Clowning around in Billy’s memory – 160 years after the Hartlepool entertainer passed away

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AN impersonator of an historical Hartlepool clown is to visit the town this weekend to mark 160 years since the entertainer passed away.

Paul Lanagan annually dons circus-style attire in the style of Victorian town clown Billy Purvis, who is buried on the Headland, at the ancient Houghton Feast, in Houghton, Durham.

The tradition was started by Paul, who is chairman of the Houghton-le-Spring Heritage Society, due to Billy’s appearances at Houghton Feast between 1818 and 1848.

And this Sunday, Paul will pay his respects to his comic hero at his graveside in St Hilda’s Church graveyard on Monday to coincide with the 160th anniversary of Billy’s death. Paul said: “My interest in Billy is that I re-enact his visits at Houghton Feast, an ancient festival in Houghton-le-Spring, Co Durham. Billy attended our fair between 1818 and 1848.

“I will be at St Hilda’s Church this Sunday, to pay my respects at Billy’s badly eroded grave.”

Paul wrote a book in 2002 called ‘Houghton Feast: The Ancient Festival of Houghton-le-Spring’, which was dedicated to the memory of entertainer Billy Purvis.

He told the Mail: “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 a 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!”

He added: “A friend had picked up on my interest in Billy Purvis and had gone to painstaking lengths to recreate Billy’s elaborate clown costume.

“I dutifully donned the outfit and took part in the carnival parade at Houghton Feast 2009, having first downed several brandies, something Billy once did before a performance.

“I now return every year to keep up the tradition and to keep Billy’s name alive. December 16, 2013, marks the 160th anniversary of Billy Purvis’s death. I do hope you will spare a moment to remember this northern character, who was not only renowned for his comedy, but also his generosity.”

Billy, who is better known in his native Tyneside, continued to visit the October Houghton fair, before he died on December 16, 1853, while at the Angel Inn, High Street, Hartlepool.

Billy, who was born in Auchendinny, in Scotland, in 1784, before moving to Newcastle where he grew up, was known across Durham, Northumberland and Scotland as ‘The Clown and Jester of the North’.

He trained as a joiner but soon turned his hand to entertaining and making people laugh.