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Billy Purvis visits Houghton Feast

Billy Purvis in his costume, painted by Paul Lanagan

In my 2002 book, ‘Houghton Feast: The Ancient Festival of Houghton-le-Spring’, which was dedicated to the memory of entertainer Billy Purvis, I wrote about how Billy’s annual visits to the Feast between 1818 and 1848 were marred with an incident which occurred in 1825. Billy had erected his showbooth in the usual place at Houghton Market Place, only to be told by a Dr Bell and Mr Myers that he needed to pay into a racing fund; Billy refused this suspicious request and was set upon by the two! The unwarranted attack left the doctor minus three front teeth and Mr Myers with a fractured leg.

Billy, who is better known in his native Tyneside, died on December 16th 1853 while at the Angel Inn, High Street, Hartlepool. He was buried shortly afterwards in the nearby St Hilda’s Churchyard. Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2011.

It had always been my intention to visit his grave, so you can imagine my surprise one morning when two black and white photos landed in my inbox showing the precise location of Billy’s headstone!

I swiftly made arrangements to visit, and that evening after work I boarded the half past four train, bound for Hartlepool. Forty-five minutes later I had arrived and exited the station onto the main street, certain that I would find the church within minutes. I crossed the road, and realised that the nearby church (Hartlepool Art Gallery) was certainly not the expected St Hilda’s.

Disheartened, I asked a passing couple of old girls if they knew were St Hilda’s was.

“Have you got a car?” came the reply, “because it’ll take you about hour an’ half to walk there.” It transpired that St Hilda’s was on the Headland, the original Hartlepool, some distance away to the east. When the old girls realised I was on foot, they pointed towards a departing bus and said “you should’ve been on the number 7…” Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2011.

Knowing I’d be in for a long wait, they kindly offered to drive me ahead of the bus to the next stop, having first checked I wasn’t a murderer (“You’re not a murderer, are you?” they asked.) After some swift manoeuvres in the car around Hartlepool’s traffic system, the girls decided to drive me all of the way there, and several moments later we had arrived. I passed on my sincere gratitude as we parted company, as those girls had really shown me the kindness of strangers; they even made sure I knew where to get the number 7 bus back to the town centre!
The witty clown, Billy Purvis

I entered the open-access churchyard of St Hilda’s and marvelled at the size and sheer impressiveness of the church, but was slightly worried when it looked different to the one in the photo. I had been confident that I would find Billy Purvis’s grave within seconds of my arrival, unaware that the two black and white photos dated from 1890, some 119 years ago; the area had changed immensely. Most if not all of the headstones remained, erect and standing proud, but the church had clearly been modified and the surrounding buildings replaced with a housing estate.

I lined the photograph up with the east transept and walked backwards, keeping a careful eye out for Billy’s name.

Sadly it was nowhere to be seen, and it was only the headstone’s distinctive pattern that alerted me to its location – no inscription remained; it was totally eroded, but close inspection confirmed I had found the grave of the extraordinary and witty Billy Purvis.
The grave of Billy Purvis at St Hilda's Church, Hartlepool Headland, around 1890
The grave of Billy Purvis at St Hilda's Church, Hartlepool Headland, around 1890

I placed a painting of Billy upon the grave and had a few moments contemplation; Billy’s infamous words echoed around me as the sun set in front of us, against the nearby coastline.

“Oh hinnies, awm fairly haggished” ........ “Aw’s not gan’ to de yor dirty wark!”

After a quick and refreshing cornet from a nearby shop, I made it back to Hartlepool Station, just in time for the 7 o’clock train. Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2011.
The grave of Billy Purvis at St Hilda's Church, Hartlepool Headland, in 2009

You can imagine my surprise when, while in unfamiliar settings, I bumped into somebody I knew – Dr Aidan Doyle, who had made and painted the restored Houghton-le-Spring colliery banner, which I had carried several times at Durham Big Meeting and Houghton Feast. The conversation flowed and the journey home seemed a short one. Aidan told me that his late friend, Joe Ging, had, on occasion, dressed up and recreated Billy Purvis’s act some years ago, and it seemed a fitting conversation to part on, as the train pulled into Newcastle, Billy’s hometown.

I am quite confident that Billy returns to Houghton Feast, each and every October. Do keep a look out and if you see him, please let him know that not all Houghtonians are like Dr Bell and Mr Myers!

Enjoy the Feast!

P.S. One week later, I purchased online a used copy of The Life of Billy Purvis, a 1981 reprint of the 1875 book. Inscribed on the inside page is as follows:

On behalf of Billy P, Joe Ging.

