Broadside ballads and ‘street’ literature

Broadside ballads and ‘street’ literature

Although the broadsides were incredibly popular – as was most street literature – there has been relatively little research into them and dialect/regional poetry, which both Leslie Shepard and Brian Hollingworth mention and correct in their works. The broadsides would be pasted up on pub walls and inside the cabins of ships for easy dissemination and learning. Popular tunes were used so that the new songs would be picked up quickly and shared.

Broadside ballads were the preferred medium for the transfer of information in English societies from the 16th century to the late 19th century. The term ‘broadside’ refers to that material which was printed on one side of paper. Over time the content of the broadsides became more sophisticated, in terms of political viewpoint and literary methods; which perhaps cannot be said for the hawkers who travelled around selling them. Their form changed over time, being more succinct and building on cultural memory to create a cultural ecology all of their own. And while their printing and marketplace techniques were also refined, it was no match for the rising standard of literacy, which allied to the rise of daily newspapers eventually spelling the end for the penny broadside.
As Leslie Shepard wrote, ‘The broadside ballad, then, was a kind of musical journalism, the forerunner of the popular prose newspapers, and a continuation of the folk traditional of minstrelry.’ Although the broadsides were incredibly popular – as was most street literature – there has been relatively little research into them and dialect/regional poetry, which both Leslie Shepard and Brian Hollingworth mention and correct in their works. The broadsides would be pasted up on pub walls and inside the cabins of ships for easy dissemination and learning. Popular tunes were used so that the new songs would be picked up quickly and shared.
In the sixteenth century, towards the beginning of the broadside ballad tradition, (although Hyder E Rollins refutes this and believes that ballads in manuscript form were around ‘early in the fifteenth century’) there were exchanges that focused on political and religious themes. The ballads that William Gray and Thomas Smith addressed to each other during this time could be placed in the tradition of kobigāan in Bangladesh, which is presented as a competition between participants. The two sides of the debate begin a type of duel in verse, but there are bigger questions being asked, about philosophy, politics or religion. The ballads written by Gray and Smith were mainly written to discredit each other. Gray was once a servant of Smith, but decided to pen a ballad named A Balade Agvnst Malycyous Schlaunderers, against his former master. The exchange lasted seven ballads with a spell in prison when it was over.
In the wider street literature sphere, pamphlets and chapbooks had a role to play. While the former were mainly bought by the middle classes, being more detailed and expensive, the latter was literature of the poor. Shepard explains:
‘A chapbook was a sheet folded in four, eight, twelve, or sixteen, making a small uncut booklet of eight, sixteen, twenty-four, or thirty-two pages, thus described as 4to, 8vo, 12mo, 16mo as in normal book production. But chapbooks were sold uncut and unstitched at a half-penny or a penny each. The purchaser would slit the pages and lovingly stitch or pin them—a kind of do-it-yourself paperback. The word “chapbook” seems to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon term ceap, in the sense of “trade”, for these pamphlets were sold by pedlars together with pins, ribbons and other knick-knacks.’
Chapbooks were in the same vein as broadsides, but as they consisted of more pages they contained folklore, stories, folk-tales, religious stories and humorous dialogues. The chapbooks and broadsides together influenced the common people and allowed them to express themselves. These two styles of literature cost around a penny, with a hawker’s call being noted as ‘penny plain, two pence coloured!’ in reference to a hand-coloured sheet costing more. This phrase, coined by Robert Lewis Stevenson in his popular essay of the same name, came from Stevenson’s own personal reminisces and experience. He describes a wooden theatre in the window of a stationers, which was ‘dark and smelt of Bibles,’ on Leith Walk in Edinburgh in the nineteenth century and his longing to buy the story sheets and toys within. This is very similar to Sam Bamford’s experience at Swindell’s shop in Hanging Ditch:
‘At the corner of Hanging Bridge, near the old Church yard, was a book shop kept by one Swindells, a printer. In the spacious windows of this shop, which is now “The Wedding-Ring” coffee-house, were exhibited numerous songs, ballads, tales, and other publications, with horrid and awful-looking woodcuts at the head; which publications, with their cuts, had a strong command on my attention. Every farthing I could scrape together was now spent in purchasing histories of Jack the Giant Killer, Saint George and the Dragon, Tom Hickathrift, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Seven Champions of Christendom, tale of Fair Rosamond, History of Friar Bacon, Account of the Lancashire Witches, The Witches of the Woodlands, and such like romances, whilst my metrical collections embraced but few pieces besides Robin Hood’s Songs and The Ballad of Chevy Chase.’
Chapbooks and ballads were most popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with chapbooks becoming more popular during the latter. With the advent of events such as the French Revolution and the Peterloo Massacre, seditious literature began to billow out of the printers only for the majority to be quelled by the Six Acts in 1819 and the extended enforcement of stamp duty onto all news-opinion publications costing under six pence. Hannah More, one of the broadside ballad’s sworn enemies, was a very religious woman who saw these songs as low culture. Seeing an opportunity to copy the broadside’s style and imitate them in order to promote her Sunday school movement, More re-created the ballad form aesthetic for her Cheap Repository tracts—even employing broadside ballad and chapbook printers John Evans and John Marshall. By doing this, the printers cottoned onto a new dawn for street literature and more accidentally refreshed the business. The Cheap Repository Tract became an imitable style, with many other writers and printers using the form to breathe new life into street literature. In the end, all she had tried to avoid was thriving under her instruction. In the nineteenth century street literature gave one last push before the rise of the newspapers and books.

