W.G. Ross is Shirlie’s great great grandfather on her father’s mother’s side (that is, Shirlie’s grandmother’s grandfather) and Shirlie was named after him with her middle name Ross. A Scotsman from Glasgow, Ross made his name in London in the 1840s and 1850s as a celebrated concert singer. Described as ‘the greatest dramatic humorist of the day, who holds the highest place in the estimation of the London public’, his greatest success was his rendering of his own composition ‘Sam Hall’, a grisly ballad of a chimney-sweep condemned to hang at Tyburn gallows for his crimes. Ross’s realistic and powerful performance apparently drew in huge crowds for ten years to the infamous London Cyder Cellars and the Coal Hole, Dr. Johnson’s Tavern and Vauxhall Gardens, even causing novelist Thackeray to include a characterisation of Ross singing it in his novel ‘Pendennis’. Amazingly, the song survived into the next century to be recorded in a country version by Johnny Cash plus a more authentic music hall version by former Fairport Convention singer Richard Thompson and even by Peter Sellers in character as Ross for a BBC Old Time Music Hall tv show.
“Oh my name is Sam Hall, chimney sweep
Oh my name is Sam Hall chimney sweep
My name is Sam Hall, I have robbed both great and small
And now I pay for all – damn my eyes!”
Chance Newton’s book ‘Idols of the Halls’ has a whole section on ‘Ross the Renowned but Rowdy’ referring to him as ‘that really comic comic singer and splendid character actor… bringing down the house as he always did with his drolleries’. Ross created his own material and Newton describes seeing him perform ‘a remarkably clever, brilliantly-written burlesque medley in which he impersonated Richard the Third. I have a vivid recollection of Ross’s mock Crookback King and his alternatively humorous and intense outbursts of Shakespearean snippets, sandwiched with little parodies of popular songs and ballads.’
Like so many performers of his time, Ross’s huge popularity dwindled and the one-time star of the music halls died in poverty and obscurity. In fact, Shirlie knew nothing about him until her brother Martin was researching into family history, finally discovering his grave in Kensal Green cemetery, north London, marked ‘W.G.Ross – singer’.
For Shirlie, knowing who she is named after has also helped explain her fascination with writing and performing, not least the comedy songs which keep popping up here and there in her repertoire. She also discovered that Ross lived most of his life in a house not ten minutes’ walk away from where she was based for many years in London.