 

Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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Watch out for Billy Purvis at Houghton Feast 2010!
Billy Purvis returns to Houghton Feast in 2009 Billy Purvis makes a 2nd return visit to Houghton Feast in 2010
Billy Purvis pushing Feast Chairman, John Mawston, at Houghton Feast 2011 Billy Purvis pushing Feast Chairman, John Mawston, during the Houghton Feast 2011 Carnival Parade

 

TIME LINE

Billy Purvis performs in his showbooth

1784 - Billy Purvis, popular showman and entertainer, was born on January 13th 1784 in Auchiendinny, Scotland. The Purvis family moved to Newcastle two years later.

1818 - Billy Purvis visited Houghton Feast for the first time.

1825 - At this time, racing was a popular feature at Houghton Feast. Billy Purvis had a dispute with Dr. Bell and Mr. Myers over payment into a racing fund and was set upon by the two, who had also removed Billy's steps, making it difficult for the audience to get into the show. The unwarranted attack left the doctor minus three front teeth and Myers with a fractured leg through a fall.

1836 or 1837 - Showman Billy Purvis brought a performing bear with him to Houghton Feast.

1848 - On (Monday) October 16th, Billy Purvis made his thirtieth annual appearance at Houghton Feast with his showbooth (this date suggests Houghton Feast was a week late).

1853 - On December 16th, Billy Purvis died and was buried in the churchyard of Saint Hilda's Church in Hartlepool.

2009 - Billy Purvis returned to Houghton Feast and entertained crowds during the Feast parade on Saturday October 3rd 2009.

2010 - Billy Purvis made his second reappearance at Houghton Feast and took part in the Opening Ceremony, Carnival Parade and Feast Grand Variety Show.

 

Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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The Life of Billy Purvis, the extraordinary, witty and comical showman (1784 - 1853) republished in 1981 by Frank Graham. The transition from the grave to the gay is but a step, and we must needs refer to " Billy Purvis," the renowned Northumbrian harlequin in the beginning of the present century. Billy was born at Auchindenny, near Edinburgh, almost within a gunshot of the dwelling house of Henry Mackenzie, author of " The Man of Feeling," but was brought by his parents to Newcastle at so early an age that to all intents and purposes he was a Newcastle man, and like many another, his speech bewrayed him. He was a many-sided genius, and amused the public as a conjuror, a clown, and a performer on the Northumberland Bagpipes. For a number of years he travelled through the North of England and Scotland with a portable theatre, attending races and fairs, until his voice and form became familiar to everyone, and his performance stood first among all the attractions. " Billy " used to appear on the outside stage of his theatre attired as a clown, when no one could look at him without laughing, and his BILLY PURVIS. 133 gestures alone were enough to convulse the thronging spectators. Wherever he went he had several houses of call, and the mere fact that he was in any of them was sufficient to fill the inns to overflowing. It was at the Newcastle Races that he was in all his glory, when he would shout to the crowds of pitmen : " Are ye cummin' in te see wor show, Greordy? Ay, it's clivor, 'tis clivor Only a penny for trappers, an' tuppence for wappers ! Ay, it's clivor, 'tis clivor. Come into my show, My show's a dandy ; Come into my show, It's sweet as sugar candy." Like most theatrical people, " Billy " had his ups and downs. For nearly sixty-six years he resided in the same house in the Close, where he brought up his family in a highly respectable manner. He died at the age of seventy, at Hartlepool, where he was performing with his Victoria Theatre in 1853, and is interred in the churchyard of St. Hilda, at a spot overlooking a wide expanse of ocean. Shortly after his death the Messrs. Sangers, circus proprietors, when visiting the town, gave a benefit for the purpose of raising funds to erect a stone over 134 BILLY PURVIS. " Billy's " grave, and a neat monument bearing the following inscription, now marks the last resting place of the brief player whose mask and buskin like himself have returned to dust : "Take him for all in all, we ne'er shall look upon his like again." Here lieth William Purvis, better known as Billy Purvis, Clown and Jester of the North, who departed this life 16th December, 1853, aged 70 years. " Where be your jibes now ? Your gambols ? Not one now, quite chap fallen? " Corvan sings the " Deeth o' Billy Purvis," in the following lines : " Ne mair at wor races, friend Billy, thou'll grace us, Nor call Geordies in your fine show to admire ; For, oh ! 'twas his boast, then, fine dramas an' ghosts, then, Wi' pantomime plays full o' reed an' blue fire. What troubles through life man, what cares an' what strife, man, He had to amuse us byeth aud folks an' young : Oh ! aw think wiv emoshun, an tears of devoshun. On the day when I first lipsed his nyem wi' maw tongue ! "

Billy Purvis the 19th century clown is buried in St. Hilda's churchyard because he died in 'Pool and none of his relatives could afford to transport the body to Tyneside which is where he wanted to be buried. dining room or upstairs ballroom. In the churchyard are many gravestones the most famous two being one of Billy Purvis, one of the most notable Victorian entertainers, who died in the Angel Inn in High Street in 1853, and today flowers

