When an Irish Tenor met Billy-in-the-Bowl

The meeting occurred at the ‘Stanley Arms’, Holyhead in 1818. This is not the present Stanley Arms at the bottom of Market Hill, but the ‘Eagle and Child’ hotel built by the Stanley family in about 1770. Later named the ‘Royal Hotel’, the building is now known as Victoria Terrace and is adjacent to the Cenotaph at the entrance to the town centre. In 1818 the hotel was run by Thomas Spencer, who came to Holyhead from Parkgate, nr. Chester in 1808.

The Royal Hotel, Holyhead (known in 1818 as the Stanley Arms)
 The Irish Tenor was Michael Kelly, who was born in Dublin in 1762. He was very famous in his day and regarded as one of the finest tenors of the period. He was also an actor and composer and worked alongside well known London theatre producers such as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was a friend and contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and worked with other famous composers such as Salieri.

Michael Kelly – operatic tenor, actor and composer.

Michael Kelly was not a well man. He suffered badly with gout. He was in Holyhead whilst on the way to Dublin to progress a lawsuit against a Mr. Hime, who was accused of pirating and publishing a number of his compositions. The following is Michael Kelly’s own account of the time he spent at Thomas Spencer’s hotel and his meeting with Billy-in-the-Bowl. Through this he clearly saw an example of the saying ‘Beauty being in the eye of the Beholder’.

“There was, about this time, a law-suit to come on, in Dublin, in which I was subpoenaed, against a Mr. Hime, a music-seller in Dublin, who had pirated and published a number of my compositions. I was labouring under severe illness at the time, however, I had promised to go, let the consequence be what it might. On the 13th July, I left Tavistock Row for Dublin, in a travelling-carriage, in company with Mrs. Horrebow, Mr. Addison, and Henry Horrebow. I travelled slowly, and by short stages, (still being very ill,) and on the seventh day, reached Holyhead, and put up at the Stanley Arms, kept by Mr. Spenser, from whom, and his family, I received the greatest possible attention.
I remained nine weeks in his house, as I was unable to cross the sea, I was told, without the risk of my life. While I was there, a little fellow, a great ally of mine, called upon me every morning. In his person he verified the old adage, that every eye forms its own beauty. This said droll little fellow, surnamed, by the inhabitants of Holyhead, “Billy-in-the-bowl,” though a dwarf, having lost both his legs, or rather, never having had any, went crawling about, literally seated in a bowl-dish; yet, in spite of his deformities, he captivated the heart of a beautiful Welch girl, who would have him for better for worse.
Her father, a wealthy farmer, offered to give her a good fortune, and a young and handsome man for her husband; but no she would have Billy-in-the-bowl. She bore him two fine boys, and is, I am told, even now, very jealous of him.
On the 25th of August, being somewhat restored to health, though still afflicted with the gout, and unable to venture on a sea voyage, I quitted Holyhead for the Earl of Guilford’s seat, Wroxton Abbey”.

Holyhead Poet and Performer, Gillian Brownson, describes the story in poetry https://portspastpresent.eu/items/show/650

Ref. Reminiscences of Michael Kelly: Of the King’s Theatre,  Page 309 …, Volume 2

Michael Kelly died at Margate in 1826, aged 64.

‘The Royal Hotel’ – Footnotes.
The first inn built on the site was;-
‘Plas Glan y Mor’ followed by:-
‘Plas Newydd’ followed  by :-
‘The Eagle and Child’ followed by:-
‘The Royal Hotel’ followed by
‘The Railway Hotel’.
Over the years, among other names, the inn was colloquially known as :-
‘The English House’, ‘Jacksons’, ‘Spencers’ and ‘The Bird and Bantling’.

The old elaborate ‘Eagle and Child’ signpost remained outside the hotel throughout the time it was both the Royal and Railway Hotel and beyond. Also etched into the glass window was the following inscription.

“In questa Cassa troverte,
Tout de bon on pieut souhaiter,
Vinum bonum, Pisces Carnes,
Coaches, Chaises, Horses Harness.”

The Translation reads:-

“In this house you will find,
Everything good one could wish for,
Good wine, Fish Game,
Coaches, Chairs (presumably sedan chairs) Horses Harness”.

Contributed by Peter Scott Roberts.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum

2 thoughts on “When an Irish Tenor met Billy-in-the-Bowl

  1. Edwyn April 5, 2020 / 9:37 pm

    Another fascinating bot of the towns history, thanks for the contribution Peter.


  2. gvan April 6, 2020 / 8:07 am

    Another part of the history of this town not known to many as to how many have passed through this town and due weather conditions had to wait until it improved. Once again a nice short story reduced to become a blog. Well done once again


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