London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Silly Billy.


THE character of "Silly Billy" is a kind of clown, or rather a clown"s butt; but not after the style of Pantaloon, for the part is comparatively juvenile. Silly Billy is supposed to be a schoolboy, although not dressed in a charity-boy"s attire. He is very popular with the audience at the fairs; indeed, they cannot do without him. "The people like to see Silly Billy," I was told, "much more than they do Pantaloon, for he gets knocked about more though, but he gives it back again. A good Silly," said my informant, "has to imitate all the ways of a little boy. When I have been going to a fair, I have many a time stopped for hours watching boys at play, learning their various games, and getting their sayings. For instance, some will go about the streets singing:

Eh, higgety, eh ho!

Billy let the water go!

which is some song about a boy pulling a tap from a water-butt, and letting the water run. There"s another:

Nicky nickey nite.

I"ll strike a light!

I got these both from watching children whilst playing. Again, boys will swear "By the liver and lights of a cobbler"s lapstone!" and their most regular desperate oath is,

Ain"t this wet? ain"t it dry?

Cut my throat if I tells a lie.

They"ll say, too "S"elp my greens!" and "Upon my word and say so!" All these sayings I used to work up into my Silly Billy, and they had their success.

"I do such things as these, too, which is regularly boyish, such as "Give me a bit of your bread and butter, and I"ll give you a bit of my bread and treacle." Again, I was watching a lot of boys playing at pitch-button, and says, "Ah, you"re up to the rigs of this hole; come to my hole—you can"t play there!" I"ve noticed them, too, playing at ring-taw, and of their exclamations is "Knuckle down fair, and no funking." All these sayings are very useful to make the character of Silly Billy perfect. Bless you, sir, I was years studying boys before I came out as Silly Billy. But then I persevere when I take a thing in hand; and I stick so close to nature, that I can"t go far wrong in that line. Now this is a regular boy"s answer: when somebody says "Does your mother know you"re out?" he replies, "Yes, she do; but I didn"t know the organ-man had lost his monkey!" That always went immense.

It"s impossible to say when Silly Billy


come out at fairs, or who supported the character. It"s been popular ever since a fair can be remembered. The best I ever saw was Teddy Walters. He"s been at all the fairs round the universe—England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and France. He belonged to a circus when he went abroad. He"s done Silly Billy these year, and he"s a great comic singer beside. I was reckoned very clever at it. I used to look it by making up so young for it. It tires you very much, for there"s so much exertion attached to it by the dancing and capering about. I"ve done it at the fairs, and also with tumblers in the street; only, when you do it in the street, you don"t do onehalf the business.

The make--up for a Silly Billy is this: Short white trousers and shoes, with a strap round the ankle, long white pinafore with a frill round the neck, and red sleeves, and a boy"s cap. We dress the head with the hair behind the ears, and a dab of red on the nose and patches of black over the eyebrows. When I went to the fair I always took pairs of white trousers with me. The girls used to get up playing larks with me, and smearing my white trousers with gingerbread. It"s a very favourite character with the women —they stick pins into you, as if you were a pin-cushion. I"ve had my thighs bleeding sometimes. time, during Greenwich, a ugly old woman came on the parade and kissed me, and made me a present of a silver sixpence, which, I needn"t say, was soon spent in porter. Why, I"ve brought home with me sometimes toys enough to last a child a fortnight, if it was to break every day, such as carts and horses, cock and breeches, whistles, &c. You see, Silly Billy is supposed to be a thievish sort of a character, and I used to take the toys away from the girls as they were going into the theatre, and then I"d show it to the Clown and say, "Oh, look what that nice lady"s give me! I shall take it home to my mother."

I"ve done Silly Billy for Richardson"s, and near every booth of consequence. The general wages is from to the day, but my terms was always the half-crowns. When there"s any fairs on, I can always get a job. I always made it a rule never to go far away from London, only to Greenwich or Gravesend, but not farther, for I can make it better in town working the concert-rooms. There are some who do nothing but Silly Billy; and then, if you take the year round, it comes to days" work a-week. The regular salary doesn"t come to more than a pound a-week, but then you make something out of those who come up on the parade, for will chuck you , some and We call those parties "prosses." I have had such a thing as give to me. We are supposed to share this among the company, and we generally do. These are the "nobbings," and may send up your earnings to as much as a- week, besides drink, which you can have more given to you than you want.

