Published on September 4, 2018 | by Alastair Gilmour1
Follow the Gallowgate lad
North East pubs were the making of a Tyneside legend
Like many entertainers today, Joe Wilson spent much of his professional working life in drinking establishments. It’s where most learn their trade and in Joe’s case and that of Ned Corvan (the region’s first music-hall superstar), where they regularly stared death in the face, both eventually contracting tuberculosis due to the close proximity of “the great unwashed” audience and their airborne bacteria.
Joe Wilson was born in 1841 in Stowell Street in Gallowgate, Newcastle, opposite the Northumberland Arms pub (now Rosie’s Bar). He wrote around 360 songs in his brief existence – he died in 1875 aged 33 – and deservedly earned the accolade The Bard of Tyneside. I mean, how can you not admire a bloke who wrote a song called (When I Marry) The Landlord’s Daughter?”
A chronicler of working class life, he wrote about day-to-day subjects like romance and lost love but he wasn’t averse to tackling grittier issues such as domestic violence, poverty and drunkenness. He also wrote songs for, and performed in support of, striking engineering workers. A star throughout the North East, he is buried in Jesmond Old Cemetery, where people still gather to sing his most famous songs Keep Your Feet Still Geordie Hinny, Gallowgate Lad and Sally Wheatley.
A new play The Great Joe Wilson is written by South Shields-based playwright and former Vaux Breweries publicist Ed Waugh is touring the North East this month. Ed has had hit plays with Mr Corvan’s Music Hall which toured the region to great acclaim last year, and Hadaway Harry which also played London in 2017 and sold out Newcastle Theatre Royal where it received standing ovations. Both Ned Corvan and Harry Clasper – the subjects of these remarkable plays – were pub landlords. (There seems to be a theme emerging in Waugh’s writing!)
Ed Waugh says: “Joe Wilson was up there with the great singer-songwriters and like Dylan, Weller and Alan Hull he could encapsulate a brilliant story in a few verses. Working class people wanted a good night out and Joe, who sang in the Tyneside vernacular, spoke to them directly. His songs combined humour and emotion. People bought his songsheets and sang in pubs and on the streets.
“His work is magnificent and we’re delighted to have songs for the show whereby Pete Scott and Alex Glasgow have put fantastic tunes to Joe’s words.”
The Great Joe Wilson drama revolves around his rise and tragic fall but, like everything Ed Waugh writes, you can guarantee he has inserted large quantities of comedy to match the pathos.
“It’s funny and sad but ultimately a tremendously uplifting story,” he says. “Joe Wilson became the region’s undisputed concert-hall superstar after the deaths of Geordie Ridley in 1864 and Ned Corvan in 1865 and, after a three-month residency at the 2,000-capacity Oxford (Balmbras Music Hall) in Newcastle’s Bigg Market, he was soon in demand throughout the region’s burgeoning new venues, topping the bill in Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre plus in Sunderland, Stockton, Middlesbrough and Darlington.”
Trained as a printer, Joe Wilson initially produced his lyrics above his sister’s pub, the Travellers Rest on Marlbrough Crescent (opposite today’s Centre for Life). Eventually marrying and settling down, he performed at the 2,000-capacity Alhambra in South Shields (next to The Steamboat) in 1869, where he was also stage manager, but the venture was doomed to failure as the owner – a Mr Siddall – refused to allow alcoholic drinks to be taken into the auditorium. His next ports of call were theatres in Spennymoor and Carlisle.
Ed Waugh says: “Thanks to Dave Harker’s excellent book The Gallowgate Lad: Joe Wilson’s Songs and Life, we have been able to follow him from cradle to grave. In December 1871 Joe and his wife Isabella returned to Newcastle to run The Adelaide pub in New Bridge Street but it was such an experience it turned him teetotal. Sadly, his life spiralled into hardship. To pay back debts he lost control of his copyrights and ended up in poverty, living behind Newcastle Central Station.
“He continued to perform even though TB was ravaging his body. His life may have ended tragically young, but he left a magnificent legacy – work that is inspirational and still stands up to this day, 150 years later.”