Tears for a clown who laughed his last laugh in Hartlepool

Circus aninals in Hartlepool.
Circus aninals in Hartlepool.
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Decades of clowning around came to an end for circus performer Billy Purvis 142 years ago, when the Jester of the North passed away on a visit to Hartlepool.

News of the showman’s death at the Angel Inn, High Street, on December 16, 1853, hit the headlines nationwide – and generations of fans mourned Billy’s loss.

Today his final resting place is marked by a stone provided by circus proprietors John and George Sanger in 1860, but his story has almost faded away.

“Billy was known as the funniest man in the North East, the Jester of the North and the Pitman’s Joker – everyone loved him,” said local historian Bill Hawkins.

“But despite all his hard work, he ended his years broken down in body, spirit and fortune before breathing his last in Hartlepool.”

Billy, a tailor’s son, was born near Edinburgh in 1784. Two years later his family moved to The Close, in Newcastle, where Billy remained until his death.

As a youth he was apprenticed as a joiner, but he also worked as a call-boy at the Theatre Royal in his spare time, often performing between scene changes.

The popularity of his act eventually inspired Billy to turn professional – his first paying gig being a clowning role at Newcastle Races.

“Billy’s parents regarded “dramatic perambulations” as works of the devil and they were horrified at him making the stage his career,” said Bill.

In 1818 Billy set up his own theatrical company and, as his popularity soared, so he made numerous appearances around the region – including Hartlepool.

“Billy was a great all-rounder; he could clog dance, play the bagpipes, tell jokes, sing traditional songs and perform magic tricks,” said Bill.

“His shows in Hartlepool were always popular, although some religious protestors got a bit of a shock when Billy’s wild bear broke loose and chased them!”

But, though Billy became a household name, most of his money was spent on his family and helping others.

Indeed, in 1850 he admitted: “I must confess that I am weary of the profession which, by necessity, I am compelled to follow. I am getting an old man – my strength begins to fail and I feel, like most ancient furniture, crazy and very rickety – crabby, too, when ends do not meet as I could wish.”

Billy’s final tour came in late 1853, when he arrived in Hartlepool for the Christmas season. By now Billy was suffering from dropsy, and was very sick.

He died on December 16, just a few weeks short of his 70th birthday. Hundreds lined the streets of Hartlepool for his funeral at St Hilda’s Church.

“Among the mourners were his widow Bell, as well as Masons and members of the Order of Odd Fellows,” said Bill. “Bell died at 94.”