There is no better way to introduce this study than to begin with an article from the Cornwall Chronicle in Launceston, Tasmania. It was published on February the 9th 1867. Reading it makes me wonder anew why this man was so completely forgotten. He doesn't appear in any book about London's music-halls, theatres, or circuses. He is only briefly mentioned in a few small publications in Australia. There are no photographs of him that I can find.
I should make the point that this article was written when Barlow was in the middle of his performing life. He went on to become even more popular and more highly skilled in his art for thirty years more. His performances spanned over sixty years. It is high time this little Lancashire man with the big voice and the enormous energy found a place in the history of performance art.
"THEATRE ROYAL (Launceston, Tasmania.)
Every evening since the appearance of the inimitable Barlow the Theatre Royal has been crowded in the pit, and there has been a fair
attendance in the dress circle and upper boxes..."
Here there is mention of the champion roller-skater, Adolphus Frederick Spiller, who was employed by Barlow for the season. (See: Individuals with Connections to Barlow.)
"The whole of their 'business' -- as it is professionally called -- is novel -- thoroughly new in this colony. Whoever heard so powerful and musical a voice, or one so easily modulated to range between jollity and sentimentality, as the voice of Barlow? Every audience he attracts contains some one, two, or three, who have been delighted with the humours of Barlow in London, and who are astonished to find him here as juvenile, and more effective than when they considered him perfection in the old country. Here Barlow has had so wide a range of the chief cities of the gold fields, and has been so highly appreciated and extolled; has written and sung so many good things, in connection with the digging interest, that he is idolised in Victoria. He has only to make the announcement that he intends to appear at Bendigo, Ballaarat or elsewhere, to secure a full house. He was the first professional gentleman who had the courage to speculate in a Theatre for the diggings, and the 'old identity' have not forgotten him. Barlow is identified with the progress of Victoria, and the historian who suppresses his adventures on the diggings, and takes to small talk about the career of John O'Shanassey, Gavin Duffy, John Thomas Smith, and such small deer, need never expect to become an Australian Gibbon. Barlow is an Australian institution. His usual opening song, 'The Men of Merry England,' is a sterling piece whether spoken or sung. There is strength, power, pathos, and British stamina in every line of it, and each of these attributes is enhanced by the spirited rendering of Barlow. What he undertakes he carries forward with a wit which brings the sympathies of his audience with him. He is a great actor, a great artist, and why? Because he is as natural and earnest as a child..."
(Ref: Tasmania's Cornwall Chronicle February the 9th 1867)
My interest in Barlow began in 1999. I had just found a small book in Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia, called: Some Yankies on the Central Goldfields, by Raymond A. Bradfield. There was a short paragraph about Billy Barlow, who was a performer on the Central Victorian Goldfields. I thought I'd found the origin of the song, Let's go a-huntin', Says Billy Barlow. I knew this song to be American. I thought I'd settle the whole thing in a week or two. I began seeking Billy Barlow in old books in my collection, and in libraries, about performers and songs. Almost at once I began to find hundreds of different Billy Barlows, mostly from the 19th century. I moved on to old newspapers in the State Library in Melbourne. This meant leaving home in the early morning to catch a country train, a few hours of research, and another long trip that ended back at home late at night. I was obsessed. The internet was a new tool for research then, but I found it could be a good starting point.
I quickly discovered that my Castlemaine Billy Barlow was in fact an Englishman who sometimes called himself American. It was a publicity idea. He was, among many other things, a black-face minstrel who played a minstrel banjo. I put him to one side and began piecing together the huge puzzle that was Billy Barlow.
In 2003 I put all I'd found together and came up with a book I called, Hey Ho Raggedy-O, a Study of The Billy Barlow Phenomenon. I printed and bound it, at home, and gave copies to friends. I sent a copy to Warren Fahey, who had a Billy Barlow song on his website, and immediately received back a single exclamation, "Bloody Hell!". Subsequently he presented my study on his Australian Folklore site as an
e-book. Valda Low did the hard work of turning it into an internet publication.
