'Bravery and courage': Fred Barnes plaque unveiled in Maida Vale

British Music Hall Society

The British Music Hall Society awarded gay music hall icon Fred Barnes a blue plaque in Maida Vale. - Credit: John McKenzie

From far down the street, the piano resonates as cheerful voices accompanied popular music hall tunes.

In Maida Vale, a crowd slowly gathers in preparation for the unveiling of a plaque commemorating Fred Barnes, the gay music hall icon.

“My old man said follow the van, and don’t dilly dally on the way,” the crowd sings, covering Marie Lloyd’s famous hit along with a choir led by Christopher Green, the multi-award-winning performer and writer.

The ceremony at 22 Clifton Villas on October 18 began with Adam Borzone, chairman of the British Music Hall Society. Thanking “each and everyone who made it possible”, he introduced society secretary Alison Young, whose family once shared a stage with Fred Barnes.

Fred Barnes plaque

The British Music Hall Society has unveiled a blue plaque for Fred Barnes in Maida Vale - Credit: John McKenzie

Alison recalled the way the narrative of Fred Barnes survived throughout the years, at a time where gay stories hidden.

Thanks to Paul Bailey’s 2001 book, Three Queer Lives, the story of “the wavy-haired, blue-eyed Adonis”, was told.

In 2018, Christopher Green performed Music Hall Monster: The Insatiable Fred Barnes, showcasing the tragedy of the singer's life, from rag to riches, to rag again.

The British Music Hall Society president – comedian, broadcaster, writer, actor and former drag artist Paul O’Grady – praised Fred Barnes’ bravery and courage and unveiled the blue plaque.

Paul O’Grady

British Music Hall Society president Paul O’Grady unveiled the new plaque - Credit: John McKenzie

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The singer was openly gay at a time where homosexuality was still a criminal offence. 

A musical performance by Christopher Green followed, singing The Black Sheep of the Family – the song that made Fred Barnes famous in 1907.

The line “everybody runs me down, people shake their heads at me, say I’m a disgrace to society” is a poignant lyric.

The performer said that even if the situation got better since Fred Barnes’ was alive, gay life is still hard.

“He was destructive,” Christopher said. Fred Barnes was an alcoholic and tortured celebrity. His sexuality would lead his father, a butcher from Birmingham, to commit suicide.

 Christopher Green

Performer Christopher Green spoke at the Maida Vale event - Credit: Juliette Fevre

Christopher advised young people facing hard times to find a strong relative, whether it is family or friends, to support them.

They urged people to get help and speak up, and noted art's important role in the journey of finding peace of mind.