In the fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, there’s a brief, unexplained description of a black man walking the streets of Regency London wearing a hat with a complete model ship on it. The other day this book of old illustrations was added to Project Gutenberg, and in it I noticed the header image, done by C.E. Brock to illustrate Charles Lamb’s essay “A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis.” Clearly the idea of Black Guy with Boat on Head was not just a figment of Susanna Clarke’s imagination. What’s more, Black Guy with Boat on Head isn’t mentioned in the essay itself, so he must be a recognizable figure to the audience of this 1899 reprint, a go-to image of the poor and homeless of historic London. So who is he? To the Google machine!
He’s Joseph Johnson, a famous beggar and ex-sailor, who was wounded and unable to continue serving on ships, but not entitled to a military pension because he had only worked on private merchant vessels. This site has an excerpt from an 1817 work called Vagabondiana, or, Anecdotes of mendicant wanderers through the streets of London, showing that Johnson was a familiar sight at this time in London and many surrounding towns. A beggar needed a good gimmick to stand out from the crowd, and Johnson built himself a model of the ship of the line HMS Nelson, which he could make “sail” distinctively through the streets by bobbing and swaying as he walked. Between this and singing patriotic naval songs, he apparently made a decent living. Good for him.