Now Warren continues to seek out the many Billy Barlow songs while Valda and I immerse ourselves in the 19th-century world of performers. Thanks to Trove in Australia, and Papers Past in New Zealand, I now no longer have to make so many long trips to view old newspapers.
It's time to return to my first Billy Barlow. I came to realize that he doesn't fit into the Billy Barlow phenomenon at all. He was born with the name, and he very occasionally sang a Billy Barlow song, but that was all. He was, however, one of the most popular entertainers in Australia and, before 1852, also in England. His career spanned almost seventy years. He was a skilled musician, singer, dancer, and clown. Barlow has mostly been ignored since his death in 1907. It's time his story was told. Valda Low and I present it as a data-base rather than a book. The information is ideally suited to this format. There will be additions to this work as more information becomes available. Particularly we both yearn for a photograph of him, or a chance to view a portrait of him painted in 1854 by James Anderson. This painting has vanished. It may be in a collection somewhere in Melbourne or Sydney. We also wonder about the attack by pirates and the shipwreck off Taiwan in 1863, that the Barlows survived. There are other gaps in Barlow's story. Not too many now, though.
There are also some Side Stories, as Valda calls them. Most, but not all, are the stories of performers who were somehow associated with Barlow. Forgotten stories that deserve to be remembered.
Here begins all I know about the INIMITABLE BARLOW.
Valda and I believe Barlow was christened William Robert Barlow, although no birth certificate or christening certificate has yet been found.
Barlow used the name Robert Barlow on official documents. It is the name on his marriage and death certificates and on some letters to newspapers.
Otherwise, he used:
W. R. Barlow.
The Inimitable Barlow.
The Blue-tailed Fly.
The Inimitable Blue-tailed Fly.
Often he called himself just BARLOW.
I believe that he mostly avoided the name Billy Barlow because of its over-use after that character became so popular. One of Barlow's friends, writing to a newspaper long after Barlow's death, also believed this.
Other Barlows easily confused with the Barlow of this study:
1. Many hundreds of performers, from 1820s on, did "Billy Barlow" songs and acts all over the British Isles, in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, America, and Canada.
The well-known George Coppin was performing as the character "Billy Barlow" in some of the same locations as Our Barlow, in Melbourne, in Central Victoria, in Adelaide, and in Sydney.
The name Billy Barlow was commonly used for race-horses and dogs as well as for people.
Billy Barlow was used as a generic name for a certain type of personality. Many 19-century literary sources note this use of the name.
In Victoria, Australia, Peter Daffy remembers the phrase:
"He's a bit of a Billy Barlow".
This was still used on the horse-racing scene, in Victoria's Western District, in the second half of the 20th century.
Further reading: Hey-ho Raggedy-o / a Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon, by Joy Hildebrand. (link on Home Page)
2. A Reverend Robert Barlow was living in Melbourne in the 1850s. Well-known and loved, he worked with the poor in Fitzroy. He was an amateur singer of parlour songs. His wife, Mrs Robert Barlow, is often mentioned in connection with benevolent work in Melbourne.
3. Barlow's Circus, also called "Barlow's Troupe" or "Barlow's Canidrome", was a husband-and-wife team with trained monkeys, dogs, and ponies. They performed in New Zealand and Australia at some of the same times as Our Barlow. In Victoria, Australia, this was in: Melbourne, Central Victoria, Gippsland, and Portland.
I think Mr Barlow may also be the performer with the monkeys and ponies performing at the Bristol Circus Royal in April 1852.
Like Barlow, they also lost everything in a shipwreck (off Manila).
4. Barlow's Minstrels, in America, were Milt Barlow and his brothers. They are not connected with Our Barlow.
5. The female singer calling herself Billie Barlow was not related, the comment in a letter to the Argus in 1941 notwithstanding.
