The Solid Man – The Life and Times of Willie John Ashcroft (1840-1918)
Now largely forgotten, the story of William John Ashcroft is worth recalling in the history of comedy in Northern Ireland. Ashcroft was the outstanding ‘Irish’ comedian of his generation and a much loved performer who had a pervasive impact on the representation of Irish people in British popular culture.
Born in 1840 in Rhode Island, USA, Ashcroft was a talented singer, comedian and dancer, who bought the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties in Lower North Street, Belfast in 1879. Ashcroft’s parents had emigrated from Belfast to the States and he had always retained an ambition to live in Belfast. After a successful career on the stage in America, he married the English actress Kitty Brooks, and relocated to England where he achieved even greater fame and fortune. With the proceeds of his success, on a whim, he purchased the first music hall in Belfast, the Alhambra, when he and his wife visited the city during a tour in August 1879.
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.”
Such performers included, for example, Charles Coborn, Dan Leno, Harry Lauder, Vesta Tilley, Charlie Chaplin’s father and Marie Loftus, to name but a few.
JC Beckett also notes:
“Entertainment at the Alhambra did not lack variety, and on occasion included dipping small boys in barrels of tar for sixpences, or racing through hot apple dumplings with their hands tied behind their backs for similar prizes.”
Ashcroft and his wife quickly transformed the theatre and his routines attracted huge audiences. 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 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 Solid Man’ 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.”
Jim McDowell, in his history of Belfast music halls and early theatre, states:
“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. Stamford may also have written other songs for Willie John, including the very popular ‘The Brick Came Down’ and ‘The Old Familiar Faces’.
With competition from the Empire Theatre and the Grand Opera House and the emergence of the ‘moving pictures’, box office receipts at his theatre fell 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. He had attempted suicide in the theatre in 1895 following his involvement in a scandalous court case. Nevertheless he continued to perform and undertook a number of tours in Britain before his health failed.
The distinguished actor, Bransby Williams, said of Ashcroft, when seen in his later years:
“He has lost nothing. Whatever he might have been years earlier, he was still to me one of the greatest artists I have seen in fifty years and I have seen a few…He was a genius.”
Benefit performances for ‘the Solid Man’ were held in Dublin and Glasgow but Ashcroft never recovered and he ended his days in January 1918 in Belfast's Purdysburn Asylum. He is buried in Belfast City cemetery. His famous theatre, the Alhambra, was demolished in 1959 following a fire.
In an obituary published by Ireland’s Saturday Night under the headline “Passing of Ireland’s Greatest Comedian”, the funeral of Willie John Ashcroft was reported as follows:
“The coffin was borne by relays of bearers and the funeral cortege proceeded along High Street en route to the City Cemetery. Right away from the church in Royal Avenue the sidepaths were thronged with crowds of citizens, and the long journey was marked by many public tokens of bereavement…. Many also were present who knew the famous comedian more by his theatrical eminence than his personal attributes, and thousands too, were there who had been thrilled by his pathos or moved to laughter by the never-to-be forgotten agency of his wonderful genius…And now, ‘Willie John’ a fond adieu! You with your happy smile, your lithe foot, your merry wit, your ever-open countenance and kindly feeling for everybody – farewell! The writer knows what everybody who ever knew you would like to say, and he expresses it for them – GOOD NIGHT, ‘WILLIE’ ASHCROFT, YOU WERE A SOLID MAN.”
 McFetridge, Stewart, Overture & Beginners Please: A peek at Belfast’s old music halls and theatres (Abbey Publications,2004), p55.
 Beckett, JC, et al. Belfast and the Making of the City. (Appletree Press Ltd 2005)
 Watters, Eugene and Murtagh Matthew, Infinite Variety: Dan Lowrey's Music Hall (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1975).
 Op Cit 1, p75.
 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
 Op Cit 1 p80
 Ireland’s Saturday Night, 5 January 1918. p2