The Infamous Black Buskers of London

Billy Waters b.1778 & Joseph ‘Black Joe’ Johnson b.1796

There are many examples of Black men who served in the British army and the Royal Navy as musicians, drummers and trumpeters. Less well known are those who were professional or amateur musicians. Black artists from a variety of social backgrounds were performing in Britain from the 16th century. Billy Waters and Joseph Johnson are two such men.

Post by Rob Burns

Billy Waters

Was an ex navy Black man who busked in London in the nineteenth century by singing, playing the violin and entertaining theatre goers with his “peculiar antics”. Known as the ‘King of the Beggars’, he was a well known figure in early nineteenth-century popular culture.

Waters was an African American ex-sailor, who lost a leg serving on the ship ‘Ganymede’ and so turned to busking in London to supplement his meagre pension. Waters’ pitch was outside the Adelphi theatre on the Strand. He adopted a distinctive costume of ‘Cocked hat adorned with various coloured feathers, a sailor’s jacket & canvas trousers and of course his wooden leg’ which together with his fiddle-playing, his dancing, and his trademark song ‘Kitty Will You Marry Me’, made him a well-known figure on London’s streets.

Courtesy of Royal Museums Greenwich painted by David Wilkie c1815
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Michael Graham-Stewart Slavery Collection. Acquired with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund

Billy Waters (c.1778–1823) was born in America during the War of Independence. He was a seaman in the Royal Navy and lost his leg as a result of falling from the topsail yard of the ‘Ganymede’ in 1812. Unable to serve at sea, he became a famous London street entertainer and was often to be seen busking with his fiddle to support his family. Waters featured in Pierce Egan’s ‘Life in London’ (1820–21) and was one of the characters illustrated by George Cruikshank. Indeed, Waters appeared in several Cruikshank cartoons, including ‘The New Union Club’ (NMM, ZBA2498). Waters ended his days in St Giles’s Workhouse, having fallen ill and been forced to pawn his fiddle. He was elected ‘king of the beggars’ shortly before his death. While the attribution to Sir David Wilkie is not certain, it is entirely possible that Waters was painted by him most likely in London.

Royal Museums Greenwich

Billy’s greatest fame came, however, after he was immortalised in W. T. Moncrieff’s hit 1821 stage version of ‘Life in London’ (Tom And Jerry). Inside the Adelphi, Mr Paolo played Billy Waters on stage in a scene based on his street performance, illustration and popular culture all intersected.

However he departed this world very poor and prior to his death sold his beloved fiddle to a pawnbroker along with his wooden leg. He died 10 days after being admitted into St Giles workhouse with a lingering condition, ironically a short time before his demise he was elected ‘King of a party of Beggars’. He did his very best as a disabled man but left his wife and two children destitute.

Joseph ‘Black Joe’ Johnson

Was an ex sailor in the Royal Navy and busker extraordinaire a beggar and street performer, also known as ‘Black Joe’, is of unknown parentage and origin. He had served as a seaman until he was forced to retire because of ‘wounds rendering him incapable of doing further duty on the ocean’. Not being entitled to relief payments ‘having been employed in the merchants’ service only’.

Working as a sailor was one of many, primarily lower-class occupations available to Black Britons. Joseph Johnson is notably excluded from the military and thus, despite obvious injuries, does not receive compensation from Greenwich.

To survive, Johnson turned to busking. He was able to draw particular attention to himself on account of his novel head attire – he built and wore a model of the seafaring military vessel Nelson on his cap.

London had for centuries been home to distinct numbers of Black people, and the little that is known of ‘Black Joe’ actually reveals much about some of the ways in which the free Black presence in the capital was constituted two centuries ago.

By building a model of the Nelson, Johnson was not only telling an instantly recognisable and understandable story about his own biography (having been a seaman), he was also utilising a representation of what was one of the most recognisable and celebrated military sea craft of its day. Johnson’s choice of hat was certainly inspired by his time as a sailor, and yet the juxtaposition of a black man and large ship during a time of heated debate surrounding slavery also resonates on other levels.

Courtesy of Sound and History article VAGABONDIANA

At the time of this sketch, “taken from life,” the slave trade had (ostensibly) been abolished, but slavery itself was still rampant, a fact that may or may not have been lost on the women taking sugar in their tea as Johnson theatrically “sailed” passed.

‘Black Joe’ is taken to represent both the black urban poor and the particularly creative or ingenious beggar.

NOTE: He is one of only two characters in the book Vagabondiana’ identified by a African British signifier. The other is Charles M’Gee:

The following plate presents the portrait of another black man of great notoriety, Charles M’Gee, a native of Ribon, in Jamaica, born in 1744, and whose father died at the great age of 108. This singular man usually stands at the Obelisk, at the foot of Ludgate-Hill. He has lost an eye, and his woolly hair, which is almost white, is tied up behind in a tail, with a large tuft at the end, horizontally resting upon the cape of his coat. Charles is supposed to be worth money. His stand is certainly above all others the most popular, many thousands of persons crossing it in the course of a day. He has of late on the working-days sported a smart coat, presented to him by a city pastry-cook. On a Sunday he is a constant attendant at Rowland Hill’s meeting-house, and on that occasion his apparel is appropriately varied.

Vagabondania 1817
Charles M’Gee illustration courtesy of Sound and History article VAGABONDIANA

Further reading

Billy Waters – Wikipedia

Joseph Johnson – IB Taurus Blog

W. T. Moncrieff and the play ‘Life in London’ (Tom And Jerry) in Wikipedia

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