Playwright Ed Waugh tells of the Victorian showman who is the star of his newest play which receives its world premiere at Darlington Hippodrome next week

JOE WILSON is arguably the greatest-ever North East singer/songwriter!

The word "arguably" is a proviso because there are the likes of Lindisfarne's Alan Hull and a host of other renowned wordsmiths from the area, like Sting, Chris Rea, Mark Knopfler and Alex Glasgow, but what can't be argued against is that Joe Wilson belongs in the same category as these internationally renowned names.

Next week, my new play about his life is premiered at the Darlington Hippodrome, which was a town that Joe knew well.

He was born in Newcastle in 1841, and made his professional debut in a one-off gig at Pelton in December 1864. A few weeks later he played Balmbras in Newcastle's Bigg Market, the region's most famous concert hall, and became an overnight sensation, aged only 23!

A three-month residency at Balmbra's followed and then, through word of mouth, he was in huge demand throughout the North-East.

For the next seven years, Wilson topped the bill wherever there were theatres – and many held from 1,000 to 4,000 people.

He managed Watson’s Cambridge Music Hall and Theatre Royal in Spennymoor for two months in 1871, before moving to Carlisle to run the Prince’s Concert Hall – he wrote a song, The Miseries o’ Shiftin, to commemorate his uprooting.

He returned to Tyneside in 1873 to run the Royal Adelaide Hotel, a pub next to Manors Metro Station. The drunkenness and the violence that he witnessed in the Adelaide turned him teetotal, a theme that he regularly turned to in his songwriting.

He played at the Royal Music Hall in Bishop Auckland, and even went out to Brotton on the east Cleveland coast to play the Cleveland Hall and Theatre of Varieties.

In Darlington, The Era stage magazine reported that "the house has been crowded", and at the Royal Star Theatre of Varieties in Bishop Street, Stockton, it said in August 1874 that he was given a “reception of the heartiest kind”. As this theatre only opened on August 14, 1874, it is possible that Joe topped the bill on its opening night.

He wrote and sang about working class life, his lyrics having a strong narrative and well defined characters. His songs range from comedy, like Geordie Haad The Bairn, in which he celebrated women, to lost love, Gallowgate Lad, and gossips, Keep't Dark.

He also had a very serious edge. He penned a number of songs in support of, and performed benefits for, the strikers at Armstrong's factory on the Tyne and engineers in Sunderland, in 1871, as they campaigned for a nine-hour working day.

He also railed against domestic violence, in Hannah's Black Eye, and alcohol abuse, in Murder Throo Drink: The Gallows.

His popular tunes were sung in the street, concert halls, pubs and even schools, and today his songs are still recorded. The Unthanks recorded Gallowgate Lad in 2011 while Keep Your Feet Still, Geordie Hinny has been covered dozens of times over the past 100 years.

And his story has just been told in a new book by Dave Harker – Gallowgate Lad. Joe Wilson's Life & Songs – on which the play is based.

But what makes his story so dramatic is that aged 32, in 1873, at the height of his fame, he contracted tuberculosis. He embarked on a greatest hits tour across the region, with his illness getting worse almost by the night. People flocked to see him, and his condition intensified the pathos of his songs.

His last ever performances were back at the Royal Star Theatre in Stockton in September 1874, where the proprietor, Alderman Thomas Nelson, asked him to sing The Time Me Fethor Wes Bad every night.

After his last night on September 4, he returned to his home in Railway Street, Newcastle, behind Central Station, where he lived with his wife, Bella, and their son, Joseph, who was born in 1870.

Joe died there, in poverty, on February 12, 1875, aged only 33. He was buried in Jesmond Old Cemetery in Newcastle and such was his family’s lack of funds that he didn’t received a headstone until 1890.

"It's really sad to see his decline but it makes for tremendous drama," says Lynda Winstanley, director of the Hippodrome where the show is premiered from next Thursday to Saturday. "Like Ned Corvan and Geordie Ridley before Joe, they were also superstars who died in poverty. This is what make's Joe's life story such wonderful theatre.

"The great thing is Joe wrote around 360 songs and poems. His story is entertaining, funny, sad and, ultimately, uplifting because of the tremendous songs he left behind. Anyone with an interest in North-East music, history and theatre should not miss this fantastic play."

