Article MT118

Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade


Knowledge of the nineteenth century broadside ballad trade is uneven - often gleaned from Mayhew, Hindley; from assorted writers of a contemporary or a later date whose comments were often made in passing or who concentrate on a different era…Bob Thompson’s (old) thesis, books from Leslie Shepard, shorter pieces in journals…such as those, amongst others, by Roy Palmer and Mike Yates.  Bit by bit additions are made.  Yet there is much to do towards comprehensiveness.1  Neither can the series following make a claim to be systematic in coverage.  Nonetheless, two main avenues are explored.

The first is to do with the careers of printers and the dating of broadside ballads.  Most sheets did not carry a date and were almost certainly ephemeral in intention.  Many texts found on broadside ballad sheets, of course, came down the centuries from black-letter times.  Many others simply exploited a current fashion or interest.  As regards printers, in some cases we do have fairly detailed knowledge of how and when a broadside printer operated.  Catnach and Pitts, the main protagonists, have been documented to an extent.  In other cases, there are clues such as the numbering on sheets from Harkness of Preston.  In others still, we can circumscribe the dates of operation through knowledge of birth and death - and through content which itself carries or implies dates - Willey of Cheltenham being an example as recently described by Roy Palmer in MT.2

This - hardly an adequate summation but meant to be indicative - still leaves, firstly, a number of printers whose activities have not been explored and, secondly, a host of ballads which exist, like lines in individual texts almost, as ‘floaters’, without clear pedigree or genesis.  Examples of each will be considered in this series as they pertain to the broadside trade.

The second, related, problem is that we often lack, in particular, the crucial evidence to show how such text was actually disseminated and how it was turned into song - even though the signposts are there.  Some pieces in this series, then, try to concentrate on the processes of dissemination; and, indivisibly, on individuals who were involved in the trade as makers, sellers and as singers (sometimes one and the same). 

When pursuing enquiry, we find that our knowledge is hampered by the fact that those engaged in the broadside trade frequently, perhaps even overwhelmingly, inhabited the fringes of respectable society.  Reasons are complex but, in the nineteenth century, can be related to the nature of the business of communication and then, not least after that, to a residual fear in ‘respectable’ society of vagrancy - which itself is intertwined with Poor Law regulation and with anxiety over riots attendant on political and social change.  Obviously, the issue is complex and capable of much expansion and refinement and it is almost impossible not to stray into the perhaps more formal realms of social and economic history. 

Because of these conditions and contexts of enquiry, one salient characteristic to emerge is that, in a similar way to singers, the providers of broadside ballads, whether as printers or as carriers and sellers, rarely emerge into the light.  We are often merely left with shadows: with fragments of autobiography and glimpses here and there in newspaper comment on fairs and other communal activities, vignettes in reminiscences or diaries and, very often, court reports which concentrate, inevitably, on transgression.  Frequently, the references are from an external point of view and, if not patronising or dismissive, hostile.  The processes of recovery are, then, inconsistent, dogged by the obstacles of the lack of understanding or sympathy amongst contemporary commentators, missing essential links, and, as a result, often, frustratingly unfulfilled. 

In the end, what we often find is a lead which simply peters out.  We have to rely then on circumstance and probability and resultant hypothesis.  So that the series which follows is, admittedly, a body with a pronounced limp.  One acknowledges, too, the possibility of false premise - but sheer curiosity is a great stimulant.  The intention is to provoke (nicely) and to suggest possible avenues to explore.

Massignac, France, January 29th 2003

Glimpes into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade

No 1: Coventry Tom - ballad-maker

The picture that we have inherited about just who song-carriers were frequently has its edges nibbled away as new information emerges3.  This is particularly so where the ostensible boundaries between oral and printed dissemination occur.  Here, there exists a shadowy, unruly and largely itinerant world inhabited by ballad-singers and ballad-sellers who plied their trades in the streets and at various communal events such as fairs (and were regularly brought up before magistrates on charges of disorderliness and failure to pay for their licences).  And when we do focus on this phenomenon some surprising cases come to light.

One such can be substantiated to a degree (through a truly collaborative effort as the footnotes below indicate) as it pertains to a prominent trade centred on executions.  The following reports appeared:

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 20 April 1861, page 8.