The Carpenter, 1795 in the format of a broadside ballad / By Das48 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

More was familiar with the influence verse had on the streets, as she had written verses singing Edmund Burke’s praises during his successful election campaign for MP in 1774, as well as two ballads published in 1776, namely Sir Eldred of the Bower and The Bleeding Rock. With this experience under her belt, it is no wonder More’s Cheap Repository Tracts sold 700,000 within four months and within a year over two million. The history of the Cheap Repository Tract movement could be said to represent the opportunistic nature of printers of street literature. John Pitt who had worked for John Marshall eventually became rival to famous London printer Jemmy Catnach. Catnach is famous for cashing in on events via ballads, the most famous of which being the execution of James Weare.
‘There’s nothing beats a stunning good murder after all,’ said a ‘running patterer to Mr Henry Mayhew. It is only fair to assume that Mr James Catnach shared in the sentiment, for it is said that he made over £500 by the publication of:-
“The Full, True and Particular Account of the Murder of Mr. Weare by John Thurtell and his Companions, which took place on the 24th of October, 1823, in Gill’s Hill-lane, near Elstree, in Hertfordshire:- Only One Penny.”’
His men managed to produce a first run of 250,000 copies. After this, Hindley admits that as the case developed the ‘public mind became almost insatiable.’ The trial of John Thurtell and Joseph Hunt took place on January 5, 1824 in Hertford. It is interesting to note that Hunt was a popular public singer at the time. Both were found guilty with Hunt receiving transportation for life and Thurtell being hung the next day. Hindley goes on to mention:
‘As before observed, Catnach cleared over £500 by this event, and was so loth to leave it, that when a wag put him up to a joke, and showed him how he might set the thing a-going again, he could not withstand it; and so, about a fortnight after Thurtell had been hanged, Jemmy brought out a startling broad-sheet, headed, “WE ARE ALIVE AGAIN!” He put so little space between the words “WE” and “ARE” that it looked at first sight like “WEARE.” Many thousands were bought by the ignorant and gullible public, but those who did not like the trick called it a “catch penny,” and this gave rise to this peculiar term.’
Old-fashioned broadsides were printed in gothic, black letter type, which was replaced in the late seventeenth century with white letter, or Roman style type. The broadsides contained within the scope of study are mostly white letter and may not all be printed in Manchester but do mention Manchester and her landmarks specifically. Whether some have been modified by replacing a street in London with one in Manchester, for instance, only the printer will know. Modifications are commonplace within ballads, not only in the verses but also in the identification of the printer. Sometimes, the original printer had been crossed out as many ballads had been in circulation for decades; making it very awkward to date them.

An English broadside ballad titled ‘Old Miser’ and beginning ‘It’s an old miser in London did dwell’, early 19th century / By Swindells, Printer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It was also common for hawkers to scratch out the date or price of the ballads, keeping consistent with fabrications that the ballads he had been selling for years were newly printed, and allowing him to make up a new price every time he visited a different area. The later layouts were more economical as they were usually printed in two columns, meaning the peddler could cut them into slips to maximise revenue from a single sheet of paper.