The Great Joe Wilson will receive its world premiere at Darlington Hippodrome from Thursday, September 6 to Saturday, September 8, before going on tour: Playhouse Whitley Bay (Sept 11), Sage Gateshead (Sept 12), Alun Armstrong Theatre (formerly Stanley Civic Hall) (Sept 13) and the Westovian Theatre, South Shields (Sept 14 and 15).

Tickets for the Darlington show started at £12. For further details visit or call 01325-405405.

BLOB Ed Waugh’s previous plays include Dirty Dusting, Alf Ramsay Knew My Grandfather and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Durham.

THE new book about Joe Wilson contains a letter he wrote on March 22, 1874, from the Gaiety Theatre in West Hartlepool to friends complaining that the refreshment seller at the theatre wanted too large a commission for selling his songbooks during the interval.

He finished his letter by saying: “I do not intend to give in or I will make nothing, so I will keep them and try them at some other place.

“I go to Darlington on Easter Monday, and I cannot tell exactly when I will get home.”

In the spring of 1874, Darlington didn’t have a permanent theatre as its first theatre, the Theatre Royal in Northgate had been demolished in 1873.

The Royal had opened in 1865 near the Cocker Beck, and was renowned as a very rough and ready venue. Its walls were unplastered and undecorated, and as it had no ventilation, the patrons were crammed onto wooden benches in a fetid atmosphere.

They didn’t always sit still. On one occasion, the gallery became so uproarious that the theatre manager – James MacDonald, who was starring in the production as a Scotsman dressed in a kilt – jumped off the stage mid-scene, climbed into the gods with his kilt flapping, ejected the troublemakers, restored order and then got back on with the show.

Because of its basic facilities, the Theatre Royal closed just before Christmas 1868 and was demolished. In 1881, a new, more comfortable Theatre Royal was built on its site, and that building is now home to the small cinema.

Into the gap left by the closure of the Royal rode Frederick Allen’s Excelsior Circus. He came from Gateshead with his wife, Mary Jane, the daughter of a Morpeth postman, and their four young sons, who all starred in their Christmas 1873 panto, Harlequin Tom Tally Ho!

They put on this show in a tent pitched on the Green Tree Fields behind Skinnergate.

The Allens were all accomplished horse riders, and they performed daring bareback stunts, somersaulting around the ring.

However, Mary Jane fell ill with bronchitis and died aged 32 on February 19, 1874.

"Much sympathy is expressed for Mr Allen who during his stay in Darlington has conducted his establishment most respectably," said the Darlington & Stockton Times.

She is buried in West Cemetery beneath a flamboyant monument which once was topped off by a performing stone stallion – however, over time, his legs have dropped off, although the last time we looked, you could still definitely tell that he was a stallion.

But the show must always go on, and despite the death of his wife, Frederick barely shut the tent, which he grandly called Allen’s Excelsior Amphitheatre and Temple of Varieties.

One of his first bookings after the funeral was Joe Wilson, who he advertised in the Darlington & Stockton Times as “the Great Tyneside Bard and Vocalist”.

Joe appeared was top of the bill above Janet Richards, “the popular serio-comic and ballad vocalist”, and Richard Hales, a “characteristic and comic vocalist”.

Frederick also advertised that “the circus is brilliantly lighted, warm and comfortable, being well aired with fires”.

Joe, who was himself suffering from TB, was booked for six nights and, with Darlington in carnival mood over the Easter holidays, the D&S the following week noted that he “obtained loud applause for some songs in the north country dialect”.

The paper said: “This popular vocalist took his benefit last night, and was well supported.”

Once Joe had moved on, the Excelsior didn’t last long in Darlington and Frederick moved his equestrian skills on elsewhere, but until 1956, every year on the anniversary of Mary Jane’s untimely death, flowers were left at her West Cemetery grave, perhaps by one of her sons.

THE stories of Joe Wilson and Mary Jane Allen give us a fascinating opportunity to peer back into the early days of music hall theatre. On Tuesday evening, Chris Lloyd, who compiles these notes, will be leading a guided walk around some of the early theatrical locations in Darlington town centre, accompanied by Dave Myers, who will play a couple of Joe Wilson’s songs as the walk unwinds.

The walk will conclude at the Hippodrome, where members of the Joe Wilson cast will be on hand, and where an exhibition about his life is being planned.

The walk will assemble at 6.45pm for a 7pm start on the Green Tree corner of Skinnergate and Blackwellgate – where Joe Wilson himself must have stood prior to his appearance in the tent theatre nearly 150 years ago.