Norfolk characters: Who remembers Billy Bluelight and Jock, the Highlander?
PUBLISHED: 15:32 12 January 2019
Born 160 years ago he was a man described so well by our own Ralph Potter as “nature’s gentleman.” His name was William Cullum who became Billy Bluelight.
The other was Jock the Highlander, a Norwich resident for at least 160 years, probably more, who captured the imagination of generations of children.
Billy died 70 years ago but is remembered by a bench at Riverside in Norwich and a statue by the river at Bramerton where he once ran to beat the boats.
The brilliant Norfolk comedian and writer Karl Minns played him so well in a Crude Apache production some years back.
As for jovial Jock, he was last heard of being owned by the Lake St Louis Historical Society in Canada and in the MacDonald Stewart Foundation in Montreal.
I remember staring up at Jock when I was a boy in the 1950s. My mother would drag me to Garlands in London Street but it was the proud soldier on guard outside Millers the tobacconists round the bend I wanted to see and pop a penny into his charity box. He used to raise money for help the blind.
There was often a group of us children just standing there staring at the life-size statue, hoping it would come alive.
Mind you, he did win a fight once.
Elsie King and Edna Rouse who worked in the shop told me how a passing, or stumbling, soldier who had had a drop too much to drink, took one look at Jock, a Black Watch Highlander, and took a swing at him.
The soldier went off clutching his bruised fist and ego.
When Millers closed in 1982 manageress Elsie: “Kids come and talk to him. People who move away from Norwich always come back and have a look at him because he is a landmark.”
For a while he was shipped around the corner to Bewleys in The Walk but was then taken from us.
Almost 20 years ago John Elvin then manager of Churchills, told me: “I fought tooth and nail to keep him in Norwich where he belongs. He should never have left.”
The Sheila Kefford of the Norwich Society along with Tim East took on the challenge to find out just what had happened to our Jock.
She received reports of him being in a swanky snuff shop in Covent Garden. The owner told her that his statue was a mere private and when shown a picture of Jock said he was an officer, rare, and worth a tidy sum.
Sights of Jock were coming in from across the land and then Marian O’Keefe got in touch from America. She once lived in Norwich, Connecticut, and had visited many times our Norwich many times..
She took up the challenge and discovered Jock had been bought quite properly by a dealer and shipped out across the pond.
Sheila wanted to see for herself and while on holiday in America she took the time to track him down...in Canada.
“His departure was another example of a national company have no sense of local heritage,” said Sheila.
We often hear of people from days gone by and think to ourselves...I would have liked to have met them.
One such chap was a fellow by the name of William Cullum, thought to have been born in 1859.
He became known as Billy Bluelight and he emerged from the back streets of Norwich to become one of the best-loved characters, not just in the city, but across Norfolk and Suffolk.
Whether or not Billy went to school is not clear. He may have got his name because Bluelight was a Victorian term for a teetotaller and Billy would speak on the dangers of alcohol.
His claim to fame was the fact that the people loved him and he would dress the part in the summer to race the steam-driven pleasure boats along the Yare and the Wensum.
Reaching out his hand to accept any bets going he would say: “My name is Billy Bluelight, my age is 45, I hope to get to Carrow Road before the boat arrive.”
And he did.
In the winter he could be seen on the city streets and often outside Colman’s when the workers came out selling various items including Leach’s cough tablets.
He lived with his mother but found in difficult to cope with everyday life when she died, probably in the 1930s, and was reported to be in the workhouse at one time.
Billy died at St James’s Hospital, Shipmeadow, Suffolk, in 1949 and our writer Ralph Potter wrote such wise and moving words:
“That overworked term ‘nature’s gentleman’ was never better exemplified than in the gentle, unpretentious character called Billy Bluelight.
“It may seen astonishing that a humble little man could imprint his personality so widely on a large city but it was so.”