When we go about the streets with tumblers, we mostly only sing a song, and dance, and keep the ring whilst the performance is going on. We also "nob," or gather the money. I never heard of a Silly Billy going out busking in tap-rooms and that. The tumblers like the Silly Billy, because the dress is attractive; but they are getting out of date now, since the grotesque clown is so much in the street. I went about with a school termed "The Demons," and very clever they was, though they"ve all broke up now, and I don"t know what"s become of them. There were of them. We did middling, but we could always manage to knock up such a thing as each a-week. I was, on and off, about months with them. After their tumbling, then my turn would begin. The drummer would say: "Turn and turn about"s fair play. Billy, now it"s your turn. A song from Billy; and if we meet with any encouragement, ladies and gentlemen, the young man here will tie his legs together and chuck several summersets." Then I"d sing such a song as "Clementina Clements," which begins like this:

You talk of modest girls,

Now I"ve seen a few,

But there"s none licks the one

I"m sticking up to.

But some of her faults

Would make some chaps ill;

But, with all her faults,

Yes, I love her still.

Such a delicate duck was Clementina Clements;

Such a delicate duck I never did see.

There"s verse where she won"t walk over a potato-field because they"ve got eyes, and another when she faints at seeing a Dutch doll without clothes on. Then she doesn"t like tables" legs, and all such as that, and that"s why she is "such a delicate duck." That song always tells with the women. Then I used to sing another, called "What do men and women marry for?" which was a very great favourite. verse that went very well was:

If a good wife you"ve got, (But there"s very few of those,)

Your money goes just like a shot:

They"re everlasting wanting clothes.

And when you"ve bought "em all you can,

Of course you cannot buy them more;

They cry, Do you call yourself a man?

Was this what we got married for?

When I danced, it was merely a comic dance—what we call a "roley poley." Sometimes, when we had been walking far, and pitching a good many times, the stones would hurt my feet awful with dancing.

Pitching with tumblers is nothing compared to fair-parading. There you are the principal of the comic men after Clown, for he"s . We have regular scenes, which take minutes working through. When the parade is slack, then comes the Silly Billy business. There"s a very celebrated sketch, or


whatever you call it, which Clown and Silly Billy do together, taking off mesmerism.

Clown comes on, dressed up in a tall white hat, and with a cloak on. He says that he has just arrived from the island of Mititti, and that he"s the great Doctor Bokanki, the most celebrated mesmeriser in the world. He says, "Look at me. Here I am. Ain"t I mesmerised elephants? Ain"t I mesmerised monkeys? and ain"t I going to mesmerise him?" He then tells Silly Billy to sit in the chair. Then he commences passing his hands across his eyes. He asks Billy, "What do you see, Billy?" He turns his face, with his shut eyes, towards the crowd, and says, "A man with a big nose, sir, and such a many pimples on his face." "And now what do you see, Billy?" "Oh, ain"t that gal a-winking at me! You be quiet, or I"ll tell my mother." "Now what do you see, Billy?" "Nothink." Then the doctor turns to the crowd, and says, "Now, ladies and gentlemen, I shall touch him on the fakement at the back of his head which is called a bump. Oh, my eyes! ain"t Billy"s head a-swelling! This bump, ladies and gentlemen, is called a organ—not a church nor yet a chapel organ, nor yet of them they grind in the street. And here"s another organ," he says, putting his hand on Billy"s stomach. "This here is called his wittling department organ, or where he puts his grub. I shall now touch him on another fakement, and make him sing." Then he puts his finger on Billy"s head, and Billy sings:

As I one day was hawking my ware,

I thought I"d invent something novel and rare;

For as I"m not green, and I know what"s o"clock,

So I"ll have a go in at the pine-apple rock.

Tol de ro lay, tol de ro lay.

Then Billy becomes quiet again, and the doctor says, "I"ll now, ladies and gentlemen, touch him on another fakement, and cause Billy to cry. This here is his organ of the handling department." Then he takes Billy"s finger and bites it, and Billy begins to roar like a town bull. Then the doctor says, "I"ll now, ladies and gentlemen, touch him on another fakement, whereby the youth can tell me what I"ve got in my hand." He then puts his hand in his coat-tail pocket, and says, "Billy, what have I got in my hand?" and Billy says, "Ah, you nasty beast! why it"s a—it"s a—it"s a —oh, I don"t like to say!" They do this a lot of times, Billy always replying, "Oh, I don"t like to say!" until at last he promises that, if he won"t tell his mother, he will; and then he says, "It"s a small-tooth comb." "Very right, Billy; and what"s in it?" "Why, of them "ere things that crawls." "Very right, Billy; and what is it?" "Why, it"s a—it"s a blackbeetle." "Very right, Billy; look again. Do you see anything else?" "There"s some crumbs." Then he tells Billy, that as he is such a good boy he"ll bring him to; and Billy says, "Oh, don"t, please, sir; "s quite enough." Then he brings him to, and Billy says, "Oh, ain"t it nice! Oh, it"s so golly! Here, you young woman, I wish you"d let me touch your bumps." Then, if the people laugh, he adds, "You may laugh, but it gives you a all-over sort of a feeling, as if you had drunk pints of pickling vinegar."

