The wounded sailor who became Georgian London’s favourite dancer

Billy Waters, a busker, in a crowded London street, c 1822
Billy Waters, a busker, in a crowded London street, c 1822 - Alamy

On Tuesday March 3 1812, William Waters’s life changed forever. Standing on the top-sail yard of HMS Ganymede – perhaps 100 feet high – he lost his footing, flew from the rigging, and thudded onto the oak deck below. Both legs were broken. In haste, he was carried down to the sickbay – a dark, dank stuffy area below the waterline – where the ship’s surgeon, Felix Delany, waited for him.

Without anaesthetic or antiseptic, Waters was pinned down to the table by a team of surgeon’s assistants (known as “loblolly boys”). Delany got to work, flaying skin, cleaving bone, and tying arteries and veins with ligatures. Only minutes after Waters had stood tall on the rigging of the ship, his left leg was severed from his body.

This is one of many dramatic episodes in the life of Waters, the subject of a new biography by Mary L Shannon, titled Billy Waters is Dancing. Born in New York in the 1770s, likely into enslavement, Waters became a skilled Royal Navy sailor. Then, after his terrible fall, he started a new chapter in London as a street performer. With a distinctive appearance – black skin, a wooden leg and a fabulous feathered hat – he wowed crowds with his dancing and fiddle playing, soon attaining celebrity status. “Every child in London,” wrote James Catnach, the prolific Seven Dials publisher, grew to know of Billy Waters, who attracted “much mirth and attention”.

Today, however, Waters is largely forgotten. “Hardly anything is written,” Shannon tells us, “which is detailed, authoritative or even accurate. This book aims to set that right”. The result is a “two-in-one biography”, half of the man, William Waters, and half of the famous character, “Billy Waters”, which existed separately in the public consciousness, and – after being hijacked by illustrators, dramatists, caricaturists, and writers – outgrew its creator. This dual identity resulted in surreal moments. Take the night of November 26 1821, when a new play opened at London’s Adelphi Theatre. As Waters performed in the nearby streets, earning his keep, crowds jostled past towards the Adelphi. Once inside, they watched a white actor in a powdered wig and blackface playing one of the most beloved characters of the day: “Billy Waters”.

The challenge for Shannon – and her readers – is one faced by many biographers of ordinary figures from history: the dearth of surviving sources. Details of Waters’s life are scant. As a result, the text is peppered with rhetorical questions, such as “What happened to them between 1812 and 1823?” Nevertheless, Shannon does well to explore these avenues, which tussle with themes of race, disability and fame in the Georgian period. Instead of a day-to-day biographical account, we explore the rich tapestry of Waters’s world – “the larger cultural rhythms within which [Waters] danced”.

Mary L Shannon, author of Billy Waters is Dancing
Mary L Shannon, author of Billy Waters is Dancing

And what a dance it is. First, we spin through 1790s New York, with its black-owned oyster cellars, underground dance-halls and drinking dens. Next comes a visit to black American sailors in a Dartmoor camp holding prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars, who stave off boredom “with the sound of clarionets, flutes, violins, flageolets, fifes, and tambourines, together with… whooping and singing”. Then we’re hurled through the dank passageways and alleys of London’s most notorious slum, the Rookery, not far from Tottenham Court Road, which was the “last desperate refuge of the destitute” – and where Waters settled.

Despite living in society’s underbelly, Waters darted among famous names of the Georgian world. In 1811, he enrols on HMS Namur, which was later captained by Charles Austen, younger brother of Jane. He appears in the satires of George Cruikshank, and the writing of Douglass, Dickens, and Thackeray. There are familiar locations, too: in an 1823 print, Waters performs beside an equestrian statue of Charles I, which still stands at the top of Whitehall.

Billy Waters is Dancing is an unusual book. It’s a riveting tale of a flamboyant character, thoughtfully and vividly evoked, with a sinister warning about the perils of celebrity. But it also offers an insight into the processes of a diligent historian, and proves that, if proper investigation is applied, the past is abundant with wonderful stories and remarkable lives that are waiting to be rediscovered – waiting to dance once more.

Alice Loxton is the author of Uproar!: Satire, Scandal and Printmakers in Georgian London. Billy Waters is Dancing is published by Yale University Press at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books