By Jingo:
The Great MacDermott

AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES

PUBLISHED: 15 SEPTEMBER 2019

Sheet music sheet for ‘Just Fancy You’ve Had it Before’. Howard & Co. c.19th century. V & A.

The story of a little boy named John Farrell, who was badly beaten by his teacher, William Weale, was told in a previous article. Weale’s future career proved easy to track: he became an authority on Flemish art, a published author and Keeper of the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Finding out what happened to the boy has been more difficult, for newspaper reports of the case provide little information about him or his family. All that is known is that at the time of the beating in June 1851 John Farrell was six years old — so he was probably born in 1845 — and that his parents were Roman Catholic Irish immigrants living at 4 Elder Walk in Islington. No other identifying information is given.

I looked in the 1851 census, which was conducted a few months before the beating, for John Farrells born in 1845 to Irish immigrant parents living in Islington. The only candidate was the son of a Patrick and Mary Farrell, who lived on the opposite side of the Islington Road. Although I cannot say that this John is definitely ‘my’ John, I would ask you to take a leap of faith with me to see what became of a boy born into a life of poverty who died a rich and famous man.

Mac by any other name

John James Farrell was born on 27 February 1845 to parents who were originally from Galway in Ireland. After an education at the Roman Catholic poor school, where he encountered Weale, John is said to have started work selling The Islington Gazette before joining the navy for nine years, probably from the age of twelve to twenty-one. In the navy he took part in onboard entertainments and decided to make this his career.

On his 1866 marriage certificate he is described as a dramatist, and from that point on he started using different names both on and off stage. These included ‘Gilbert Hastings’, ‘John MacDermott’ — MacDermott being his mother’s maiden name — ‘G. H. MacDermott’, ‘Gilbert Hastings MacDermott’, ‘The MacDermott’, ‘The Great MacDermott’ and ‘Mac’. From now on I will refer to him as Mac.

In the early 1870s Mac worked as an actor and was associated with the Grecian Theatre, which was on the corner of Shepherdess Walk and City Road in Shoreditch, not far from where he boarded with his wife. He supplemented his earnings by writing plays. One of his successful enterprises was an 1872 adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the unfinished novel Dickens was writing at his death in 1870.

John James Farrell aka Gilbert Hastings MacDermott. Late 19th century. V & A.

The Scamp

Mac found fame and fortune as a music hall lion comique — the well-dressed man about town, the swaggering swell singing songs full of double-entrendres. In 1874 he achieved success singing The Scamp, which was written by Henry Pettitt:

Oh, if there was ever a scamp
I flatter myself I am he
From William the Norman
To Brigham the Mormon
They can’t hold a candle to me.

Other ‘scamps’ referred to in the song are Arthur Orton — butcher-turned-Tichborne Claimant — and the fratricidal Cain. In the lines quoted above the American Mormon leader Brigham Young is paired with George Odger, who was a prominent trade unionist, and the implied insult infuriated Odger’s son, John.

John Odger actually took the matter to court, winning a judgement that forced Mac to alter the lyrics. However, this did nothing to hinder his growing fame. Even so he admitted that he suffered from stage fright whenever he had to perform at a new venue. He would calm himself with a glass of champagne, perhaps identifying with the ‘Champagne Charlie’ in George Leybourne’s famous song.

By Jingo

Mac had married a Mary Ann Stradwick, and in 1874 they became parents to a son, whose full name was John James Maximilian Farrell. The following year Mac went to New York for about nine months, although I am not sure if his family accompanied him or stayed behind. On his return he had more success with the song Hildebrandt Montrose:

His name is Hildebrandt Montrose,
Some folks they call him Charley;
In his buttonhole he wears a rose,
He can “Francais vooley parley!”

His hair in auburn ringlets;
His eyes an azure dark;
The girls they call him Birdie
Like the swallows in the Park.

This was followed by his most celebrated song, which was known as both MacDermott’s War Song and By Jingo:

We don’t want to fight but by jingo, if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too
We’ve fought the Bear before and while we’re Britons true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.

With Russia about to invade Turkey and threatening British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean, the War Song had more impact on audiences than any other music hall number. Mac nightly whipped up such strong patriotic feelings at the London Pavilion that army recruitment officers were dotted among the audience, watching out for the most fervent young nationalists.

Sheet music sheet for ‘Mind the Paint’. Hopwood & Crew c.19th century. V & A.

Up and down

Mac was living the high life on a salary of twenty-five pounds a week — up from six pounds and well over a thousand in today’s money — and performing in front of the Prince of Wales. Meanwhile his wife Mary Ann had come down in the world.

