THE story behind one of the most famous gravestones in St Hilda’s church yard was told in the Mail 30 years ago this week. ANDREW LEVETT looks back at the historical hilarity of the “jester of the north”.
IN his day Billy Purvis was what would now be called a superstar so it was not surprising that the Hartlepool Mail made a special effort for the 200th anniversary of his birth.
The head of history at the town’s Brierton Comprehensive School, Keith Gregson, wrote a substantial article for the paper about the man he called “one of the greatest entertainers the North East of England has ever seen”.
Billy was certainly versatile – Mr Gregson’s article revealed he learned to dance in his youth, to sing, play the drums and the Northumbrian pipes, a type of bagpipe.
Later he turned his attention to the stage, excelling at both comedy and tragedy, and became a first-rate magician.
But Billy was probably best-known, said Mr Gregson, for his travelling booth, to be seen throughout the North of England and Scottish lowlands, featuring his large puppet figures.
Mr Gregson wrote: “Here folks would flock through ‘Billy’s backside’ (the cheap back entrance to his show) to see the rich comic scene where Billy tried, in vain, to steal a bundle on a stick which somebody had left on the stage.”
Hartlepool was not any old venue for Billy, born on January 13, 1784, wrote Mr Gregson: “It is obvious from stories told in his biographies that he liked the people and the people liked him.”
He quoted a piece written by one who worked with him, recollecting events in late 1845.
“We then removed to Hartlepool for winter quarters. Here Billy was in great force, winning golden opinions from all sorts of people, from the mayor and corporation of the town, Freemasons, Foresters and other societies down to the shipwrights, pilots, fishermen, tailors and colliers around.”
One day Billy and his players were parading up and down Northgate to advertise performances when the mayor stopped and asked him to put on the farce Raising the Wind as a special treat.
Billy, whose booth had been wrecked by gales in the past, refused to tempt providence but his deputy secretly agreed to put on the show on Billy’s night off.
The story goes that Billy was enjoying a well-earned drink in a Headland hostelry when the wind began to howl through the window panes.
He rushed to his booth and stopped the show, which apparently amused rather than angered the audience, but failed to make the wind drop, though the booth survived.
Mr Gregson thought that Billy, born in Scotland but brought up in Newcastle, came to Hartlepool to die. When he did, in 1853, he was buried in St Hilda’s churchyard, with a gravestone paid for by the famous circus owner Sanger.
Contact Andrew Levett by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or write to him at Hartlepool Mail, New Clarence House, Wesley Square, Hartlepool, TS24 8BX.