Chipping Norton

AWFULLY SUDDEN DEATH - On Wednesday evening last (17th) a well-known "patterer," who went by the name of "Coventry Tom," was hawking a last dying speech and confession, and after going partly round the town he found himself on Rock Hill, where he entered the Joiner’s Arms, to take up his quarters for the night, and, with a companion, had three pints of beer, during the time of drinking which he danced two hornpipes, soon after sitting down, after dancing the last, his head fell back, he slipped off the settle, and in a few minutes expired, without having spoken after first being seized.  In his pocket was found the following letter, which shows the manner in which "dying speeches and confessions" are got up: -

"Wednesday Morning"

"Sir, - I am sorry that I cannot accommodate you with the lamentations of Elizabeth Griffin: as she wor (sic) so strongly recommended to mercy I did not think it worth while to get it up and you are the only man who has enquired after it and there is no chance of her being executed as it is understood she will be reprieved but if it should turn out the other way I shall be prepared the two men at Taunton have been sentenced and I am preparing the big sheet hoping that I shall here (sic) from you in due time

"Yours in haste"…..

An inquest was held on Thursday, when a verdict of "Died from disease of the heart" was returned.4
By following up some of the details as noted above, Coventry Tom’s efforts at ballad-making and selling can be seen to fit the profile as adduced by, amongst others, Mayhew, who averred that ballads were hawked around the streets; that they were frequently written by printer’s hacks or by printers themselves; and that, often, where execution ballads were concerned, they were put out before the actual execution took place.  He also made the distinction between running and standing ‘patterers’ and other characters such as flying stationers, the full details of which need not compromise the notes on Coventry Tom that follow: it is enough, for the moment, to know that a running patterer kept on the move whilst a standing patterer, fairly obviously, did not and, perhaps, required the greater skill in delivery since he or she was exposed to constant public scrutiny.  It is important, though, to note that neither necessarily sang.5

Mayhew concentrated his investigations most heavily on the St Giles area of London, which had been the centre of the London ballad-printing trade in the high-days of Pitts and Catnach 6  (roughly, from between 1820 and the later part of the 1840s), but he also described how some ballad-sellers travelled the country.  Thus, one informant, ‘who had been upwards of 20 years in the running patter line, told me that he commenced his career with the last "Last Dying Speech and Full Confession of William Corder."’

"I worked that there," he said, "down in the very town (at Bury) where he was executed…

As for Rush, another famous - notorious - murderer,
I went down to Norwich expressly to work the execution.  I worked my way down there with ‘a sorrowful lamentation’ of his own composing, which I’d got written by a blind man expressly for the occasion…
This, of course, reveals one of the ‘secrets’ of the trade in the sleight of hand of supposed composition.  Further, though, of the Mannings, two more prominent villains, the informant told Mayhew that
I’ve been through Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Suffolk, along with George Frederick Manning and his wife - travelled from 800 to 1,000 miles with ’em…7
Although Mayhew’s particular informant remained anonymous, names of other ballad-sellers were given: strictly speaking, of those who sold accounts of executions - which may not mean that they carried separate broadside ballad sheets as artefacts - and, as indicated above, who may not actually have sung their wares - Bristol George, Corporal Casey, Jeremy the Rake, ‘Razor George and his moll’, Scotch Mary, Hopping Ned…8

Mayhew’s informant went on: of Rush,

On the morning of the execution we beat all the regular newspapers out of the field; for we had the full, true, and particular account down, you see, by our own express, and that can beat anything that ever they can publish; for we gets it printed several days afore it comes off, and goes and stands with it right under the drop; and many’s the penny I’ve turned away when I’ve been asked for an account of the whole business before it happened…
Mayhew himself thought that Rush’s Sorrowful Lamentation was the best execution broadsheet that he’d seen (one notes in the description below another ‘secret’ to do with the supposed composition of verses):
…even the "copy of verses" which, according to the established custom, the criminal composes in the condemned cell - his being unable , in some instances, to read or write being no obstacle to the composition - seems, in a literary point of view, of a superior strain to the run of such things…
The final stanza gives us a flavour:
The scaffold is, alas! My doom,
I soon shall wither in the tomb:
God pardon me - no mercy’s here
For Rush - the wretched murderer!
Many other execution ballads adopted a similar style.  The following extracts from the beginning and the end of The Lamentation of Thomas H Hocker form a useful example:
Farewell! vain world, a long farewell
For I’m in Newgate’s dismal cell;
For death I’m cast, alas ’tis true,
For murdering poor James de la Rue.

Alas! I own, with grief and shame,
Thomas Henry Hocker is my name.
Sweet innocence once filled my breast,
But now with guilt I am oppressed.

... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

While gaping thousands round appear,
And none for me will shed a tear;
Cut off in youth, no pitying friend
Will weep or mourn the murderer’s end.

