CHAPTER 2:Ladies and Gentlemen How Do You Do
First Billy Barlow Clowns of the 19th Century – Henry Mayhew’s Billy Barlow – Clowns – Pantomime – Mother Goose – An Earlier Street-Clown Billy Barlow
Oh ladies and gentlemen how do you do?
I’ve come out before you with one boot and one shoe.
I don’t know how ’tis, but somehow ’tis so.
Oh! isn’t it hard upon Billy Barlow?
Henry Mayhew’s Billy Barlow & A Brief History of Clowns.
The street-clown Billy Barlow was well established by the time Henry Mayhew made his study of the poor “street-folk” of London. This study, with its detailed interviews, uncensored and faithfully recorded, was published in 1861 in four volumes under the title of London Labour and the London Poor. Within Mayhew’s work there are long lists of goods sold, descriptions of people and animals, and all the sounds, smells, and sights of Victorian London. The interviews are full of the weariness and pain of soul-destroying poverty, but also with glimpses of cheerful fun, love,
and loyalty among the street actors and singers. There is the whole script of the Punch and Judy Show, along with stock jokes and the routines of the many different types of street performer. Henry Mayhew’s scientific approach is similar to that of a botanist, except that his specimens still seem alive, fresh, and colourful, even after being pressed in the pages of his books for over a hundred years.
His actual interviews are not dated, but it was between 1840 and 1860 that he spent his days out on the street with his pen and paper, writing down the stories told to him by the poorest members of society. It was here that he met and interviewed a Billy Barlow street-clown. Mayhew places Billy Barlow, Jim Crow and others — as Clowns under a sub-heading of The Street Actors. This sub-heading is itself placed under the main heading of Street-Performers, Artists and Showmen.
Mayhew saw his Billy performing on the street, and he describes the act as the singing of the songs, “The Merry Month of May, and Billy Barlow along with a few old conundrums and jokes and sometimes where the halfpence are plentiful a comic dance.”
Other street-singers told Mayhew that they sang all the popular songs of the time, and many older ones. Thomas Haynes Bayly’s macabre tragedy, The Mistletoe Bough was a great favourite, especially at Christmas time.
The mistletoe hung in the castle hall
The holly branch bright on the old oaken wall
The baron’s retainers were bright and gay
Keeping the Christmas holiday.
Oh! The mistletoe bough! Oh! the mistletoe bough!
[Thomas Haynes Bayly]
Mayhew’s Street-Billy wore an outfit that consisted of a soldier’s jacket with a sash, white trousers tucked into Wellington boots, and a cocked-hat decorated with a red feather. He carried an old and broken ragged umbrella and a large tin eye-glass. His cheeks and nose were painted bright red with vermilion, which was the makeup of the poor clown. Another street-clown told Mayhew about the use of white-wash on the face to highlight the red vermilion, and it’s possible that Billy used this too, although Mayhew doesn’t tell us. The tin eye-glass was a prop for portraying the character Paul Pry who came out of a play popular in London from the 1820s.
It’s almost certain that Mayhew’s Billy had put his own stamp on the character of Billy Barlow. That has come to be the way of the Clown. Each clown-face is distinct from every other clown-face. The differences may be as subtle as that between the exact curve of a spangled tear on one sad white face and another. As bold as a red grin that spreads from ear to ear compared with tiny rosebud lips. Costume changes are certain to have been made by this Billy. He said that he played the fife and drum before he took up his current role. The soldier’s uniform may have been a carry-over from his former act. Most of the Billy Barlow songs have the “Oh dear raggedy Oh!” refrain suggesting that ragged clothes are his usual costume.
IN THIS SECTION:
HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:
A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)
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