Back in 2003 the Maldon Society (in cahoots with Maldon District Council) fixed one of their blue plaques on the porch wall of Maldon’s 1801, neo-classical United Reformed Church.

It commemorates the radical Protestant preacher, Joseph Billio, who was a minister here (albeit in an earlier chapel on the site) during the late 17th century.

The inscription boldly declares “the fervour of his preaching... led to the phrase ‘like billio’” (which in itself is wrong because it’s actually ‘billy-o’).

But is that really true?

There is no doubt that the Reverend Billio was well known for his ‘hellfire and damnation’ preaching style, but he was here in the 1690s and the first recorded use of the expression didn’t appear in print until 1885.

It’s all a bit odd and confusing, so what is the truth about Billio and his impassioned, lengthy sermons?

Joseph Billio was born in Hatfield Peverel in 1658, the youngest son (of two boys) of a mainstream clergyman, Reverend Robert Billio, Vicar of Hatfield Peverel and Rector of Wickham Bishops.

Robert was ejected from his living under the 1662 Act of Uniformity for having non-conformist sympathies and this must have had an influence on Joseph’s future approach to faith.

A dissenting congregation had been formed in Maldon as early as 1688 and met in various private houses across town.

Joseph became involved with them by at least 1694 and was made their first minister.

In 1696 he financed the construction of a purpose-built chapel.

It was on some land off Market Hill, leased under a long-term arrangement from wealthy merchant and Congregationalist William Coe and could accommodate up to 400 people.

Billio initially lived in Little Baddow, but then relocated to a grand house not far from his chapel at 10 Market Hill. This became the family home, with his wife Elizabeth and their three daughters, and we know that the property had an extensive private library.

He was undoubtedly a very popular preacher, often filling the chapel, sometimes with a crowd standing outside.

Joseph Billio died at number 10 in 1734 and was succeeded as Maldon minister by Joseph Bird.

The rest of the story of the Congregational/URC church is well documented in Max Earnshaw’s excellent booklet ‘The Church on Market Hill’ (published in 1988).

It is unclear when anyone first attributed going ‘like billy-o’ with our early preacher.

However, even rudimentary research reveals that there are a number of other possible contenders to the expression, including Lieutenant Nino Bixio, an Italian soldier at the time of Garibaldi, who it was said fought “like Bixio”, William Hedley’s early steam engine, the ‘Puffing Billy’, William III, aka ‘Good King Billy’, and even a euphemism for the devil – “all billy hell”.

In the words of etymological expert Michael Quinion: “It’s not often a folk etymology comes with a blue plaque attached – it will be a permanent record that the civic pride of Maldon people exceeds their etymological knowledge.”

But then as he points out: “A good tale will resist any number of attempts to refute it – the story is everything and evidence is nothing.

“For many people, history is all of a piece: everything before their own lifetimes is lumped together into an undifferentiated mass called the past, in which anything is potentially able to be connected to anything else.

“And, it goes almost without saying, it’s rare that people do even the most elementary checking of a story before putting up a plaque”. Quinion’s conclusion, ironically enough, is that the derivation of billy-o is probably from a devilish connection, and not to a man of God in Maldon.

In common with the recent revision of the ‘Fat Man of Maldon’ plaque on Church House, perhaps it is time for Maldon Society to have a re-think.