Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bill

By Belinda


I first read about him in the book, Alvechurch Past and Present . He was known as "Workhouse Bill," or "Belfry Bill," but his proper name was William Bourne.

He was described in the Poor Law papers  as "imbecile," or as "Poor Will," and, in a newspaper article about the church renovations, as "demented."

The 1851 census notes Bill as living in Swan Street, (which was where Martha Harber, whom I wrote about recently, also lived) but he lived mostly in the church tower, sleeping in the belfry under a mat.

Bill was armed with a rusty sword and a pistol to guard the graveyard from "resurrection men," who stole recently buried bodies for the instruction of medical students.

When part of the old church was demolished for renovations, Bill roamed the ruins "like a raven," saying that, "The French be coming."

Bill was a gravedigger and rang the morning and evening bells, at 5.00 a.m. and 8.00 p.m. He was short, only about 4 ft 6 inches tall, but known sometimes as "Big Bill," and he was unkempt and dirty as his photograph attests.

He was well known for his skill at mending clocks and I wonder how he learned. Did he love to take things apart and put them back together, or did he learn by watching or apprenticing with someone when young?.

When I recently reread the little booklet about Martha's life, The Story of Martha; Bill showed up! The unnamed writer of the booklet writes:
 On the other side of the street, up on the bank, was the village Workhouse,--merely two or three cottages. How many of us can remember, "Big Will  o' the Work'us," with his skill in mending church clocks, and the old rusty sword that he kept for chasing imaginary "Rooshians," round the churchyard by night? "Where does the wind come from?" was one of his odd saying, often repeated.
In Martha's booklet the annual celebration of Oak-Apple Day is mentioned, which was observed by sticking oak boughs over the doors and windows of most of the houses. "Big Will" used to set a large bough on the top of the church tower, his favourite haunt.

Martha had worked as a servant to "old Mrs. Davis," who lived opposite the baker's in the square. The writer noted that Martha very likely gave support to her mother Molly, who had worked so hard all of her life, deserted by her husband and hearing impaired. She ended her days in the shelter of the almshouse.

One day in October, 1854, Mrs. Davis gave a party to the old almshouse people. It often gave Martha much interest to go over their names and ages, and the total of the years. And it is in this list that the last mention is made of Bill, for it notes his age as 55, by then, making the year of his birth, 1799. Here is the list:
Old Job, aged.....................81
Old John.............................74
Bobby Taylor......................69
Wildsmith............................82
Fulford................................73
Denham...............................80
"The King"...........................66
Molly Harber.......................81
Sally....................................79
Mrs. Davis...........................82
Bourne................................77
Bill .....................................55      (Total years lived by everyone at the party: 899)
It is interesting that Martha herself was not included in the list of guests she loved to recount. Of course she was a servant, but these were all the poor and humble of the village, including her mother, Molly.


The person named "Bourne," aged 77, could have been a relative of Bill's, perhaps his father, for Bill's last name was Bourne, and the age difference of 22 years makes that possible.
                             

In all the descriptions of Bill, while he was a "character" among other characters in the village, he is just part of the beautiful patchwork quilt of people who walked the streets of Alvechurch a hundred and fifty years ago or so and what is written about him anecdotally describes him, and tells of his skills and unique place in the village. I love that.

Colleen Townsend, a friend who is a songwriter and singer, wrote this line in one of her songs:

In the choir of community I found my voice.

I loved that too.

5 comments:

Susan said...

I enjoyed every word! I'm glad you added the blue ones. :)

Dave Hingsburger said...

I love these stories and feel like an unoffical resident of Alvechurch. It's interesting to me how difference was viewed at different times in our history. Bill was simply a 'character' rather than 'other' who needed to be 'somewhere else' rather than 'in our midst'. Cool

Belinda said...

Susan, thank you for your additional detective work, looking for "traces of Bill" in history. How wonderful that he is not forgotten and is actually now internationally renowned, a hundred and fifty years later. :)

Belinda said...

Dave, yes, in Martha's story, with a mother who was, in her story described as nearly "stone deaf," and Martha herself as she aged, the village took care of its own. They all belonged. I love that.

Marilyn said...

Am late coming to these recent posts due from last week, but enjoyed this one and especially the quote at the end!