London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Billy Barlow.


BILLY BARLOW," is another supposed comic character, that usually accompanies either the street-dancers or acrobats in their peregrinations. The dress consists of a cocked-hat and red feather, a soldier"s coat (generally a sergeant"s with sash), white trowsers with the legs tucked into Wellington boots, a large tin eyeglass, and an old broken and ragged umbrella. The nose and cheeks are coloured bright red with vermilion. The "comic business" consists of the songs of the "Merry Month of May," and "Billy Barlow," together with a few old conundrums and jokes, and sometimes (where the halfpence are very plentiful) a "comic" dance. The following statement concerning this peculiar means of obtaining a living I had from a man whom I had seen performing in the streets, dressed up for the part, but who came to me so thoroughly altered in appearance that I could hardly recognise him. In plain clothes he had almost a re- spectable appearance, and was remarkably clean and neat in his attire. Altogether, in his undress, he might have been mistaken for a better kind of mechanic. There was a humorous expression, however, about his mouth, and a tendency to grimace, that told the professional buffon. "I go about now as Billy Barlow," he said; "the character of Billy Barlow was originally played at the races by a man who is dead. He was about ten years at the street business, doing nothing else than Billy Barlow in the public thoroughfares, and at fairs and races. He might have made a fortune had he took care on it, sir; but he was a great drunkard, and spent all he got in gin. He died seven years ago—where most of the street-performers ends their days—in the workhouse. He was formerly a potman at some public-house, and got discharged, and then took to singing comic songs about the streets and fairs. The song of "Billy Barlow" (which was very popular then) was among the lot that he sung, and that gave his name. He used to sing, too, the song of "I hope I don"t intrude;" and for that he dressed up as Paul Pry, which is the reason of the old umbrella, the eye-glass, and the white trowsers tucked into the boots, being part of the costume at present. Another of his songs was the "Merry Month of May," or "Follow the Drum;" and for that he put on the soldier"s coat and cocked-hat and feather, which we wears to this day. After this he was called "General Barlow." When he died, one or two took to the same kerachter, and they died in the workhouse, like us all. Two months ago I thought I"d take to it myself, as there was a vacancy in the purfession. I have been for thirty years at the street business, off and on. I am fifty now. I was a muffin and biscuitbaker by trade; but, like the rest on us, I got fond of a roving life. My father was a tailor by trade, but took to being a supernumerary at Covent Garden Theayter, where my uncle was a performer, and when I was nine years old I played the part of the child in "Pizarro," and after that I was one of the devils what danced round my uncle in "Mother Goose." When I was fourteen year old my uncle apprenticed me to the muffin business, and I stuck to it for five years; but when I was out of my time I made up my mind to cut it, and take to performing. First I played clown at a booth, for I had always a taste for the comic after I had played the devil, and danced round my uncle in the Covent-garden pantomime. Some time after that I took to play the drum and pipes; and since then I have been chiefly performing as musicianer to different street exhibitions. When business is bad in the winter or wet weather, I make sweetmeats, and go about the streets and sell them. I never made muffins since I left the business; you see, I"ve no stove nor shop for that, and never had the means of raising them. Sweetmeats takes little capital—toffy, brandy-balls, and Albert rock isn"t expensive to get up. Besides, I"m known well among the children in the streets, and they likes to patronise the purfession for sweetmeats, even though they won"t give nothing while you"re a performing; I"ve done much the same since I took to the Billy Barlow, as I did before at the street business. We all share alike, and that"s what I did as the drum and pipes. I never dress at home. My wife (I"m a married man) knows the part I play. She came to see me once, and laughed at me fit to bust. The landlord nor the fellow-lodgers where I live—I have a room to myself—ain"t aware of what I do; I sneaks my things out, and dresses at a publichouse. It costs us a pot for dressing and a pot for undressing. We has the use of the tap-room for that. I"m like the rest of the world at home—or rather more serious, maybe,—though, thank God, I don"t want for food; things is cheap enough now; and if I can"t get a living at the buffoonery business, why I tries sweetmeats, and between the two I do manage to grab on somehow, and that"s more than many of my purfession can do. My pardner (a street-dancer whom he brought with him) must either dance or starve; and there"s plenty like him in the streets of London. I only know of one other Barlow but me in the business, and he"s only taken to it after me. Some jokes ain"t fit for ladies to listen to, but wot I says is the best-approved jokes—such as has been fashionable for many years, and can"t give no offence to no one. I say to the musician, "Well, master, can you tell me why are the Thames Tunnel and Hungerford Suspension Bridge like two joints badly done?" He"ll say, "No, Mr. Barlow;" and then I give him the answer: "Because one is over-done, and the other is under-done." Then I raise my umbrella, saying, "I think I"m purwided against the weather;" and as the umbrella is all torn and slit, it raises a laugh. Some days I get six shillings or seven shillings as my share; sometimes not a quarter of the money. Perhaps I may average full eighteen shillings a-week in the summer, or more; but not a pound. In the winter, if there"s a subsistence, that"s all. Joking is not natural to me, and I"m a steady man; it"s only in the way of business, and I leave it on one side when I"ve got my private apparel on. I never think of my public character if I can help it, until I get my show-dress on, and I"m glad to get it off at night; and then I think of my home and children, and I struggle hard for them, and feel disgust oft enough at having been a tomfool to street fools.

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 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men