Monday, February 14, 2011

The story of Whistling Billy

The tin whistle was invented in 1843 by Robert Clark, an English farm labourer. He sold his instruments by touring round local markets making his instruments at his stall and playing tunes himself as a demonstration. The tin whistle (or penny whistle) became very popular with the poor because it was an instrument they could afford (costing much less than a penny - the first ones were a quarter of a penny). Some people found that they could earn some money from busking. One of the finest exponents was "Whistling Billy" of London who was interviewed by Henry Moore for his 1861 book London Labour and the Poor:

When I goes into the public-houses, part of my performance is to play the whistle up my nose. I don't do it in the streets, because if I did there'd be thousands looking at me, and then the police would make a row. Last night I did it. I only pitched at one place, and did my night's work right off. I took 4s 3 1/2d and lots of beer in an hour, from the cabbies and the people and all. At last the police told me to move on. When I plays the whistle up my nose, I puts the end of it in my nostril, and blows down it. I can do that just as easy as with my mouth, only not as loud. I do it as a variety, first in my mouth, then in my nose, and then back again in my mouth. It makes the people laugh. I've got a cold now, so I can't do it so well as at times, but I'll let you see what it is like.

You can read the full story here in Google Books.


  1. Hi Gordon
    "The tin whistle was invented in 1843 by Robert Clark..." ?
    Perhaps that should be:
    "The CLARK tin whistle was invented in 1843 by Robert Clark..."
    Clark might have been responsible for the rise in popularity of the tin whistle, due to his intensive marketing of his own design, but the tin whistle seems to have existed for many years prior to Clarks invention, with references (albeit of a less than flattering nature) even making it into literary works.
    Here's a quote from an 1825 work:
    Brother Jonathan: or, The New Englanders, Volume 1 - By John Neal.
    Chapter IV

    “... As for Mr Archer, I have no patience with him. He uses big words; and reads the superb language of Job, with his little voice, very much as if he were sounding a charge, with a tin-whistle, or a twopenny trumpet.”

    - James

  2. I think that reference is to a whistle made of tin, not a musical instrument. A "two penny trumpet" was not a trumpet, but a trumpet shaped toy often won at fairs. I could be wrong, but that is the most likely meaning. The flageolet existed before Clark, but not made from tin. I have never seen a pre Clark tin whistle, but I have seen many pre Clark wooden flageolets which suggests that his story of copying a flageolet in tin plate is likely correct.

  3. Yes, of course it COULD be possible that John Neal was not referring to the instrument when he used the phrase "tin whistle"...

    but what about the phrase "penny whistle"?

    Here is an extract from Walter Scott's "Rob Roy" (1817):
    “Do you not know”, she said, with some surprise, “our motto – the Vernon motto, where, 'Like the solemn vice iniquity
    We moralise two meanings in one word'
    “And do you not know our cognisance, the pipes?” pointing to the armorial bearings sculptured on the oaken scutcheon, around which the legend was displayed.

    “Pipes! - they look more like penny-whistles - But pray, do not be angry with my ignorance...”

    Again, I suppose it COULD be possible that Scott was not referring to the instrument, however ...

  4. Interesting quote, but a penny was a lot of money in 1817. If someone can find a pre Clark whistle that would settle it.