Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Tell me the tales that to me were so dear
Long, long ago. Long, long ago
Sing me the songs I delighted to hear
Long long ago. Long ago.

                         Thomas Haynes Bayly


My Dear Billy Barlow,

the Raggedy Clown, wandered into my life about three years ago, although I’ve known about Billy Barlow the Rat-Hunter for about forty years. On the surface, Billy Barlow, in both of these manifestations, is a fairly ordinary sort of a character, but I can spot the Shape-Changer. That ability is part of the Gift bequeathed to me by my special grandmother. The Gift is not to do with being good or clever, nor is it controllable. There’s more to it than that, but it’s enough for now.
Anyway, the more I found out about Billy Barlow, the more interesting he became to me.

Also, I started to find him Everywhere

His friends and acquaintances were old friends of mine too, friends I’d come to know from the old songs and stories that have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Finding references to Billy Barlow’s name was the starting point for many a journey into the world of the 19th century. I found the Street-People of Victorian London, whose stories were recorded, in their own words, by Henry Mayhew. There was Billy Barlow, right there among them, singing his songs, dancing and clowning for a few pennies. Around him were the flower-sellers, the rat-catcher, the man who swept a crossing, the exhibitor of a dancing bear, the hundreds and hundreds of poor workers who were to keep reappearing as I explored Billy’s world.

I kept thinking about Darwin’s descriptions of Galapagos finches. London’s poor workers were so specialized that the street-clown who impersonated, say, Jack Pudding * did not do Silly Billy or Billy Barlow, — not until that niche was empty, anyway. The man who collected dog droppings left the horse manure for another worker. The rat-catcher, who knew everything about his prey, down to the minutest detail, hunted only rats. This did not mean that performers did not play all sorts of roles when they found work acting in the penny theatres. It was just that on the streets there was a strict code of practice.

Next, I searched the world of 19th-century theatre, from the early music-halls and taverns to the stages of the “legitimate theatre”. Billy Barlow was everywhere there, although he was considered to be suitable fare for only the lower classes. Some of the 19th century’s biggest stars sang his songs, and played his character, from time to time. For two actors — the great Sam Cowell and the equally great George Coppin (the “Father of Australian Theatre”) — Billy Barlow was the most popular character they played. He was impersonated by both of these actors from the beginnings of their respective adult stage careers until their respective deaths. Billy Barlow may have been played by Jack Reeve for all of his stage life too, but I can’t confirm that.

Reeve died young — in 1836 — before Billy Barlow became really popular.
He may have been the very first Billy Barlow! — but I can’t confirm that either.
In London, Billy Barlow undoubtedly rubbed shoulders with: Charles Dickens, Henry Irving, Bram Stoker, Thomas Moore, Edmund Keen, William Blake, and Charles Dibdin and his sons, to name just a few. He performed for Queen Victoria many times.

In America he met everyone in the acting world and a great many of the prominent citizens, including President Lincoln. He fought with the Union in the Civil War.

In Australia, Billy Barlow was associated with the theatre from the early days, mainly because of George Coppin. It was here that he met and influenced James Tucker, the convict writer. He also met most actors and actresses who toured Australia in the 19th century, including Lola Montez and Gustavus Vaughan Brooke.

Robert “Billy” Barlow, the England-born Minstrel, also left behind a few tantalizing clues about his life as an Australian performer in the 19th century. I took many a wonderful side-trip into the world of the 19th-century printers of the broadside ballads. Billy Barlow has his roots — or some of them — here. I especially liked Jemmy Catnach, the printer who made famous the “Goodnight Ballads”. Other paths led me to showboats, brass bands, clown-types, ballooning, American Civil War sabres, Barlow knives, Great Dismal Swamp, and musical instruments made of stone.

I asked everyone: new friends, old friends, and perfect strangers,
“Do you know Billy Barlow?”

Everyone has heard of him, but no one remembers who he was. One elderly ex-soldier told me, “Well the name is familiar, but he wasn’t in my regiment”. Another new friend sang me a little piece of a Billy Barlow song. I never did find where it fitted into the Billy Barlow story. I had other friends play me the Billy Barlow tune and give me their opinions about it. I had them experiment with different sounds on different instruments. I made contact with people on the Internet who had connections with a Billy Barlow. I shared their stories, and became friends with people I will probably never see.

This book is the result of a Quest to find Billy Barlow — in his many manifestations, and a compulsion to sort out the tangle he has left behind. It is not, for all my searching, the end of his story.

With Fondest Regards,
Joy Hildebrand 2003


* Jack Pudding is the English form of a European Clown-family of Food Clowns. Relatives are:

  • Jean Potage from France
  • Macaroni from Italy
  • Hanswurst from Germany
  • Pickelhering from The Netherlands.




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

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