The misadventures of Billy

Illustration from T. Arthur's Life of Billy Purvis.
Illustration from T. Arthur's Life of Billy Purvis.

William Woodman (Old Customs of Morpeth, Procs. Berwickshire Naturalists’ Club, 1892) says that at the hiring fair on the eve and day of Ascension Day: “The stalls were more numerous and of a better class than now. Some came year after year...a stall for ballads and a great number for toys and gingerbread, Billy Purvis’s, and two or three penny shows.”

Woodman implies that Billy attended regularly at Morpeth Fair.

William Purvis was born at Auchendinny in 1784, the son of a tailor. The family came to Newcastle when he was two, and settled in The Close.

In 1794, he became a drummer in a regiment of Gentlemen Volunteers. At 16 he was apprenticed to a carpenter and joiner, and became resident drummer at the Theatre Royal, progressing to call-boy and assistant carpenter. People in those days often had several jobs and taking an afternoon off was not a problem.

He learnt dancing, singing, speaking and acrobatics from watching performers. He also took part in amateur theatricals, performing the standard repertoire of the time, Venice Preserv’d, Douglas, Love-à-la-Mode, etc.

It was usual to finish with a lightweight piece. Billy wrote a pantomime, Harlequin Woodcutter, in which he took the part of Clown. A showman, Mr Ord, saw him at North Shields and asked him to be his clown at Newcastle Races on the Town Moor.

Billy was married and he and his wife lived with his parents. To them, amateur theatricals were alright, but being a mountebank was not. Old Mr Purvis was so incensed that Billy resolved not to go near the races. But he changed his mind, played the clown, and next day met a storm of abuse. His wife threw the guinea he earned, equal to a week’s wages, into the fireplace.

He retrieved it and clowned for Mr Ord again; going to Monkseaton to entertain colliers, and to Stagshawbank Fair, Mr Ord paying him well.

Billy’s father was also door-keeper at the Assembly Rooms, and in 1808 Billy took over from him. Dances were like country dances, couples dancing in line and performing intricate manoeuvres. Billy never had lessons, but quickly learnt the steps and was so proficient that some men intending to get up a Christmas ball begged him to teach them. The following winter he opened a dancing school and soon had three classes running through the evening.

He was invited to become Drum Major in the Hexham Local Militia, took employment there with Mr Nicholson, joiner, moved his family to Hexham, and again opened a dancing school. Having the only suitable room in town, he lent it free to conjurors and other entertainers in return for teaching him their tricks.

In 1815, following the Battle of Waterloo, he made an effigy of Napoleon and paraded it through Hexham, with a band playing ‘See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes’, repeating it at Corbridge and Warden, where ‘Boney’ was duly burnt. It was a great success, but Mr Nicholson was ill-pleased, and Billy left in dudgeon.

A showman called Powell asked him to be his drummer at Stagshawbank Fair, and at the age of 31, Billy turned professional.

At Corbridge, Powell’s clown left abruptly, and Billy took his place. They visited Blanchland, Chapel, Wolsingham, Newcastle, Newbiggin, Blyth, Bedlington, Morpeth and Stamfordham, where they were parading through the village to advertise the show when: “They were saluted by a number of young gentlemen from the Rev. Mr Rawe’s boarding-school, who were accompanied by the Rev. gentleman himself and his Usher.

“The parson being much taken up with Billy’s local manners and his style of canvassing the lottery tickets, paid their establishment a visit. Billy sang local songs, gave comic recitations, and the strains of his pipes being quite new to the company, the night went off successfully.”

Billy’s pipes were union pipes, bellows-operated like the Northumbrian pipes, but bigger, more complicated, and played sitting down. Our picture shows him playing the Northumbrian pipes, but this is incorrect.

They travelled to Edinburgh. On the homeward journey, Billy left the company at Etal, returned to Newcastle, and re-opened his dancing school for the winter.

“Summer returning, and the dancing school over, he again took to rambling, going to Kirkley Thorn and Belsay Red House. Here, after a prosperous performance, a ludicrous event occurred. He was entertaining a few friends...when a loud rap came to the door, and a party of four gentlemen appeared on horseback, including Mr Flint, steward of Belsay Castle. Billy...readily consented to gratify them with a few tricks.”

One gentleman, Mr Frazer: “interfered so much that his conduct became intolerable. Billy happened to whisper, that ‘if he had the lock put upon his jaw it would serve him right’. One of the party said, ‘Well Purvis, if you can play him a trick, do so; he has boasted all the way from the fair of being able to make a fool of you’.

“Billy watched his opportunity, and after repeated interruptions he requested the company’s attention to a new and never before attempted trick; to mark a penny, place it in Mr Frazer’s mouth, then command it into the pocket of any gentleman he might wish. Mr Frazer disputed the possibility, nevertheless he marked the penny, placed it edgeways between his teeth, but refused to allow Billy to give it the magic touch.

“After repeated refusals, he yielded. The position of the coin kept his teeth apart, one side being inside his mouth, the other outside. Billy began, ‘Hocus-pocus conjurocus cockleorumjig’, and touching the penny, instantly Frazer’s cheek was bound hard and fast with the ‘padlock’.

“Feeling the temporary lockjaw, he cursed and swore. Billy bolted through a door, which snecking only from the inside, the other could not open...his rage knew no bounds, he kicked, and flung, and hammered, till with a crash in went a panel of the door.

“After much trouble Mr Flint and his friends got the bear’s anger cooled, who, getting into somewhat better temper, sent for Billy to unlock his jaw, which was quickly done.”

Billy adds: “We now adjourned to another apartment, and at the expense of Mr F’s friends I was treated to sundry glasses of grog, concluding the evening harmoniously.”

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Mrs Kim Bibby-Wilson for information on the union pipes.