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First Tuesday: Dave Harker will talk about Billy Purvis, the First Professional Geordie
2 October 2018 @ 19:00
Billy who? Sadly, that’s the response from most people when Billy Purvis’ name is mentioned, and it’s an indictment of the London-centric education system, because Billy’s influence is an integral part of what gives us Geordies our distinctive identity. Despite being the very first ‘professional Geordie’, Billy was born outside North East England. He arrived in the world in Scotland in 1784, but his family moved to Newcastle in 1786 and lived on the Quayside.
From 1819, all over the North East, up to Scotland and across to Whitehaven and Liverpool, it must have been an incredible sight at fairs, hoppings and race meetings to see ‘The Clown of the North’ perform magic, sing, play his uilleann (union) pipes and cajole people to see his show, either by crossing the outside stage, or by ‘Billy’s backside’. The Greatest Showman is not recent concept, since that’s what Billy was for over 30 years.
Life on the road with Billy was a tremendous training ground. Members of his company became stars in the ‘legitimate’ theatre and the early concert halls. Take Ned Corvan for example. Ned who? He was born in Liverpool in 1828, but his Irish-born parents moved their family to Newcastle when Ned was an infant. He joined Billy’s company as a teenager and later became the first full-time professional Geordie singer/songwriter, producing classics like The Cullercoats Fishwife and Who Hung the Monkey?
My favourite story about Billy involves a rumour that he had died. Hearing this, the maestro turned up in Sunderland in the hope of disproving his demise. There was no Twitter in those days, but within minutes, by word of mouth alone, thousands had gathered to cheer him in the street. Billy wanted to be buried overlooking his beloved river Tyne, but his death in Hartlepool in 1853 saw him laid to rest in the Headland. To this day Billy’s name is revered in the town, and he deserves a blue plaque in Newcastle. He also deserves to be remembered alongside other great Geordie inventors, sportswomen, sportsmen and entertainers.
Thanks to Dave Harker, Billy Purvis now has a voice. Dave’s tremendous research and books about Billy, Ned Corvan, Joe Wilson and Geordie Ridley will help to ensure that these ‘Geordie giants’ don’t slip from the collective memory.
Ed Waugh, the author of The Great Joe Wilson, Mr Corvan’s Music Hall, Haddaway Harry and many other plays