That"s a very favourite scene; but I haven"t give it you all, for it would fill a volume. It always makes a hit; and Billy has a rare chance of working comic attitudes and so on when the doctor touches his bumps.

There"s another very celebrated scene for Silly Billy. It"s what we call the preaching scene. Silly Billy mounts up a ladder, and Clown holds it at the bottom, and looks through the steps. Clown has to do the clerk to Billy"s parson. Billy begins by telling the clerk that he must say "Barley sugar" at the end of every sentence he preaches. Billy begins in this way:—"Keyind brethren, and you fair damsels," and he"s supposed to be addressing the chaps and gals on the parade, "I hope that the text I shall give you will be a moral to you, and prevent you from eating the forbidden sweets of—" "Barley sugar!" "No, you fool—sin! and that will put you in the right path as you walk through the fields of—" "Barley sugar!" "No; virtue, you fool! My text is taken from the epistle of Thomas to the Ethiopians, the chapter, and slices off a leg of mutton, where it says so beautifully—" "Barley sugar!" "No, no; that"s not it! Now it come to go along in the year in the month, days before that, as we was journeying through the land of—" "Barley sugar!" "No, no, you fool! keep quiet. Flowerpotamia, we met a serpent, and from his mouth was issuing—" "Barley sugar!" "No, no! fire." Then all the people on the parade jump up and shout, "Where?" Then Billy says, "Oh, my sister"s tom-cat, here"s a congregation! Sit down." When they are all quiet again, Billy goes on: "Now this I say unto you—" "Barley sugar!" "Keep quiet, will you!" and he hits Clown with his foot. " shall be well and shall be queer. Oh, ain"t I ill! Go, men of little understanding, and inherit a basin of pea-soup at the cook-shop, together with—" "Barley sugar!" "No such thing!—my blessing. Unto you will I give nothing, and unto you just half as much—" "Barley sugar!" "Hold your tongue! You that have had nothing shall give it back again, and you that had nothing at all, you shall keep it. Now let us sing—" "Barley sugar!" "No; a song." Then Billy tells them to get their books, and they take up pint pots, or whatever they can get. "Let us sing," and they all jump up, and they all begin:

If I was a drayman"s horse

One quarter of the year,

I"d put my tail where my head ought to be,

And I"d drink up all the—

"Barley sugar!"—"Hold your tongue!—beer."


After all of them have sung, Billy says, "Now let us say," and all of them howl, "Aye, aye."

Now is the winter of our discontent—

We have not enough money to pay our rent;

And by all the clouds that tip our house,

We"ve not enough food to feed a ——

"Barley sugar!" "Yes, barley sugar," says Billy. Then all the congregation cries—"O —o—o—o;" and Clown says, "Bar—bar— bar—barley sugar," and he is so much affected he weeps and goes to wipe his eyes, and lets the ladder fall, and down comes Billy. He gives sundry kicks, and then pretends to be dying. The congregation say, "Peace be with you, Billy," and he answers, "Yes, peas-pudding and fried taters;" and the Clown howls out, "Barley sugar!" When Billy is dead, if business isn"t very good, they put the body on the ladder, and form a procession. The music goes at the head and plays a hornpipe, slowly, and then they leave the booth, and parade through the fair among the people, with Clown as chief mourner. The people are bursting their sides, and wherever we go they follow after. All the mourners keep crying, "Oh, oh, oh, Billy"s dead!" and then Billy turns round, and sometimes says, "Don"t be fools! it"s only a lark:" or else, "Don"t tell mother; she"ll give me a hiding." This procession business always brings a flock behind us, and fills the theatre, or goes a great way towards it. When I have been Silly Billy, and representing this scene, and been carried through the fair, I"ve been black and blue from the girls coming up and pinching me through the ladder. The girls are wonderfully cheeky at fairs, and all for a lark. They used to get me so precious wild, I couldn"t help coming to life, and say, "Quiet, you hussies!" But it were no good, for they"d follow you all about, and keep on nipping a fellow.

