Dr Mary Shannon wins Leverhulme award to research 18th century busker

  • Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Image - Dr Mary Shannon wins Leverhulme award to research 18th century busker

The School of Humanities is delighted to announce that Dr Mary Shannon has won a 15-month research fellowship worth £60,000 from the prestigious Leverhulme Trust. Her research, entitled The Celebrated Billy Waters and Popular Culture in 19th-century Britain will examine the life and legacy of Billy Waters (c.1786-1823), the famed African-American busker in 19th-century London who became known as 'King of the Beggars'.

Waters entertained theatre-goers on the streets of central London by playing violin and performing 'peculiar antics' in exchange for halfpennies, dressed in a naval uniform and a feathered hat. He is often just a footnote in academic histories but was once a famous character in a widespread literary craze. An ex-sailor and  transatlantic migrant, Waters allows us to reconceptualise black presence in 19th-century Britain and to re-evaluate a broader range of literary culture, from Dickens to Thackeray. This project demonstrates how this seemingly marginalized individual allows us to rethink the construction of Victorian and present-day historical memory, and the relationship of popular culture to both the archive and literary cultures. Billy Waters portrait.jpg

Dr Shannon comments: "Billy Waters is a largely-forgotten character in nineteenth-century literature and culture, but he was of widespread importance at the time. I'm looking forward to recovering diverse histories through exploring Waters and his world, as well as his legacy in the popular culture of Victorian Britain and beyond."