In May 1879 she came before the courts, charged with stealing two petticoats from the laundry where she was employed as an ironer. It was revealed that she and Mac had separated owing to her drunken habits, although he continued to give her a weekly allowance. She admitted that it was drink that had led her to steal the undergarments., and she was sentenced to one month’s hard labour.

In trouble again

Three months after she left jail, on Monday 12 September, Mary Ann and a fellow laundress, Sarah Pessey, were wandering down Fonthill Road in Holloway at about eight in the evening. Mary Ann lived around the corner in Campbell Road, a street of poor lodging houses and furnished rooms.

The two companions, somewhat the worse for drink, were misbehaving and using obscene language. When a Police Constable Marks tried to intervene, Mary Ann assaulted him. This time the court fined her ten shillings, which for a laundress was probably about a week’s wages.

The following February, in 1880, Mary Ann made a third court appearance, where she was again under the spotlight as the estranged wife of a well-known comic singer. Now she was charged with stealing and pawning blankets and a quilt from her lodgings at 260 City Road. The police had apprehended her in Covent Garden, where she was waiting for Mac to receive her weekly allowance. Even though she was in the early stages of pregnancy, she was sentenced to three months hard labour.

Public wash house. Jules Férat / Louis Figuier Les Merveilles de l’Industrie volume 3 1873.

Starkly different

In the autumn she gave birth to a child, Matilda Farrell. In spite of the shared ‘Farrell’ Mac refused to recognise Matilda, and it was probably at this point that he stopped supporting Mary Ann, who was bringing his name into disrepute. For the next thirty years, and until her death, Mary Ann was regularly in and out of the workhouse, which suggests that she was unable to find employment or support herself in any other way.

The differences in their circumstances are starkly illustrated by the entries in the 1881 census. Mary Ann and Matilda were in the Holborn workhouse, not far from the Grecian Theatre. Mac, who now went by the name of Gilbert Hastings MacDermott, was lodging at 142 York Road in Lambeth at the centre of the music hall community.

In the 1880s he earned between twelve and fifteen hundred pounds a year, which these days would be in the region of a hundred thousand. Some of these earnings paid for his son John to attend a boarding school in Edmonton, where at the age of seven he was by far the youngest boarder.

Goodbye Mary Ann

In about 1883, during a run at the London Pavilion, Mac began a relationship with an Annie Milburn. He was thirty-eight and she was seventeen. She was of theatrical stock and had been on the stage ever since she debuted at the age of fourteen at the Sunderland Music Hall, which was run by her father, J. H. Milburn. She had four children with Mac: Edward John, Gilbert Hastings, Annie Louise and James Patrick. They were never able to marry, although it would appear that there were grounds for divorce on both sides.

In 1885 Mary Ann had another illegitimate child, Florence Farrell, who lived for barely a year. There is no suggestion that she had a permanent partner at the time, so it is possible that she was forced into prostitution, like many women in poverty. In the same year Mac went bankrupt. He had lost money in property speculation and by his own admission had thrown away thousands of pounds on the horses, but with his prodigious talent he was able to build up another fortune. His latest hit — Charlie Dilke spilt the milk — was a scurrilous song about a member of parliament who had been named in a divorce case.

Poster for ‘Charles Dilke’. Charles Sheard c.1886. National Portrait Gallery.

And goodbye Mac

At the time of the 1891 census he was living with Annie and their family and two servants in Cowley Road in Brixton. He then became a theatrical agent and in 1894 left the stage to manage music halls — the Hoxton Theatre of Varieties, Foresters Music Hall and others. His final appointment, in 1899, was as Director of the South London Palace of Varieties in Elephant and Castle.

Mac died of cancer on 8 May 1901 at his home at 240 Clapham Road. He was only fifty-six. Six days later he was buried in West Norwood cemetery. His oak coffin, fitted with resplendent brass masonic handles, was pulled in a glass-panelled hearse by four horses. The great and the good of the music hall attended the funeral, which was conducted by the Theophilus Dunkley I wrote about in an earlier article.

Entrance to West Norwood Cemetery. Postcard late 19th / early 20th century.

A nasty surprise

Annie’s burden of sorrow can only have been made heavier when it was revealed in Mac’s published will that they had never married and that their children were all illegitimate. But for all that he had provided well for her and for her children and for his son John James Maximilian, leaving them over thirteen thousand pounds, which in today’s money would weigh in at over one and a half million.

As for Mary Ann, she outlived Mac by seven years, dying in the Holborn workhouse in 1908. She would appear to have left nothing.

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