Billy’s success was a matter of philosophy

Bolam, where Billy Purvis performed in spite of the vicar.
Bolam, where Billy Purvis performed in spite of the vicar.
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In his old age, Billy wrote his life-story. During his only leisure time, Sunday afternoons, he would call upon his friend, Joseph Robson, who took notes while Billy talked.

After Billy’s death, Robson speaks about the difficulties they had. Everything was from memory, and Billy was an old man and frequently dozed off.

Billy Purvis's autobiography.

Billy Purvis's autobiography.

When he woke up, “Aw say Geordie, where was aw at, man? Just read us that last leaf or two ower ageyn? Dash aw’s sleepy!” Then, “Ay, that’s reet eneuf; but stop, wait a bit! Hoots, ye feul, aw hevent come to that pairt o’ maw life yet, there’s three or four stories afore that”.

It was published in September 1849, “in Fortnightly Nos., price 2d each....May be had of Mr Purvis at his Pavilion, Castle Garth, and of all Booksellers and Newsvendors in town and country.”

Billy sold the twopenny numbers to his friends and admirers, who of course were legion, “Ar’en’t ye gan to teyk maw Life, Geordie?”

By mid-December it was also available in larger sixpenny parts, and the complete Life and Adventures, with frontispiece and colour-printed cover, shortly after. I can find no price for it, but I should guess it was between half-a-crown and five shillings.

Like Ken Dodd, he had an infinitely expressive face and a way with words. Like Charlie Chaplin, he was an athlete. Like both, he was unique and endlessly inventive.

A second edition came out in 1850, though still dated 1849, and the British Library’s copy, which is available online, is of this edition.

After Billy died, Mr Robson added a Concluding Chapter, and it came out in a third edition in 1854. This, the most complete and authoritative source for Billy’s life, is one of several copies held at Newcastle City Library.

In 1875 a Newcastle printer, T. Arthur, published his Life of Billy Purvis, mostly from Robson, but also, and valuably, including other material, such as Billy’s encounter with a Methodist preacher at Morpeth, and a description of an actual performance of Stealing the Bundle.

Unfortunately, Arthur was inclined to be careless, but his book was republished by Frank Graham in 1981 and remains the most accessible biography of the great comedian. The following is an example of the difference between them:

After visiting Belsay, when he put the ‘padlock’ on a fellow who made a nuisance of himself, Billy performed at Ponteland, and there caught a chill. He was ill for three weeks so that, “I have ever since been tormented with an asthma, the fatal result of a servant girl in not airing the sheets of my bed”.

However,”‘Being partially recovered, I made another attempt at country business, and visited a little village called Bolam, a short distance from Berwick Hill, where I succeeded in engaging a barn from a hind on the premises. I performed one night in this delightful and airy situation (and) announced by bills...my intention of repeating my performances, and the folks were all on the tip-toe of expectations awaiting the wished-for hour”.

Then the vicar got to hear of it:

“The Landlady of the public house where I was staying received an unexpected visit from the reverend gentleman...He then issued his mandate to the hind to prohibit future performances...and mounting his steed, rode off to a party to which he had been previously invited.

“Taking Time by the forelock, I assembled my friends in his absence, and, at the hour appointed, proceeded with my amusements to the great delight of a full house. Among the number of patrons, I had the satisfaction of seeing my reverend opponent’s pretty niece, together with his servant man and maid.

“About ten o’clock at night, the reverend gentleman returned to his domicile, but after ringing the bell for admission several times, he came to the right conclusion, that his servants were not on the premises. He rode on to the barn in a passion, ordered the hind, who was also a constable, to take me into custody for disobeying his express commands. Fortunately for me this rural policeman was the very person who had let me the barn.

“The hind...represented the harmlessness of the affair. His reverence insisted on my being “taken up,” but the hind seeing his master depart, consented to my being set down with himself in the enjoyment of a comfortable glass of make-peace toddy. Next morning I went to Stannington...and gave two nights’ entertainment in my usual way, and with my general success.”

Not only is Arthur’s account of the same incident abridged, which it had to be, but he wrongly places Bolam near to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Later again, three articles appeared in the Monthly Chronicle for 1891, including a fine description of Billy’s skill in stealing the bundle. It shows clearly why he was so special:

“The discovery of the bundle...whether, if he stole it, he would be detected — whether there was, after all, such a thing as stealing — whether every appropriation of a thing was not stealing...all this monologue or soliloquy, delivered in the purest Tyneside vernacular, with irresistibly comic manual and facial action...was certain to bring down the house.”

Even when he had his own company, everything depended on Billy himself. Once, when the show finished early, the audience called for him to steal the bundle. He had no costume, but eventually he and his stage manager, Thomas Matthews, went on as they were and did the act.

Like Ken Dodd, he had an infinitely expressive face and a way with words. Like Charlie Chaplin, he was an athlete. Like both, he was unique and endlessly inventive. Like them, too, he struck a deep chord, and this for two reasons.

First, and very obviously, he dealt in human frailty. Who hasn’t looked round to see if anybody would see them purloining something, even if it wasn’t a bundle?

Secondly, philosophy. Stealing implies the right of ownership. The theologian William Paley (1743-1805), Archdeacon of Carlisle, wrote that: “All things were originally common. No one being able to produce a charter from heaven, had any better title to a particular possession than his neighbour. There are reasons for mankind agreeing on a separation of this common fund. God, for these reasons, is presumed to have ratified it. But this separation was made and consented to, upon the expectation and condition that every one should have left a sufficiency for his subsistence, or the means of procuring it.”

Another contemporary, the utopian radical Thomas Spence (1750-1814) was born in Newcastle and kept a school in Sandgate. Spence opposed all property in land, which he believed gave rise to the twin evils of rents and taxes. “His scheme,” wrote Southey, “is that the soil belongs to the state and that individuals should rent their land from their respective parishes, every kind of private property being permitted except in land.”

Billy distilled ideas like these into a comedy sketch; and when he asked, in his own style, ‘whether every appropriation of a thing was not stealing’, he was anticipating Proudhon’s maxim, ‘La propriété, c’est le vol.’ — ‘Property is theft.’