparing them with the legends he might have left behind. I think I always knew that I might never find the first Billy Barlow. He always skips off into the more and more distant past when it seems sure that I have found him. Still, it’s been the characters, including the many versions of Billy, that I’ve met along the way who have come to be the real prizes of the Quest.
Somewhere there was once, and may still be, the answer to the question:
Who was the first Billy Barlow?
For now, I can only wonder which one among the hundreds of comedians, who performed during the earliest years of the 19th century, started the Billy Barlow phenomenon. There is a formidable list of possibilities, for instance, the comic and serio-comic actors of London street-characters: Frederick Robson, Robert Keeley, Charles Mathews and his son Charles James Mathews, William Henry Liston, Edward Wright, James Munyard, Billy Rogers, John B. Buckstone, and John Pritt Harley, to name just a few. So far, I have not found any records of these actors performing as Billy Barlow, but the possibility is there. John Reeve is a good candidate. He was “a funny little fat chap”, and he certainly sang the Billy Barlow song in America in 1835. He performed as a member of The Adelphi Theatre Company in London from 1819. He was at least among the first of the Billy Barlows.
The Adelphi Theatre may well hold the clue to Billy Barlow’s origins. Its name comes up in connection with many of the men closely associated with him. There was also James Catnach, the printer of Billy Barlow broadsides and of several stories based on Adelphi plays. Among the tangle of characters and actors from those same plays, Jemmy Green, a character in the Adelphi play, Life in London, found a namesake in a character who is clearly Billy Barlow, in the convict-written Australian play Jemmy Green in Australia. Several characters out of Adelphi plays are mentioned in Billy Barlow songs. None of these connections are particularly surprising when you look at the whole picture of Victorian society, but they are intriguing all the same.
At the end of this journey into the world of Billy Barlow, there are some points about him that can be confidently claimed as facts. There are many more that may be less confidently noted, and still more that are studied guesses. There are questions, some of them key ones, to which I have not yet found answers. For some questions it may always remain so, no matter how many faded old books of reminiscences are found, or how many dusty theatre-bills turn up in library collections. The way has been a tangle of false trails and true deviations, dead ends and parallel paths. A linear progression through man-made time has not been possible. There are surely avenues as yet unexplored. There are side trails that lead to interesting but unconnected worlds, peopled by real and imagined beings. Time to ruminate a while. Time to reflect on the journey. Time to try to tie together some of the aspects of the Billy Barlow phenomenon.
IN THIS SECTION:
HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:
A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)
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