In today’s terms, John Bilby of Norwich did not live long; he was born in 1801 and died in 1839. He became a tradesman and as far removed from being an author as one would suppose. Nevertheless, he wrote an account of his life and career in an autobiography, supplemented with the regular ‘jottings’ that he entered in his personal journal that he had maintained from quite a young age. Such documents would be considered as the most personal and private forms of writing; fortunately, they have been preserved, thus allowing researchers to obtain fresh information on the period in which John Bilby lived.
John Bilby was born on the 27th of October 1801 in the town of Great Yarmouth and his family moved to Norwich within twelve months of his arrival. His jottings followed his life story from the time his family first took up residence in Norwich and included the addresses at which he lived, until marriage; these included Ber Street in the City, and then later in King Street. During this time, Bilby organised his own family history into a series of descriptive lists which focused on particular events such as the marriage and death of his parents and the lives of his siblings. Bilby’s father died when John was seven years old, so his mother had a struggle caring for John and her other three children, until she remarried in 1811. What follows is just a sketch of his writings.
Soon after his mother remarried, when John was ten years of age, he made his first reference to becoming an errand-boy, and his later transition to becoming an apprentice hairdresser:
“I was engaged as Errand boy to Mr Willement, master weaver of St George’s. Lived with Mr Willement for 12 months, then for a short time at Mr [Houth’s], an Appraiser of London Street in Norwich, left Mr [Houth’s] to go and live with Mr Leeds, a brush maker of St Andrew’s – at this shop I was two years when my master was made a Bankrupt of, and I left. I was also with Mr Ling, a tailor in St Michael at Plea until, on the 20th day of August 1815 I was bound out Apprentice to Mr Mason, tailor and hair-dresser of King Street in Norwich.”………I was with my master (Mr. Mason.) but two years before we disagreed……I was then turned over to one Mr. Hewett – hair cutter and dresser”.
So, like many young men in every generation, John tried a number of jobs before he settled down to train; in his case, to be a ‘hair cutter and dresser’ [hairdresser] – it was the career that he followed for the rest of his life. In addition to his early experiences of life, Bilby was to include in his diary, and his later autobiography, details on the techniques and skills which had aided him in his apprenticeship as a hairdresser. For instance, there were remedies for both cuts and bruises, along with the accurate measurements and preparation techniques required. Then there was his serious approach towards his job title but, at the same time, there were instances when he was able to find humour in most situations. For instance, a poem titled ‘On A Lady Who Wore False Hair in Norwich’ humorously described how women often denied that they wore false hair, even though Bilby often knew ‘where she bought It’!
In 1821, when he had qualified as a hairdresser and gained the necessary experience, he was given the opportunity to run his own barber’s shop:
“I agreed to conduct the Business for Mr Lofty, the Hair Dresser of St Giles, Norwich, 3rd Feb. 1821, he being at the time very ill and not able to attend to it himself……..”
However, Bilby did not remain with that business for long, after joining a musical Group called the ‘Musical Sons of Good Humours’, and was given a job offer by Samuel True, who was the Group’s treasurer. True provided Bilby with a hairdressing parlour in his own house, and had it painted and equipped for a hairdressing business which started trading on 9th March 1822. In his spare time, Bilby continued performing with the musical group, and eventually received a ‘Star Medal’ for serving as its secretary and later as president. In 1822, he was also part of the Norwich Company of Comedian’s appearance at the Theatre Royal in a special show to celebrate the Coronation of King George IV. Bilby took the part of a Knight of the Garter. The Norfolk Chronicle reported:
“In consequence of extensive preparations, the opening of the opening of the Theatre is necessarily postponed until Thursday, 31st January when will be represented the Coronation of His Majesty George IV, as performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The dresses and regalia and every decoration are copied from the models of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, by permission of the Proprietor. The whole of the Company, with numerous *Additional Aid, both vocal and instrumental will be employed to give every possible effect to this splendid ceremony.”
*Bilby was part of the ‘Additional Aid’.
During this same period, Bilby courted a ‘Miss Payne’. It was said that during their courtship ‘they enjoyed a pleasure cruise together on the ‘Nelson’ steam packet to Yarmouth’. Clearly their relationship flourished, both on water and land, for in the same year they married; he writes in his journal:
“I was married to Miss Payne on the 25th November, 1822 by the Rev. Whittingham at St Saviour’s Parish Church – spent the day very comfortably and had a large supper party in the evening at Mr Payne’s house in St Paul’s parish…….”
Thereafter, very little is said in Bilby’s diary about his wife – certainly he was never to mention her forename. He did, however, include her in his entry about their first child:
“My wife was delivered of a fine boy on the 11th of June, 1823, at a quarter before eleven at night. The boy was named John Bilby on the 15th. Mrs Bilby came downstairs on the 22nd, this was the 11th day after her being delivered of a son.”
Two years into his marriage, he was picked to serve five years with the militia as a private; this was in April 1824. He was clearly very reluctant to comply for:
“I found a young man who was willing to serve for me – for a sum of money – this sum I paid him and he was sworn in on the 20th of the same month – his name was Daniel Orford of St Martin’s parish.”
In 1827 the Bilby family moved to his father-in-law’s parish of St Paul’s where John was soon to be appointed as an ‘Overseer for the Poor’; a positioned which he was to fill for a number of years thereafter. We find that the winter of 1837 was a particularly severe one and Bilby, together with other parish helpers, raised several hundreds of pounds to provide food and fuel for the poor. John personally helped to deliver these around the houses of the parish. There was thick snow in the streets, and John writes: “Five officers from the Horse Barracks [in the Pocock parish] amused the public by driving through the streets in a large sledge.” The following winter the weather conditions were identical, and he again writes: “Mr Berry, Mr Dring and myself relieved 2000 poor persons in the St Paul’s parish with bread and coals.”
Bilby’s diary, journal or notebook, whatever one chooses to prefer, was not only of a personal and autobiographical nature throughout, but also functioned as a travel diary in which he described, in detail, the journeys he undertook. His excursions, and the activities which he participated in, are clearly noted in the ‘Contents’ page provided for the reader. One particular trip, discussed in detail, was Bilby’s trip to Lincoln. He described the nature of the city in depth, from the ‘very troublesome’ upper and lower streets which were considerably hard to navigate to the imposing cathedral which stands on a hill so high, that it can be ‘seen in six counties round’. 50 miles to the North and 30 miles to the South’. Similar observations were also employed to describe the cities and towns of Nottingham, Peterborough and Newark which Bilby further travelled to during 1828.
Beyond this date Bilby’s jottings tail off and eventually we learn the last about ‘the virtuous and vigorous Mr Bilby’. Furthermore, a change in writing style can also be observed throughout the later entries of the journal. This seems to signify John Bilby’s passing, as described by the subsequent writer remarks:
“Mr John Bilby died on Sunday the 15th of July at half-past 8 o’clock in the morning, after a long illness which he bore with Christian fortitude, aged 37 years, in 1839, and he was interred in St Giles’ churchyard on the 18th. His funeral was attended by his wife and three children, his two brothers and his sister – Peter, William and Charlotte, and Mr Payne also, his bearers were as follows: Mr Fox, Mr Hart, Mr Whiting, Mr Poll, Mr Alborough and Mr Right.”
The cause of John Bilby’s death was not given, so it is left to pure speculation to suppose that his illness had been particularly virulent and this had led to the death of a comparatively young man. From where, and how, he had picked it up – would again be speculative!
Reeve, Christopher, Norwich – The Biography, Amberley Publishing, 2014
Norfolk Record Office.