John Bilby: Norwich’s Travelling Hairdresser

It can be suggested that autobiographical records are amongst the most personal and private forms of document available within an archive, this allowing researchers to obtain new information on the period in question. Therefore, it can be claimed that John Bilby’s handwritten notebook is no exception to this concept (NRO, MC 27/2, 501X4).

MC 27-2 (1)

Front page of John Bilby’s notebook. NRO, MC 27/1, 501×4


John Bilby, a self-titled hair cutter and dresser, was born on the 27th of October 1801 in the town of Great Yarmouth. His personal notebook follows his life story from the age of 12 months old, at which age his family first took up residence in Norwich on Ber Street (and later in King Street). Bilby appears to organise his own family history into a series of descriptive lists which focus on particular events such as the marriage and death of his parents and the lives of his siblings. It is within these explanatory lists that Bilby first references his transition to an apprentice haircutter from an errand boy to Mr Willement of ‘St Georges’.

 ‘On the 20th day of Augt 1815 = I was bound out Apprentice to Mr. Mason. Tailor and hair dresser of King Street in Norwich’.

 ‘I was with my master (Mr. Mason.) but two years before we disagreed’ ‘I was then turned over to one Mr. Hewett – hair cutter and dresser’.

In addition to these life events, Bilby also appears to include information on techniques and skills which have aided him in his apprenticeship as a haircutter and dresser. For instance, particular remedies for both cuts and bruises have been listed along with the accurate measurements and preparation techniques required. However, in contrast to the serious stance Bilby took towards his job title, it appears that in some cases he was able to find humour within the situation. For instance, a poem titled ‘On A Lady Who Wore False Hair In Norwich’ humorously describes how women often denied that they wore false hair even though Bilby often knew ‘Where She Bought It’.

MC 27-2 (2)

Short poem titled ‘On A Lady Who Wore False Hair in Norwich. NRO, MC 27/2, 501×4


In comparison to the personal and autobiographical nature of the opening entry of the notebook it appears that when reversed, the document begins to function as a travel diary in which Bilby is able to describe in detail the journeys he undertook during 1828. His excursions (and the activities which he participated in) are clearly noted in the ‘Contents’ page provided for the reader. One particular trip which appears to be discussed in its entirety is Bilby’s trip to Lincoln, a city situated within the East Midlands. The Hairdresser describes the nature of the city in depth, from the ‘very troublesome’ upper and lower streets which were considerably hard to navigate to the imposing cathedral which stands on a hill so high, that it can be ‘seen in six counties round’. 50 miles to the North and 30 miles to the South’. Observations such as these are also employed to describe the cities and towns of Nottingham, Peterborough and Newark which Bilby further travelled to during 1828.

Furthermore, a change in writing style can also be observed throughout the later entries of the journal. This appears to signify John Bilby’s passing whom the subsequent writer remarks on in an entry dated 1839.

MC 27-2 (5)

Excerpt referencing John Bilby’s death. NRO, MC 27/2, 501×4


Compiled by NRO Research Blogger, Millie Sutton

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2 Responses to John Bilby: Norwich’s Travelling Hairdresser

  1. Pingback: Norwich’s 19th Century ‘Hair Cutter & Dresser’! – Norfolk Tales & Myths

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