Young men, all take this warning pray,
And don’t by guilt be led astray;
Theft and murder always shun,
Think of the cruel deed I have done.9;

And, as a final instance, two stanzas, this time from the "Life, Trial, and Confession, and execution of Mary May, for the Murder of W. Constable, her Half-brother, by Poison, at Wix, near Manningtree", underline the manner in which ballads were conceived:
In Essex boundry [sic] I did dwell,
My brother lived with me,
In a little village called Wix,
Not far from Manningtree.
In a burial club I entered him,
On purpose him to slay:
And to obtain the burial fees
I took his life away

Good people all of each degree,
Before it is too late,
See me on the fatal tree,
And pity my sad fate.
My guilty heart stung with grief,
With agony and pain -
My tender brother I did slay
That fatal day for gain.10

One ‘aged gentleman’ (according to Mayhew) remembered such a piece being sung to the tune of Old Hundredth
…commencing with the very words of Sternhold and Hopkins -

"All people that on earth do dwell."
The brief quotations help to illustrate the way that broadside ballads were made up.  Most broadside sheets, including those made on executions, employed well-worn conventions of imagery and archetype with a dramatic appeal to the feelings very much in evidence and a seemingly hasty regard for construction.11  The objectives were, in essence, commercial.  Often, Mayhew suggested, the songs were carried and given out by blind people, sometimes to the accompaniment of a fiddle (see also the extract from James Cossins below) and some idea is thus given of the social and economic level at which ballad-singers and ballad-sellers operated.12

A present-day commentator, Leslie Shepard, underlines the Mayhew information: ‘There were ingenious street authors who earned a regular income by composing the doggerel ballads on topical events for Pitts and Catnach’.  He quoted one observer who described how a last dying speech and confession might have been put together, how the confession was printed the night before the event and how flying stationers gave it out ‘in a sing-song tone’.13  Hindley, in fact, recorded that the "Last Dying Speech and Confession of William Corder" included ‘Lamentable verses’ which were ‘said to have been written by Old Jemmy Catnach himself’.14

This, then, was the business that Coventry Tom was engaged in but we can only guess at how, within a general profile, he might conform more exactly to the pattern - we do not know, for instance, to whom the letter was addressed; and, as we shall see, there is doubt about the nature of Coventry Tom’s part in any red-hot distribution of any ballad.  Perhaps we should not either discount his apparent ability in dancing, which may have earned him an extra penny or two: there are frequent references to wandering musicians in nineteenth century newspapers and no elaboration as to just what this may have entailed at the particular moment of notice.15  And what was Sparkes doing in ‘Chippy’?  Had he been gathering material or had newspaper accounts of the affair reached him?  Why had he intended to write to a printer rather than call?  The enigmas remain.

Only the barest details of his life can be assembled.  The Chipping Norton parish records indicate that a Thomas Sparkes, aged 42, from Coventry was buried on 20th April 1861.  A Death register also lists him.  The difficulty is in locating him in Coventry itself and, so far, two possibilities have emerged, neither exact.  A Thomas Sparkes was christened on 2nd April 1817 and another Thomas Sparkes on 23rd April 1815.  They do not, of course, quite fit the bill - except that, as instances, official information can frequently be found to be a year (or two) out, not least because people did not necessarily know their own birth-dates and, in any case, christenings did not coincide with birth-dates.  The first named candidate here might be thought to be the more likely one.  He was the son of a victualler.16  Sparkes does not, however, appear in either the 1851 or 1861 census returns in Coventry - perhaps not surprising given the mobile nature of his calling.17  His death, as indicated above, is well enough attested.  That, though, is all.

We can at least add more to the particular circumstances of the potential subject for a song.  The ‘two men at Taunton’ turn out to have been Charles and Mathew [sic] Wedmore who were convicted of the murder of an aged aunt at Dundry, near to Bristol.  They were actually executed at Taunton jail on 5th April 1861.18  Since Coventry Tom died on 17th April, the letter quoted above could have been in his pocket for well over a week, so any process of ballad-making would not have quite conformed to those quoted above and below.  On the other hand, if the proposed ballad was in the nature of a ‘Lamentation’ rather than an account of any murder, or a trial or the execution itself, then an extended time-scale for production might well have obtained, there being less necessity for strict immediacy; and more scope for prolonged dissemination of the ballad.19

The Dundry murder itself and the execution were fully reported and it is worth noting the circumstances under which the Wedmores expired.  The Taunton Courier indicated how they had received the usual attention from the clergy; and then the newspaper produced what, to our eyes, may seem to have been a somewhat titillating description of the moment of death which kind can be found equalled in many other accounts of executions:

