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.

  • For details of Chris Lloyd's walk, see bottom of article.

“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.

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.

BEING a thespian in those days was dangerous. On April 6, 1874 – the day Joe Wilson started his run in Darlington – The Northern Echo reported that comedian John Lisle had taken to the stage drunk at Willington Theatre. His co-star, John Watson, "remonstrated with him on playing his part so ignobly and thus bringing the profession into bad odour". The two comedians had a struggle in the dressing room and Watson was stabbed four times. The stage manager, Mr Hayward, was also wounded, and Lisle was apprehended by a police officer with a double-bladed, blood-stained pocket knife in his possession.

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.