Barlow's only child was his adopted daughter Jane Margaret Drummond Barlow.
6. There was a Robert Barlow living in Clyde, New Zealand, at the time of our Barlow's visits there. He was not related.
7. William Barlow the equestrian with Lewis's Circus and later Burton's Circus is a different man. He was in China with Lewis at least twice.
8. Walhalla Brothers and Barlow's Circus. I believe this was the Mr Barlow with the ponies, dogs and monkeys.
Valda Low came into this project at the point where Warren Fahey wanted to put my book Hey Ho Raggedy-O on his website. She did all the hard work in converting it to an online book. It looks just beautiful. To read and download it, use the link on the Home Page. After this I decided to expand the section about William Robert "Billy" Barlow. This man deserved a study of his own.
For the last few years Valda has joined me in my quest to find all I can about Barlow. It's been a wonderful adventure. We've lost track of who found what. We've become a great team. I sorted the information, put this study together, and wrote the text. My dear friend, I thank you for your help, support, and unflagging interest.
My true-love, Hildebrand, proof-read everything. He has listened to my endless stories about Barlow and given valuable insights, especially about music and song. Also about classical references and historical events.
John Black, descendant of Barlow's adopted daughter, contributed information about the Black Family. He also contributed copies of family memorabilia and some newspaper articles we had missed. Also information about Barlow's residence in Malmsbury.
Pam McGoldrick found information about Barlow's wife Jane and the Barlow marriage certificate.
Rachael Harrison at the Gympie Library was so helpful in my early search for Barlow. I thank her for the information she provided.
In the early days my dear friend Fay Pasky (deceased) spent hours of her holiday time at the Gympie Library copying newspaper articles and advertisements about Barlow.
Marlene Greiner, who is the great-great-great granddaughter of the subject of one of Barlow's songs, told me Tommy Best's story and contributed her family story about him. You can read and download by clicking here-Tom Best and His Coffin
The articles and advertisements from the Gympie Times were accessed from the Gympie Library.
The newspaper articles and advertisements from Central Victoria were accessed from the State Library in Melbourne.
Other Australian newspaper articles and advertisements were accessed online from Trove.
The newspaper articles and advertisements from New Zealand were accessed online from Papers Past.
Information about the origins of the songs Barlow sang came from various books in my private library. With the exception of the songs Barlow wrote most of them can now be easily found online.
Other references are noted in the text.
For more about minstrelsy in the 19th century the following books are excellent:
Bean, Annemarie, et al., ed., Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy. Hanover, NH, USA, 1996.
Brown, Thomas Allston, History of the American Stage: Containing Biographical Sketches of Nearly Every Member of the Profession that has Appeared on the American Stage from 1733 to 1870. Recently published photocopied facsimile of original published in New York, NY, USA, 1870.
Kilgarriff, Michael , Sing Us One of the Old Songs. A guide to popular song 1860-1920. Oxford, England, 1988. An invaluable
source of titles, writers, artists, publishers, and dates.
Koon, Helene Wickham, Gold Rush Performers: A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Musicians, Circus Performers and Minstrel Players in
America's Far West, 1848-1869. Jefferson, NC, USA, 1994.
Lhamon, W.T., Jr., Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass., USA, 2003.
Rice, Edward Le Roy, Monarchs of Minstrelsy, from "Daddy" Rice to Date. Recently published photocopied facsimile of original published in New York, NY, USA, 1910.
Slout, William L., ed.,Burnt Cork and Tambourines: A Source Book for Negro Minstrelsy, USA, 2007. This is a re-publishing of a number of key articles originally published by various writers, most notably T.A. Brown, before 1918. Slout - at an unspecified date - apparently only gathered them together for this volume.
Paskman, Dailey, "Gentlemen, be Seated!" A Parade of the American Minstrels, New York, NY, USA, 1976.