Billy Bluelight was one of the more colourful characters of early and mid-twentieth-century Norwich. Billy's true life history has proved to be difficult to establish. An appeal in local newspapers a few years ago resulted in contact from the public who related their memories of the eccentric showman. In spite of this, it was still difficult to separate myth from legend. His closest relatives were unable to shed much light on his private life.
He was born William Cullum, supposedly in Norwich in 1859, although no record of this is known. He never married and until she died, probably around 1930, lived with his mother. Mother and son are known to have lived in the Oak Street area and in rooms in St. Mary's house during the 1920s. He taught himself to read newspapers and books and was a good conversationalist. He is well remembered for his rhymes and sales talk. He worked for a short time in Caley's chocolate factory (on the site of present-day Chapel Field Shopping Mall). An article about him appeared in Carrow Works Magazine in 1907. Locals remember him selling firewood and blackberries and some recall him selling papers during World War Two. It is claimed, though not proven, that Billy lived in Hall Road, near a public house which was renamed the Billy Bluelight in 1955.
Billy was especially known in the 1920s and 1930s, for his athletic prowess in racing the fast-moving commercial Wherry boats along the River Yare from Norwich to Yarmouth. He would also race the popular pleasure steamboats, Jenny Lind, Yarmouth Belle, or Waterfly, from Bramerton to the old Carrow Bridge in Norwich. Dressed in running gear of singlet and long white shorts, with a striped cricket hat on his head and a row of medals on his chest, the small, wiry figure would issue his challenge to the pleasure boats:
'My name is Billy Bluelight, my age is forty-five,
I hope to get to Carrow Bridge, before the boat arrive.'
His athletic performance was part of the day's outing for the day-trippers on the boats. The five-mile, cross-country run was routed from Bramerton, through kissing gates, and across the common. He then took a short cut across the Whitlingham sewage farm, and emerged level with the boat by the old limekiln at Crown Point, disappearing to take a detour over Trowse Bridge. By the time the boat reached old Carrow Bridge, Billy would be there, to be greeted with applause and a shower of pennies from the day-trippers.
Racing along the riverbank was not his only occupation. He was also known as a Norwich street-seller. His regular pitch was on the Walk near the Royal Arcade where he sold flowers and blue-tipped matches, the latter may have contributed to his nickname of Billy Bluelight, or perhaps it was because his nose would be blue with cold in the winter when he sold Leach's cough lozenges, 'good for coughs, colds and boys' chests'. For this he would be dressed in a military-style uniform or frock coat, covered in medals and with a peaked cap or bowler on his head. Sometimes he sold cough lozenges from door to door with the slogan:
'Patronised by Norwich City footballers, as oil is to the machine,
so is this wonderful cough lozenge to the lungs'.
Another, more probable theory about his name is the fact that Billy was never known to smoke or drink and was often to be found outside Norwich factories and pubs speaking out against the dangers of drink. A teetotaller, or Temperance worker, was known in Victorian times as a Bluelight.
After his death in 1949 Norwich people subscribed to a bench, erected by the riverside, as 'recognition of the common man by the common people'. The inscription on the bench read: 'In memory of Billy Bluelight (William Cullum) 1859-1949'.
• Billy Bluelight, a Short Biography from the Crude Apace Theatre Company website http://www.crudeapache.co.uk/billy.html , Carver.T
• King, C., The Trowse Triangle, C.King, Norwich Rivers Heritage Group, Norwich, 2004