James Joseph Magennis VC Frances Elizabeth Clarke Stewart Parker Samuel Beckett Sam Hanna Bell William Carleton John Hewitt Rosamond Praegar Bernard (Barney) Hughes

William John Ashcroft (1840 - 1918):
Entertainer - Music Hall star


William John Ashcroft was born in 1840 in Rhode Island, USA. Ashcroft’s parents had emigrated from Belfast and he always wanted to live there. After a successful career as singer, comedian and dancer on the stage in America, he married the English actress Kitty Brooks and moved to England where his career flourished.

According to Irish music hall historians Eugene Watters and Matthew Murtagh - "The image of the Irish in popular entertainment was in greater need of revision in Britain than it was in America. Music hall audiences were evidently fascinated by Ashcroft's self-confident, ‘elevated’ Irish Yank, so different from the typical English stage Irishman or the ape-like Paddies in the cartoons in Punch. Ashcroft's Irish Song-and-Dance characterisations from the raw New World went well in London, and he played leading Halls to crowded Houses.  In 1876, he had a huge success with 'Muldoon the Solid Man'."

Ashcroft became famous for his rendition of this song, which was a version of a New York hit from the 1874 musical Who Owns the Clothesline.

According to McFetridge, Ashcroft portrayed Muldoon the Solid Man - "in top hat, mutton chops, whiskers, white vest and frock coat – the self made, flamboyant Irishman man who had made it good - bluff, honest, generous and proud of it.  And it made such an impression both in Europe and America that he was always referred to as ‘The Solid Man’.”
 
Ashcroft built his stage character around the song, which became enshrined in the annals of music hall and was even referenced in James Joyce's Finnegan’s Wake - "from Pat Mullen, Tom Mallon, Dan Meldon, Don Maldon a slickstick picnic made in Moate by Muldoons. The solid man saved by his sillied woman. Crackajolking away like a hearse on fire."
 
During a tour of Belfast in 1879, he bought the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties in Lower North Street.  Local historian, Stewart McFetridge, describes the theatre as - "without parallel in its day, and most of the headliners in the music hall spectrum trod its boards."
 
Performers included Charles Coborn, Dan Leno, Harry Lauder, Vesta Tilley, Marie Loftus and Charles Spencer Chaplin Sr (the father of Charlie Chaplin).
 
Jim McDowell, in his history of Belfast music halls and early theatre, says - "Willie John was an extremely talented Irish-American who also visited the music hall circuit on the British mainland. He featured as ‘Muldoon, the Solid Man’, and had a turbulent, at times scandalous, private life, which seemed to endear him to Belfast audiences, lived as it was in the public eye.  Brawls and punch-ups were commonplace, yet for over thirty years his career flourished."
 
Ashcroft had another big success with McNamara's Band, a song written especially for him by John Stamford, the stage manager of the Alhambra who may also have written other songs for him.
 
Competition from the Grand Opera House and other theatres in Belfast and the emergence of the ‘moving pictures’ led to a reduction in box office receipts at the Alhambra during the 1890s. Ashcroft’s music hall career diminished after 1900 when separated from his wife and suffering from poor mental health, he was forced to sell the Alhambra. However he continued to perform and undertook a number of tours in Britain before his health failed.
 
Benefit performances for ‘the Solid Man’ were held in Dublin and Glasgow but Ashcroft never recovered and he died in January 1918 in Belfast's Purdysburn Asylum.  He is buried in Belfast City cemetery.
 
 The Alhambra was demolished in 1959 following a fire.

 




Born: 1840
Died: January 1918
Ulster History Circle
References:

McFetridge, Stewart, Overture & Beginners Please:  A peek at Belfast’s old music halls and theatres (Abbey Publications,2004), p55.
Watters, Eugene and Murtagh Matthew, Infinite Variety: Dan Lowrey's Music Hall (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1975).
Joyce, James, Finnegan’s Wake (New York: Viking, 1959), Penguin edition, p94.
McDowell, Jim. Beyond the Footlights. A History of Belfast Music Halls and Early Theatre.  Nonsuch publishing, Dublin (2007).  p34