Barnsley Characters: Peggy Airey & Watter Joe

We’re celebrating the launch of a new online tour of The Cooper Gallery by taking a look at two of the most talked about portraits in the Cooper Gallery Collection by Cawthorne artist Abel Hold. Tracey Hebron takes a look at the lives of the Barnsley characters depicted

These two portraits feature in a new virtual tour which you can access here: The Cooper Gallery (

‘Watter Joe’ Joseph Broadhead

Joseph Broadhead was an eccentric waterman, the son of Caleb and Ruth Broadhead. His family occupied Thrumpton Hall in Nottingham as a farm before taking another on at Woodsetts, Yorkshire. Joseph’s father died shortly after his birth. His mother remarried and moved to London leaving Joe to be brought up by a paternal aunt Mary and her husband William Earnshaw in Kirkburton. Here he spent his youth, acquired his education and learnt
the art of weaving. Weaving becomes his trade, archive material suggests he often boasted of having being ‘the best lindsey weaver at Shepley’, his work being better by a penny a yard than that of any other persons.

After a few years at Shepley Joe went on to become a footman for a Mr Emmanuel Helam of Hunslet. On the 10 January 1798 he married Hannah Lees. The same year they had a son and named him Caleb. Sadly Hannah died around 1800 of dropsy and was buried near Brighouse. Joe then moved to Barnsley around 1806. This was probably for work as the linen trade in Barnsley flourished at this time. He took various jobs weaving and also in farming.

Later records show that Joe ‘made circuits of certain villages in vending potatoes’ for a Mr Lister. However after an incident where his horse bolted and resulted in him crashing into a garden wall, he lost his job. He then got his own horse and cart and he began water vending in 1816, continuing to do so for 26 years. Water selling was a good trade. In 1811 the population was 5014 and in 1821 the population was 8286. The town was reliant on wells and springs for fresh water. Joe had a water cart and a horse called ‘Old Duke’. He worked on the streets of Barnsley daily and became a familiar sight in the town, acquiring the nickname of ‘Original Waterman’ from having originated the business of vending water about the streets. He often wore his broad brimmed hats and top boots with heavy wooden soles and few could resist the opportunity of cracking a joke with ‘old Joe’.

In 1820 when the New Beer Act came in to operation he had a pub named after him, The Watter Joe, opposite the town pumps. A sign outside the pub read:

‘All you who love a social drop,
Come in and sit you down,
And here you’ll find as good as a tap,
As any in the town
The Merry host with jest and song,
Will keep you on the go
Come then and taste this liquor strong
Come drink with Water Joe’.

Later in life Joe struggled to live on a very meagre income. He received 2s 6d per week from the parish. He would carry coal and manure in a barrow to sell at a profit. For the last ten years of his life he occupied a small apartment in Becketts’ Square at the rate of nine pence a week. He died aged 80 on the 28 December 1852 and was buried at the Friends burial ground Barnsley. Many respectable people attended his funeral.

This photograph of a slightly younger Watter Joe was found in a Barnsley Archives collection, we’re hoping that somewhere out there is a photo of Peggy Airey!

‘Peggy Airey’ Margaret Maggott

Margaret Maggot was a well-known local character and another familiar face in Barnsley in the 19th century. She was often seen walking around the town wearing a bright red coat, an old print bonnet and always carrying a stick. She was often seen searching for and collecting items that could be sold for small change or bits of coal and sticks to use for fuel. On market days she was a conspicuous figure on Market Hill and Church Street. For a fee she would tell your fortune and at Christmas and New Year she would make visits to the wealthy to wish them good luck for the year ahead. It is said that many ‘well- to- do’ families in the town would reserve crumbs and scraps for her. She lived alone in the Barebones area of Barnsley. Sadly little more is recorded about her life. She died aged 89 on 23 January in 1848.

Her image continues to inspire, and in 2008 contemporary folk/acoustic duo Gilmore and Roberts, who have been nominated for two BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, wrote a song called ‘Peggy Airey’ described as ‘a fast-paced folk song based on the nineteenth century woman who appeared on the streets of Barnsley and wished everyone well at Christmas’. With the catchy chorus lyric ‘Peggy wish me well’ the song is often requested by fans.

Abel Hold

It is interesting to consider why Abel Hold chose to paint these two people. Unlike many portraits it can be assumed that these people did not pay the artist to paint their likenesses. Maybe Hold felt that their popularity as local characters would ensure that they would sell. At one time the portraits were owned by Mr H Jackson of Darfield Rectory before being bought by James Fox who hung them in the bar at the Queen’s Hotel, Regent Street. Abel Hold built a career as a house painter and also painted scenes and backdrops for theatres before
becoming a professional artist. Originally born in Wakefield, Abel was one of nine children, six of whom were boys and two of his younger brothers, Tom and Ben, also became artists. He married Barnsley girl Sarah Miller in 1841, they had nine children and set up home in
Church Street Barnsley.

Abel Hold was a self taught artist who achieved fame as an animal and game painter. He also painted and drew landscapes in and around Barnsley as well as painting portraits of the locals. It is believed he made his own paints by grinding pebbles for pigment. Between 1849 and 1871, he regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy, London. Submitting work 16 times and never having a piece rejected. He exhibited at the Society of British Artists in London as well as his native Yorkshire. Other paintings were shown around the country including in Manchester and Liverpool. But sadly he never made any money from his work. In around 1852 it is believed the family moved to Brook House in Cawthorne. Hold suffered with financial difficulties throughout his life and at one stage was declared bankrupt. During this period he sent a portrait of a starving man to Walter Spencer-Stanhope of Cannon Hall who then became a lifelong patron.

Mrs Elizabeth Spencer Stanhope (1795-1873)

Walter commissioned the portraits of several family members and estate workers such as Mrs Elizabeth Spencer Stanhope. This painting currently features in an exhibition at Cannon Hall Museum, “When Spencer Met Stanhope”

Take a virtual tour of the When Spencer met Stanhope exhibition

The History of The Cooper Gallery

Learn more about The Cooper Gallery in one of our previous blogs:

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