Memory of Billy lived on in statuettes

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Billy Purvis (1784-1853) was a carpenter and joiner to trade, but an actor, musician and comedian in his spare time.

In 1815 he had a disagreement with his employer, resigned and joined the company of a travelling showman. The following year he went into business on his own account and made a good living as a solo performer.

By the 1830s he had become a considerable showman, with carpenters, painters, musicians, actors and a stage manager.

In 1835 or thereabouts, he and his company were playing in the theatre at Alnwick. One day, as he walked past a hairdresser’s shop, the man called him in and said that a customer, a Mr Blackburn, wished for a private performance for the benefit of the young people in his family. Billy did not have his ‘traps’ with him, but obliged them instead with “a few simple hand tricks”.

“I next despatched my carpenter Williams with my travelling pavilion to Morpeth fair, while we filled up the remainder of the season at Alnwick, which, when concluded, my company followed Williams to Morpeth. At this time I had a ‘Theatre of Arts’ (i.e. a puppet show) at Morpeth, in the Town’s Hall, under the superintendence of Mr Lemore. This little portable affair was removed to Alnwick theatre, as I did not wish the interests of the pavilion and the moving figures to clash with each other.

“Morpeth fair being over I repaired to Alnwick, to see how Lemore was getting on, when I was sent for by Mr Blackburn, to give another night’s amusement.

“The Duke of Northumberland happened to be at the Castle, and I had the honour of performing before the two Misses Percy at Mr Blackburn’s house.”

With the connivance of his host, Billy performed a trick in which he invited one of the girls to take a card, secretly making sure, however, that it was the king of spades. He then gave her the pack, and asked her to wrap it up securely in her handkerchief. This done, he threw the pack up to the ceiling. When it came down, the king of spades was missing.

“I begged the two young ladies to go to the up stairs room and they would find it there. The gentle creatures did as I bade them, and returned with the card. Another trick I played off with the magical snuff boxes, changing the empty box I had given to Miss Blackburn for the full one I had given in charge to the Lord Bishop of Carlisle.”

“Mr Blackburn was informed that I was in possession of some beautiful Fantocini figures, and requested me to bring them on the following evening, which I did. Getting all things prepared in good time, Miss Blackburn and the Percys came in to see me. ‘Ah’ said one of them, ‘are you going to do the trick with the cards and make them fly through the ceiling?’ ‘By your leave ladies, I intend doing so’. They hastened out of the room delighted, and apprized the visitors of what was in store for them.”

This time, they couldn’t find the card, but Billy told them to try again, and look under the bed, and there it was.

“Two days after I received a message from the Boots of the ‘Swan’, desiring me to repair to Morpeth without delay, as my pavilion had blown down. Taking the first conveyance I hastened to the stand, and found my booth lying low. The reporters of the local press at the time gave an account of this disaster, and stated that Billy Purvis’s show had been blown entirely away, and that some parts of the canvass had been discovered floating on the coast of Norway. These newspaper cheps like to tell a few whappers, and this was one.”

Not surprisingly, pictures and models of Billy were very popular, and went on being long after his death. The pair that we illustrate are about 11ins high and have an interesting history.

David Arnott Williamson (c.1822-1900) was a Scotsman. Family tradition has it that he was not at all rich when he came to Newcastle, but by 1865, when he was in his early 40s, he was a spirit merchant at 31 Clayton Street East. (Ward’s Directory of Newcastle, 1865-66).

In 1869-70 he was landlord of the Star and Garter at 25 Clayton Street East and a spirit merchant at 36 Grainger Street. The entry also gives a clue to his place of residence, and in the 1871 census I found him at 45 Leazes Terrace, a very good address indeed.

Many people then had to share a house, but he and his wife Jane — also Scottish, but 17 years younger — had the whole house to themselves and their four children, aged between two and eight, and had two live-in servants.

We can tell from Ward’s directories that Mr Williamson’s businesses weren’t always in the same place and that he was sometimes the landlord of a pub himself, but at other times had a tenant in.

There was a Black Swan in Westgate Street in the early 1860s, but by 1873 the name, and perhaps also the licence, was transferred to 31 Clayton Street East. In that year he was a spirit merchant at 5 Newgate Street, 38 Elswick Road and 31 Clayton Street East, which was now the Black Swan.

By 1875 he was the proprietor of the Black Swan, the Star and Garter, and the Adrian’s Head at 38 Elswick Road.

In 1879, however, two of the three houses were tenanted. He had only the Black Swan under his own supervision, and no longer appears as a spirit merchant. A likely reason is that he had expanded into property and house building

He never really retired. In 1898, when he was 76, although the two pubs in Clayton Street were now under a firm called J. Duncan & Co., he was still landlord of the Adrian’s Head while residing at Tynemouth. He died in 1900.

Family tradition says that the two figurines were given to him in settlement of a drinking debt, and stood in one of the pubs as bar ornaments. They are beautifully carved, and painted pretty much in line with the most authentic pictures and written descriptions.

Notice the spiral stripes, the white collar, the full, white sleeves, like an old-time bishop, and the little dabs of red make-up. As we have noted before, however, some details, like the colour of his rosettes and skull-cap, do differ

One of them has a maker’s label on the base. Unfortunately, it is so badly torn that there is hardly any way of identifying the maker. It says:

“...Celebrities...ous have reached...to the late Mr...the celebrated Newcas[le]... and his son Mr. H.T. D...field Terrace, Pelaw...original pencil dr[awing]”

The dull patina on the figures is the result of years of tobacco smoke. They have descended through the family, and the present owner is unwilling to clean them for fear of doing more harm than good, but Tyne and Wear Museums have a similar one, with a circular base, in which you can see the colours clearly.

Acknowledgements: Pair of statuettes: Private collection, photograph reproduced by kind permission of the owner. Single statuette: photograph reproduced by kind permission of the Laing Art Gallery, © Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums).