The meeting of Billy and the Preacher

Billy Stealing the Bundle, oil painting by Ned Corvan. With thanks to the Laing Art Gallery, � Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums).
Billy Stealing the Bundle, oil painting by Ned Corvan. With thanks to the Laing Art Gallery, � Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums).

The Rev Joseph Spoor was born at Whickham in 1813, the son of a keelman.

He did go to school, but at an early age followed his father into the keels.

“As a class,” says his biographer, “the keelmen were men of great physical resource, and performed feats of labour almost incredible.

“They were commonly exposed to the extremes of weather, melting heat in summer, and bitter cold and pelting storms in winter. But nothing appeared to affect, injure, or daunt them.

“In general they were daring and reckless, earning large sums of money, but spending most of it in drinking, gambling, and brutal sports.”

This was true of Joseph until, at the age of 14, he was converted by hearing a powerful, but eccentric Wesleyan Methodist minister, the Rev Hodgson Casson.

Joseph immediately became a Methodist, but his mode of expressing his faith was too exuberant for the Wesleyans so he joined the Primitive Methodists, and in 1830 became an ‘exhorter’, or local preacher.

He had no formal training, but preached so fervently that in 1832 he was appointed as a ‘hired local preacher’ in the Hexham circuit, which included the district between Morpeth and Rothbury.

This had always been barren territory for the Methodists so Joseph was sent to ‘break the ground’ there.

Itinerant preachers were normally entertained by their co-religionists, but they were few, and he had only his small stipend to live on:

“His little stock of money was soon run out, a ‘meat-bill’ was not allowed him, and in a cold and unfriendly region he was reduced to great straits.

“It was common for him to sleep under haystacks and hedges, and often enough his meal-time brought him nothing but wild fruit. He speaks of the relish with which he devoured the blackberries and ‘haws’ he found on the roadsides.

“His want of success greatly embittered his lot, and he so far yielded ... that he actually took the road to Newcastle to throw up his commission.

“However, on his flight from this trying field of duty, he sat down by the roadside (when) the mortifying thought of his cowardice in running away from duty because of its hardship and suffering flashed upon him.”

He returned to his labours, but was recalled to Hexham soon after, and was never stationed here again.

It was during this period, therefore, that:

“An event transpired while he was at Morpeth which manifested good generalship, both in respect to courage and tact.

“He went one fine summer evening, in company with an excellent local preacher and a few members, to hold a service in the market place. They commenced singing lustily, ‘Come, O come, thou vilest sinner’, etc.

“A short distance from them stood the wagon and apparatus of a strolling showman of great local celebrity, called Billy Purvis, who was well known all over the counties of Durham and Northumberland.

“Billy’s time for commencing operations had not quite arrived. The sound of the voices singing brought Billy to the stage.

“Seeing the critical situation of affairs, he summoned his trumpeters, crying out, ‘Hollo, what’s here? Jack, bring the horn and drum; here’s a fellow come to oppose us.

“So full power was duly applied by Billy and his ‘band’ to their instruments.

“Now Mr Spoor and friends paused and ‘took breath’ as he phrased it.

“Presently the musicians tired, and they failed the sooner for the extra force used.

“Then Spoor started again, but had again to desist when Billy’s band resumed.

“But after a few attempts the showman lost heart, his band lost breath, while Spoor and party were fresh for work.

“The showman saw that he was beaten; so, ordering his underlings to give it up, he shut the establishment.

“As a parting salute, Billy took his speaking trumpet and roared out, ‘I warn thoo thinks thysel’ a clever fellow noo’.

“He then disappeared for the night, leaving the field clear for Spoor, who preached in Divine power to a large crowd of persons.” (From The Earnest Preacher, 1874, by the Rev E Hall).

All in all, faced with a man like Joseph Spoor, it was no disgrace for Billy to be bested by him, and it happened in Morpeth Market Place.

It was soon after this, at Tynemouth in 1832 or early 1833, that Billy first ‘stole the bundle’.

This from the Monthly Chronicle for July 1891:

“It was a rare treat to see Billy steal the bundle. It was never the same thing twice.

“The drollery was always fresh.

“The discovery of the bundle – the speculation as to who it belonged to – what might be its contents – whether it would be safe to open it – whether it really had or had not an owner – whether the man or woman who laid it there had not stolen it, or forgotten it, or thrown it away because tired of carrying it.

“‘Whether the owner would ever come back for it – 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, and broad local and personal allusions, was certain to bring down the house.”

The following is a description of an actual performance, from T. Arthur’s Life of Billy Purvis, 1875:

“He appeared to be going along a road, and near a door he saw a bundle which a young fellow, a farm servant, had laid down till he had a word with his sweetheart within.

“Billy began ‘Dash me, there’s a bundle! Wat is’t? Dis’t belang tiv onybody? Somebody must hae lost it! Aw wonder if he’ll come back for it. Aw wad like te knaw wat’s in’t — maybe something good. Wad like te hae’t’.

“He now fixes his eye upon it, as if longing for its possession, then peeps up and down the road to see if anybody is coming, and begins again, ‘Aw wadn’t be stealin’ when nebody’s here to see me get it.

“‘Hoots, mebbies somebody’s tossed it away, or a drunken gowk has been myekin’ the marketin’, an’ thor may be baccy in’t; baw, wat a smoke aw wad hev! By gox, aw didn’t steal it, aw ony fund it’.

“Here he gives it a most comical look; and placing his hand upon it, says, ‘Aw mun hae’t’, and bolts off in a trice.

“Then followed a yarn he spun on opening it; his disappointment – for what did he find but a lot of baby-linen and such like, and the following note: –

“‘Dear Miss Stitch, Please repair the enclosed articles, and make two muslin frocks and a dozen nappies for baby.

“The place was like to come down with laughter – the applause was tremendous.”

Acknowledgment: We reproduce the picture of Billy stealing the Bundle by kind permission of the Laing Art Gallery, © Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums).