Chapter Thirteen

Hey Ho Raggedy-O

CHAPTER 13:    I’ll Bid You Goodnight, Says Billy Barlow

Death of the Great Sam Cowell – Many Billy Barlows in Name. Billy Barlow – The Song – After 1865. Billy Barlow – The Character – After 1865 – Some Conclusions – Some Answers – April Fools’ Day – The End of One Story


The Death Sam Cowell

Well before the end of the American Civil War, one of the greatest of all the Billy Barlows was dead.
Sam Cowell died in England in 1864, just a year after his return from his American tour. Alcoholism and consumption caused the death of this brilliant performer, the first and one of the greatest of the music-hall stars.

Sam Cowell

Until the end, he was drawn, as he had always been, to the stage, adapting his characters to his ravaged body. His makeup became more and more bizarre as he accentuated the dark shadows under his eyes and the hollows in his cheeks.

As a poor and dying beggar, his act became a sinister Dance of Death, his audiences witnessing all but the very last deadly embrace. He should have died on stage. He should have had one last thunderous standing ovation, but that’s not how it happened. Sam Cowell died in a lodging house at Blanford. Thankfully, at least he was not alone in his room, but in the parlour, with a few loyal friends and his devoted wife, Emilie. He had been carried downstairs in an armchair, awaåy from the fiends that threatened him when he was alone and closed in. The demons of alcoholism were familiar enemies.

His last words were, “Safe! Safe!”

A benefit was held for his destitute wife and family — in honour of the man who had been at one time the most highly-paid performer in the British Isles. Many old friends came to sing their favourite pieces. The Billy Barlow song is not listed among the offerings, although at least two other singers of Billy Barlow songs, John Lawrence Toole and John Sims Reeves, were there. Reeves sang Come into the Garden Maud, and Toole performed An ‘orrible Tale, a piece for which both he and Cowell are remembered.

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If anyone sang Billy Barlow as a tribute to Sam Cowell it was not noted.

In America, maybe in part because of the timing of his tour, Cowell’s Billy Barlow did not die along with his creator. The tour came at a time when a character like the innocent and cheerful Billy easily found his way into the hearts of fearful men. He did begin to slowly fade, however, as though his spirit lived on in more and more translucent form, until now nobody remembers the raggedy clown, although they may say, as they do also in Australia,
“Billy Barlow? I’ve heard that name.”

If I’m right about the origin of the American Hobo Clown — if he really did begin life as Sam Cowell’s Billy Barlow — then Billy lives on now, under new and various titles.

Name-Shifter where once he was Shape-Shifter.


The Name – Billy Barlow – After 1865

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, after the end of the Civil War, the name Billy Barlow popped up from time to time in America, sometimes connected with the entertainment business, and sometimes not. In the British Isles and Australia, the name seems to have always been more likely to have been used on stage or in street theatre. Elsewhere, there were a few examples of the use of the name. It occurs less frequently everywhere in the world in the 20th century. Certainly men named William Barlow were, and still are, known as Billy. This does not explain the many examples of men whose family name is Barlow, but who were not officially named William, who were known as “Billy” Barlow. I have found no evidence that any of these references include men who also took on the character of Billy Barlow, but equally, there is no evidence that they didn’t. Many of them do appear to have been eccentrics of some sort.

There is for example:

1869. Silk Merchant Billy Barlow
In the Vital Statistics from The British Columbian 1866-69, an entry appears as follows:
” Died at Victoria (BC), Dec. 18, 1869, Samuel, alias ‘Billy’ Barlow, n/o Poland and was once an extensive dry goods dealer in Sacramento, CA…although those who knew him here would scarcely imagine that he ever sold laces and silks.”


I’ll buy you ribbons Lass, and I’ll buy you rings
I’ll buy you a necklace of amber-o
I’ll buy you silken petticoats with flounces to the knee
If you’ll just come down to my chamber-o.
            From Maid of Fyfe ~ Scottish Traditional.


1900. Barloworld Billy Barlow

A big and still expanding multi-national corporation, calling itself Barloworld, and now involved in everything from mining to manufacture of a wide range of goods, began life as a company selling woolen articles in South Africa. It was founded as an independent branch of an English family business in 1900. Its founder was known as Major Ernest (Billy) Barlow.


Was he always known as Billy Barlow? Was the name acquired in England or South Africa? Billy Barlow was still well-known in both places when the Major was young. Touring players, George Coppin and Robert “Billy” Barlow among them, had made Cape Town part of their circuit.

1919. Little Billy Barlow

Walter Clyde Barlow, who lived in Northeast Missouri during the early part of the 20th century, told his family that, “… when he was little he was called Little Billy because he tagged along after Big Billy”.
Could it be that both Little Billy and Big Billy were nicknamed Billy Barlow after the well-known character?
The other question raised here is: was there a popular song around at this time that has some connection with the nick-naming of Little Billy — a song that seems to have been forgotten, except for a small fragment, remembered by Frank Drinkwater who lives in the town of Forbes in New South Wales, Australia? The fragment is:

Little Billy Barlow what shall I do?
Little Billy Barlow what shall you say?





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

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