Comedy-drama celebrates a legend of the music hall

The Great Joe Wilson cast (left to right) Jamie Brown, Micky Cochrane and Sarah Boulter. Picture by Scott Akoz.
The Great Joe Wilson cast (left to right) Jamie Brown, Micky Cochrane and Sarah Boulter. Picture by Scott Akoz.

A new comedy-drama is heading for North East theatres, with a dark twist involving Morpeth.

The Great Joe Wilson, The Bard of Tyneside is a factual play by Ed Waugh, charting the life of a concert hall superstar.

Wilson, who was born in Stowell Street, Newcastle, on November 29, 1841, rose to fame via the 2,000-seat Balmbra’s Music Hall in Newcastle’s Bigg Market from December 1864.

By the age of 24 he had become one of the region’s best-loved entertainers and was a huge favourite in Northumberland.

His talent lay in encapsulating an epic story in song, covering such diverse subjects as love, death, strikes and moving house, as well as domestic violence and drunkenness.

Wilson died of TB in 1875, leaving a legacy of some 360 poems and songs, including the classic Keep Your Feet Still Geordie Hinny.

His link to Morpeth came from his marriage to Isabella English, ‘Bella’, in 1869, who was herself a performer, known as ‘Mrs Joe Wilson Tyneside vocalist’.

Bella’s family lived in Morpeth and her father Joseph Milburn was an auctioneer in Chantry Place.

One evening Joseph returned to his Buller’s Green home intoxicated and shot at his wife, Grace English, twice. Thankfully, he missed.

After a struggle with their son Robert, the police were called and Joseph was carted off to Morpeth Police Station in a wheelbarrow.

After an initial hearing at Morpeth Court, his case was transferred to Newcastle Assizes in January, 1879.

He was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude (hard labour) for “unlawfully, maliciously and feloniously shooting with intent to main, disfigure, disable and to do some bodily harm”.

Joseph served his time in Pentonville Prison in London, and Portland Prison, Dorset.

Bella, her three children and Grace emigrated to Canada, landing in Quebec in May 1879.

The fascinating story of Joe Wilson was celebrated at the Morpeth Gathering earlier this year with a talk by Ed Waugh and a performance of Joe Wilson songs by Johnny Handle and Benny Graham.

Audiences can see The Great Joe Wilson as it tours the region next month.

It will be at Darlington Hippodrome on September 7 and 8, the Playhouse Whitley Bay on September 11, Sage Gateshead on September 12, the Alun Armstrong Theatre in Stanley on September 13, and the Westovian Theatre in South Shields on September 14 and 15.

For further details visit www.wisecrackproductions.co.uk