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A penny in the cap

In my last post I took a look at a group of people that populated London’s streets in the mid 1800s called Patterers. This was the heyday of the street merchant or costermonger. Alongside these were the street entertainer. I have to come clean, I loath street entertainers of the type you see today in places such as Covent Garden. Sometimes I want to scream at the hoards of tourists who pack the piazza, “You’ve got all these streets, their architecture and history around you, and you choose to spend your time watching some failed RADA evictee being a silver painted living statue, are you mad!”, but each to their own. Oh how much better I feel getting that off my chest.

One street entertainer that I would have like to have seen and would probably have parted with a few coins for the privilege, was Billy Waters.

Billy Waters was a black sailor in the Royal Navy who served in North America. He may have been born into enslavement around 1778 and then been set free or escaped his master, but details of his early life are unclear. After losing his leg in an accident at sea, when he fell from the mast’s rigging he moved to London where he was awarded a very small Naval pension. He helped support his wife and two children by busking outside the Adelphi Theatre on the Strand. He became a well known entertainer, famous not only for this singing and violin-playing but also for his sailor hat and feathers and for his peculiar antics, as he would dance nautical jigs, his peg leg clip clopping on the pavement as he capered about.

Depiction of “A life in London”

His fame was such that he became a character depicted in playwright William Moncrieff’s Tom and Jerry, or Life in London and Billy played himself in several performances. He was elected King of Beggars because of his fame and the regard of his peers. His small naval pension eventually left him so poor that he had to sell his violin and it was said that he would have also sold his wooden leg but it was worthless with wear.

At the age of 45 Billy suddenly fell ill and died ten days later in the St Giles workhouse. He left a will, which was written in verse, one part reads

Thus poor Black Billy’s made his Will, His Property was small good lack, For till the day death did him kill His house he carried on his back. The Adelphi now may say alas! And to his memory raise a stone: Their gold will be exchanged for brass, Since poor Black Billy’s dead and gone.

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