"Another celebrated scene or sketch is the teetotal , and a rich it is. Billy is supposed to have joined the temperance parties. He calls for a tub to preach upon, and he says he will consider it a favour if they could let it be a water-butt. They lift Billy on to the tub, and a cove—Clown generally— sits under to take the chair of the meeting. Then the paraders stand about, and I begin: "Ladies and gentlemen, waking friends, and lazy enemies, and Mr. Chairman, what I"m about to tell you I"m a stanch teetotaler." "Hear, hear, hear," everybody cries. "I have been so for now —" and the Clown suggests "Years." "No, minutes. I"d have you avoid water as you would avoid a bull that wasn"t in a chaney-shop." "Hear, hear, hear." "I once knew a friend of mine who drank water till he was solid mass of ice; and he drank tea till the leaves grew out of his nose." "Oh, oh, hear, hear." "He got so fat, you couldn"t see him. This, my friends, comes of teadrinking!" "Hear, hear, hear." "I hope, kind friends, this will be a lesson to you to avoid drinking too much"—Then the chairman jumps up and says, "Beer!" "No, no; tea. Drink in moderation, and never drink more than I do. pots of ale, pints of porter, glasses of gin, of rum, and of brandy, is enough for any man at time. Don"t drink more, please." "Hear, hear, hear." "That will cause you to be in the height of bloom. Your nose will blossom; your eyes will be bright as burnt holes in a blanket; your head will swell till no hat will fit it. These are facts, my friends; undeniable facts, my kind friends." "Hear, hear, hear." "You will get so fat, you"ll take up the pavement to walk. I believe, and I trust, that what I have said will not convince you that teetotalism and coffeetotalism are the best things ever invented. Sign the pledge. The pledge-book is here. You must all pay a penny; and if you don"t keep up your payments, you will be scratched. With these few remarks I now conclude my address to you, hoping that every friend among you is so benevolent as to subscribe a pot of beer. I shall be happy to drink it, to show you how awful a thing it is not to become a teetotaller." Then they all rush forward to sign the pledge, and they knock Clown over, and he tumbles Silly Billy into the barrel up to his neck. Then we all sing

I likes a drop of good beer,

I likes a drop of good beer;

And hang their eyes if ever they tries

To rob a poor man of his beer.

And that ends the meeting.

I was in Greenwich fair, doing Silly Billy, when the celebrated disturbance with the soldiers took place. I was at Smith and Webster"s booth (Richardson"s that was), and our clown was Paul Petro. He had been a bit of a fighting man. He was bending down for Silly Billy to take a jump over him, and some of the soldiers ran up and took the back. They knocked his back as they went over, and he got shirtey. Then came a row. Four of them pitched into Paul, and he cries out for help. The mob began to pelt the soldiers, and they called out to their comrades to assist them. A regular confusion ensued. The soldiers tumbled us about, and took off their belts. They cut Paul"s forehead right open. I was Silly Billy, and I got a broomstick, and when one of the soldiers gave me a lick over the face with his belt, I pitched him over on the mob with my broomstick. I was tumbled down the steps among the mob, and hang me if they didn"t pitch into me too! I got the awfullest nose you ever see. There was I, in my long pinafore, a-wiping up the blood, and both my eyes going as black as plums. I cut up a side place, and then I sat down to try and put my nose to rights. Lord, how I did look about for plaster! When I came back there was all the fair a fighting. The fightingmen came out of their booths and let into the soldiers, who was going about flourishing their belts and hitting everybody. At last the police came; two of them was knocked down, and sent back on stretchers: but at last, when a picket was sent for, all the soldiers—there was about forty of them—were walked off. They got from six to nine months" imprisonment; and those that let into the police, eighteen months. I never see such a sight. It was all up with poor Silly Billy for that fair, for I had to wrap my face up in plaster and flannel, and keep it so for a week.

I shouldn"t think there were more than a dozen Silly Billys going about at the present time; and out of them there ain"t above three first-raters. I know nearly all of them. When fairs ain"t on they go about the streets, either with schools of tumblers or serenaders; or else they turn to singing at the concerts. To be a good Silly Billy, it requires a man with heaps of funniment and plenty of talk. He must also have a young-looking face, and the taller the man the better for it. When I go out I always do my own gag, and I try to knock out something new. I can take a candle, or a straw, or a piece of gingerbread, or any mortal thing, and lecture on it. At fairs we make our talk rather broad, to suit the audience.

Our best sport is where a girl comes up on the parade, and stands there before going inside—we have immense fun with her. I offer to marry her, and so does Clown, and we quarrel as to who proposed to the young woman first. I swear she"s my gal, and he does the same. Then we appeal to her, and tell her what we"ll give her as presents. It makes immense fun. The girls always take it in good part, and seem to enjoy it as much as the mob in front. If we see that she is in any ways shy we drop it, for it"s done for merriment, and not to insult; and we always strive to amuse and not to abuse our friends.

This object is in collection Temporal Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
TARC Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights
View all images in this book
 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men