Bobby Farrell lost one leg in an accident in his native Glasgow trick or treating on Hallowe’en 1921 when he was 9. Three years later, after his mother died, he ran away from home, driven out by his drunken father. But by 1935, when he was 23, he was making a successful career on the musical hall stage in the UK and Ireland, using his disability as his stage persona, appearing with his crutch and being billed as the “one legged Irish newsboy of song”.
John Dominic Farrell, as he was born, was the oldest of five children, four boys and a girl, born to a Glasgow dock worker, a Catholic whose family had migrated from Ireland at the time of the Potato Famine. He lost his leg when he hitched a ride on a horse drawn cab. The driver flicked his whip to knock him off and a lorry coming behind ran him over. Two of his brothers, Jimmie, 8, and Tommy, 6, were with him and Jimmie recalled picking up the leg as a passer by picked up his brother to carry him in to a nearby doctors’ office. As well as his amputated leg, Bobby had a fractured skull, broken ribs and arms, and a variety of other injuries.
Before the accident he was already singing with his church choir. During the year he was in hospital a member of the Friends of the Hospital, discovering that and recognising that he had a beautiful voice, organised the then fashionable bel canto voice training for him. The intention was to equip him for a career in light opera. As well as a good voice, Bobby had an excellent musical ear and although he never read music, he would pick up any number of instruments and play. On stage he played the piano accordion, the banjo and a mouth organ as well as singing.
When he returned home from hospital he continued to sing with the choir but he was also being encouraged to sing competitively. He was heard by Glasgow theatre impresario brothers, Harry and Bruton Lester, and was soon beginning to perform for them. After his mother died he won prize money which he proudly showed to his father when he got home. His father knocked him side ways because his stump was leaning against the table and took the money, saying “Get that thing off my table and give me that. Any money that comes in this house is mine. “ Bobby took the money back, walked out and never returned.
He went to the Lesters who let him sleep under their stage until he sorted himself out and from then on he toured with them. It was legal to leave school at 12 and there was no social worker pursuit to bring him back. While his voice was breaking when he was 15 he worked for a year on fishing boats around the Scottish coast then went back to the stage once his adult tenor voice was settled.
The Lesters devised his stage name, Bobby and also helped to develop his stage persona, feeding a story to newspapers in towns where he was appearing that they had discovered him selling newspapers and sleeping on the streets in Dublin. He kept one cutting from a Dublin paper and used to grin and say “We thought it was a better story!”
In the days before the NHS artificial legs were not provided routinely or free and he did not get one until he was 25, when he could afford to buy one. That he duly did from Stoke Mandeville Hospital ,where he had an operation to further amputate the leg to make a more comfortable stump. He was fitted with a state of the art Desoutter leg with an articulated knee joint designed by Charles Desoutter, brother of an English aviator, Marcel Desoutter, who had lost a leg in an early flying accident.Throughout his life Bobby”s legs were updated by Stoke Mandeville.
During the 1920s and 1930s the Lesters had a touring theatre company that travelled regularly around Ireland and Bobby managed the Irish tours as well as performing there and in Britain and making homes both in Dublin and in Glasgow. Tommy eventually joined him in Ireland when he too fell out with their father. They based themselves in Malahide, North Dublin, where he rented a warehouse from a local fishing family to store his theatre sets.
Bobby and Tommy lived partly in Ireland, in Malahide, until war broke out when Tommy returned to Glasgow to join up and was posted to Burma. Tommy was captured and held as a prisoner of the Japanese in Hong Kong for 4 years. When he was released he was posted to Germany for clearing up operations and there he married Elfie, a Polish woman who was working in Berlin.
Bobby’s career took off and by 1938 he was making records for Parlaphone and the BBC, singing Irish ballads, and also managing the Cragburn Pavilion, in Gourock, attracting performers including one of his favourites, the Joe Loss Band. Gourock was the Scottish port from which many sailors would set sail during World War 11, including the Canadian sailors who died in the abortive raid on Dieppe in August 1942. The Cragburn was a regular haunt before sailings and Bobby remembered the Canadians last night sadly.
During the war he also toured as a troops’ entertainer with the NAAFI in the UK. He was in Coventry in October 1940 when the blitz bombings that would in November destroy the cathedral were beginning. He went to bed in his theatrical boarding house after a performance and woke up on the morning to find the front of the house had been blown off. The end of his bed was hanging in to empty air. He had slept undisturbed.
Bobby continued to manage the Cragburn until 1949, but the musical hall was dying and he by now had a young wife, Maisie, an Irish woman whose home town was Malahide. They met when she came to one of his performances and she traveled to Glasgow in 1942 for them to marry, being described as a “registered alien” and required to sign on every week with the police. Their baby son was born in 1944. The family needed more stability and they moved to London, where Bobby found work with an electrical company. But he continued to perform nationally into the 1950s, appearing in pantomime in Edinburgh in 1949, and then at Irish clubs in London until the late 1960s, particularly at the Gresham, in Hammersmith, and the Garryowen in Holloway. He continued to MC at one north London club until he was turning 80.
Tommy and Elfie moved to Canada and then the United States, settling eventually in California and running various entertainment venues in California and Las Vegas, and tried to persuade Bobby to move out too. But Bobby preferred to stay put in London, giving the same energy and resilience that had seen his teenaged self making a living going up in to ships’ rigging in spite of his one leg to performing on the club scene, briefing with the boxing circuit as well, and also working with his church charitably. Bobby always had a positive approach to his disability and said, “If other people have a problem with it, its their problem not mine.”