Description: Picture of an engraving of Billy Purvis (1784-1853) one of the last travelling minstral pipers of the south of Scotland and the north east of England. Playing a Union pipe early-19th century. Source: My own work Date: 20/07/08 Location: An exibition of bagpipes in a museum photograph. Author: A photograph of an engraving by Walter Geikie in Edinburgh, Image taken by Celtic Harper (talk) 00:37, 2 August 2008 (UTC)

The first record of its use was in 1823 by the famous local comedian Billy Purvis, who had set up a booth at the Newcastle Races on the Town Moor. In an angry tirade against a rival showman, who had hired a young pitman called Tom Johnson to dress as a clown, Billy cried out to the clown..
"Ah man, wee but a feul wad hae sold off his furnitor and left his wife. Noo, yor a fair doon reet feul, not an artificial feul like Billy Purvis! Thous a real Geordie! gan man an hide thysel! gan an' get thy picks agyen. Thou may de for the city, but never for the west end o' wor toon."

'The Extraordinary Life of Billy Purvis, the Eccentric, Witty and Popular Showman: His Sayings and Doings' by T.Arthur, Newcastle on Tyne, 1875

The Life of Billy Purvis, the extraordinary, witty and comical showman (1784 - 1853) republished in 1981 by Frank Graham.

James Powell Billy Purvis Oil on paper width: 28.5 cm, height: 52.5 cm The North East clown Billy Purvis (1784-1853) was known as the funniest man on Tyneside. He started his career in pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle. He later toured northern England and Scotland as a clown, and comic singer and dancer. A label on the back of the picture records that the artist was James Powell, who became friendly with Billy Purvis when he was performing at the show ground at the bottom of Westmorland Road, Newcastle.

2005 Raising a smile for a legendary Date: 25 May 2005 A SONG has been recorded in a bid to save the memory of one of the town's most famous sons. Around £2,500 needs to be raised to restore the headstone of Hartlepool clown Billy Purvis. Entertainer Billy died in 1853 and over the years his headstone at St Hilda's Church, on the Headland, Hartlepool, has virtually eroded away. But local songwriter Phil Swinburne has recorded a track, called Billy Purvis, to try and raise the much needed money to restore the historical headstone. Phil, 41, an arts facilitator, of Oakley Gardens, in the Dyke House area of Hartlepool, said: "Billy is an historical figure on the Headland and it is important to preserve his memory. "The same headstone has been there since he died and it is in desperate need of restoration. "The Headland has lost so much heritage over the years and people need to remember how it was." Billy was one of the most popular showmen on the northern circuit during the nineteenth century. His show in Hartlepool became legendary after the acquisition of a Russian dancing bear called Mushee. The Billy Purvis CD is priced £3.50 and is now available to buy from the Museum of Hartlepool, Hartlepool Art Gallery, and also from the Headland Development Trust. 2003 Help save memory of famous son Date: 18 December 2003 THE MEMORY of one of Hartlepool's most famous sons may be lost forever - on the 150th anniversary of his death. Unless £2,000 can be raised to restore the headstone of Hartlepool clown Billy Purvis, his sandstone epitaph will erode away. Clive Hill, who works for Hartlepool Borough Council as a detached youth worker, said: "The words on the headstone have al disappeared and we need to raise money to restore it. "Billy was one of the best known entertainers in the country at the time and it is important that we remember him. "We want to get schoolchildren involved in restoring the headstone and it will also give them the chance to find out about Billy." Billy Purvis was a famous 19th century entertainer, who died in 1853 and was buried at St Hilda's Church, on the Headland, in Hartlepool. He was born in Edinburgh in 1784, one of twins. By the age of 23, he was presenting plays and comic interludes. His life took him to Newcastle where he lived with his family, his home was under the High Level bridge in the middle of the city He was drawn to the northern show circuit where it is said no showman - not even Barnum - was more popular. Billy's favourite stamping ground was the Newcastle-Sunderland-Shields triangle but Hartlepool eventually became a regular stop, from around 1836. He steamed into town with a new acquisition to his company's act - a Russian dancing bear called Mushee. Man and bear soon became the stars of a legendary piece of Hartlepool news one Friday night. The Methodist organisation was holding a meeting nearby meaning the Purvis and Mushee show had a rival for the public attention. The Billy Purvis show featured a grand parade, fireworks and acrobats while the Methodists tried to drown it out with loud hymns to save the crowd from depravity. Mushee panicked, broke free and roared straight down the street at the Methodists before being recaptured by Billy. In his 35 professional years, Billy was variously a play producer, an actor, writer and a clown. He was also a skilled exponent of the Northumbrian pipes, a comic singer, raconteur, conjuror, puppet master, pugilist and a stunt rider. Anyone who would like some more information, or who would like to make a donation, can contact Clive on (01429) 523900.