Billy Purvis - a forgotten Midlothian character

William (Billy) Purvis (1784-1853) was the most famous entertainer and circus clown in the north of England and southern Scotland. He was born in Auchendinny. Photo: Midlothian Council Local Studies
William (Billy) Purvis (1784-1853) was the most famous entertainer and circus clown in the north of England and southern Scotland. He was born in Auchendinny. Photo: Midlothian Council Local Studies

Bill Purvis (1784-1853) is now almost completely unknown but in the first half of the 19th century he was the most famous entertainer and circus clown in the north of England and southern Scotland, writes Dr Ken Bogle (Midlothian Council Local Studies).

William “Billy” Purvis is associated with the north-east of England but was a native of Midlothian. He was born in Auchendinny in January 1784, the son of a tailor.

Family legend has it that Billy and his twin brother John were born in a terrible snowstorm and that his father had to carry the midwife home on his back.

Billy was a natural performer, perhaps a bit of a show-off, and knew how to sing and dance from an early age.

When Billy was a child, his family moved to Newcastle upon Tyne where Billy was apprenticed to become a joiner. Although he completed his apprenticeship, his heart was never in it and he soon turned to performing.

He was partly inspired by seeing travelling shows and performers at Dalkeith fair and by listening to the stories of soldiers and prisoners of war at Greenlaw Barracks, near Penicuik.

Billy went to on to become the greatest circus clown and performer of his age. His act often took place in the open air and drew large crowds, especially at agricultural fairs across the north-east of England and Scotland.

Billy was one of the great all-rounders: he told jokes, danced, sang traditional songs and ballads, performed magic tricks and illusions, played the bagpipes and drums, and acted out short plays.

He became a household name and a celebrity. His fame was such that a small statue of him, often doubling as a pepper pot, was once as common in working-class households as two china dogs on the mantelpiece or a “wag at the wa” pendulum clock.

Billy established his own theatre company and it has been claimed that he was the first to use the term “Geordie” for the natives of Newcastle.

Billy retained a great love for Midlothian throughout his life. He bought a house for two of his maiden aunts in Auchendinny and called in to see them whenever he was in the area.

Billy died in December 1853 and was buried in St Hilda’s Church in Hartlepool, where his grave may still be seen: “the Jester of the North”.