Jacobite broadside – Race from Prestonpans to Berwick / Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Many ballads make use of woodcuts to adorn the verses. These were sometimes acquired from more prosperous associates and used until they were beyond repair. These can be compared to pot gaān in Bangladesh, where images are used to lead the narrative in song. Unlike pot gāan, the woodcuts and vignettes at the head of the verses were ‘seldom bearing even the most remote reference to the subject which they are supposed to illustrate.’ Abdus Shakoor’s most notable work is of painted images in traditional style next to extracts of geetika in his contemporary work.
The three main collections of broadside ballads in Manchester are the Axon, Holt and Manchester Ballads collections. Both the Axon and Holt collections are stored at Chetham’s Library in Manchester. The Manchester Ballads are extant in five volumes currently stored at Central Library in Manchester. While the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, also houses nine boxes of radical songs that include some broadside ballads, as well as later nineteenth and early twentieth century song books. As the broadsides were printed on cheap paper, their longevity was always dubious. Because of this, we are at the mercy of ballad collectors, whose tastes and interests we can only hope match our own. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was famous for collecting street literature. He arranged them under the following headers:
‘1. Devotion and Morality. 2. History, true and fabulous. 3. Tragedy, viz. murders, executions, judgements of God. 4. State and Times. 5. Love, pleasant. 6. Love, unfortunate. 7. Marriage, cuckoldry. 8. Sea: love, gallantry, and actions. 9. Drinking and good fellowship. 10. Humorous frolics and mirth. The total number of ballads is 1800, of which 1376 are in black letter. Besides these are four little duodecimo volumes, lettered as follows: Vol 1. Penny Merriments. Vol. 2. Penny Witticisms. Vol. 3. Penny Compliments; and Vol. 4. Penny Godlinesses.’

A broadside ballad released in the late-seventeenth or early-eighteenth century detailing the plot with anti-Catholic sentiment / By Unknown (printed for P. Brooksby, I. Deacon, I. Blare, I. Back.) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pepys’ brilliant categorising and interest in street literature is a blessing for those wishing to study the ballads of the seventeenth century. The majority of the ballads in the Manchester Ballads collection were printed by Thomas Pearson of 6 Chadderton Street. Pearson acquired these from John Bebbington and John Wrigley, the names of whom have been scratched out on some of the ballads. Furthermore, none of the ballads from this collection date from later than 1873. While there are almost 4,000 ballads in these collections combined, the Bangladeshi geetika collected by Dinesh Chandra Sen and his contemporaries are in the hundreds. It could be said it is quality, not quantity that matters, as many geetika are lengthy whereas many Manchester ballads have a maximum of 12 verses. The Manchester ballads that were preserved in these collections cover many themes and these themes can be traced geographically. The early ballads will have started life off in the oral tradition, eventually being written down to be sold and accidentally, preserved. Later ballads will have been written for the sheets, by capable scribes and musicians who sought to use the form to generate income. In the same way during the ballad tradition’s infancy in the sixteenth century the minstrels who performed for kings and travelled the country over to their audiences great delight ‘were ancestors to the rogues and vagabonds of the broadside ballad periods.’
This study of the nineteenth century industrial broadside ballads in particular focuses on a dying breed of street literature. This could be explained by the subject matter. Early peasant ballads and folk songs of the oral tradition were based around magical scenes and morality tales, their topics were far removed from the singer’s wealth, or lack of it, and their social standing. As ballads and songs began to address the political and cultural deficits experienced by workers and the poor, their tones changed and the authorities acted accordingly. When people began to sing out against the authorities; the monarchy; the masters and the mill-owners they were forcibly quietened. When the nineteenth century ballads began to report injustices much like a newspaper, the actual newspapers caught up with them and outsold them.

Jennifer Reid is a performer of 19th century Industrial Revolution broadside ballads and Lancashire dialect work song. After volunteering at Chetham’s Library and the Working Class Movement Library, Jennifer completed an Advanced Diploma in Local History at Oxford University. Her work has been featured on BBC2, BB1 and Radio 4. She has since performed in Venice and New York for the Creative Time Summit, in Croatia for the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Brussels, Switzerland and regularly in the North West of England.

December 2017

Although the broadsides were incredibly popular – as was most street literature – there has been relatively little research into them and dialect/regional poetry, which both Leslie Shepard and Brian Hollingworth mention and correct in their works. The broadsides would be pasted up on pub walls and inside the cabins of ships for easy dissemination…

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