Punctually at eight o’clock the procession appeared on the top of the building, and led by the chaplain ascended the scaffold.  Both prisoners mounted with a firm step.  The prisoners said good bye to some of the warders, a cheerful smile pervading the countenance of Charles.  Calcraft first put the cap on Mathew and then adjusted the rope, and was watched by Charles, for whom he then performed the like office.  The arrangements having been complete the whole of the officials descended and a moment afterwards the bolt was with drawn, and both prisoners swung in the air.  One single gasp and Mathew’s sufferings seemed to be at an end.  Charles seemed to suffer more: he gave several convulsive shrugs with his hands, which were, of course, pinioned; they then dropped and all appeared to be over.  A few moments elapsed and then he gave another convulsive throb, and then he must have ceased to breathe.

The bodies remained suspended till after nine o’clock, when they were taken down and buried within the prison…20

We also learn that there was the usual crowd which, in this case, ‘was exceedingly orderly throughout’ and ‘gradually dispersed’.21  Nothing has been unearthed, however, which would suggest that Coventry Tom or anyone else, for that matter, was at the scene of the execution making up a ballad and, since no such piece has yet been located, again, the picture of feverish activity in distribution as given below must be qualified to an extent.  Perhaps our man, as suggested above, had had access to newspapers, an accepted source for pilfering amongst ballad-makers, it seems 22, but, in any case, his untimely death scotched any creative notions.

As comparison with the Wedmore executions, we may note the last public execution in Oxfordshire, that of Noah Austin, where confirmation of the role of the ballad-maker and seller is found:

Hawkins began to sell penny handbills, purporting to give an account of Austin’s life, trial and execution, and including verses allegedly sent to him by his sweetheart, Elizabeth Allen.  However, as Jackson’s Oxford Journal drily pointed out, this was doggerel ‘which had doubtless done duty at many previous executions’.23
As further comparison - William Adams, the nineteenth century radical, described a scene outside the premises of Thomas Willey in Cheltenham and, amid other detail, noted that
Mr. Willey was always ready with a "last dying speech" for every criminal who was executed at Gloucester.  It was generally the same speech, altered to suit the name and circumstance of the new culprit…24
Finally, as one more confirmation of the nature of Coventry Tom’s career, it is worth citing Cossins’ History of Exeter, where he relates, in general terms, a similar process of composition to that indicated in Coventry Tom’s letter and in the descriptions of other executions mentioned above, a process which involved transmitting ‘the convict’s supposed dying words, or confession’.  Cossins, though, went on, more particularly, to describe the execution of two men at which a blind fiddler called out the last dying speeches ‘previous to the bolts being withdrawn.  The boy who led him about gave him a jerk, saying "They be’ant off ‘t!"’25

It seems clear, from the evidence cited above (and there is more, as will be seen during this series), that Coventry Tom can be placed in a line of makers and sellers of ballads, as reported.  The Chipping Norton incident, all the same, is probably rare in its glimpse of a ballad-maker in action - or, piquantly, failing to act.

Roly Brown - 29.1.03
Massignac, France

Article MT118


  1. The list given is but preliminary…there are certainly numbers of important studies and writers not mentioned.
  2. See Enthusiasms 33.
  3. See, for instance, Keith Chandler's short article on Elizabeth Cross, MT: Enthusiasns 34.
  4. These references are amongst several kindly forwarded to me by Keith Chandler (South Leigh, Oxon).  It has not been possible to trace the fate of Elizabeth Griffin as yet.
  5. Henry Mayhew noted that 'broad-sheet sellers usually sing, or chaunt, the copy of verses' (see: London Labour and the London Poor, London, Frank Cass & Co Ltd, 1967, Vol. 1, p.283).  Chaunters, however, also played the fiddle…(p.226).
  6. Pitts and Catnach were the dominant producers of broadside ballads with an intense and, at times, comic rivalry (see the books on them cited in other footnotes).  The dates given embrace not just the period of Pitts and Catnach who, of course, carried on a trade and ideas from earlier times, but of the host of ballad-printers who thrived at the same time in the heyday cited above.  During the latter half of the nineteenth century there were fewer, the most prominent being Such, in London, who was still issuing stock in the 1870s; and there were, of course, one or two who survived into the twentieth century.
  7. Mayhew, op cit, pp.223-224.  William Corder was executed at Bury - that is, Bury St. Edmunds - on August 12th 1828 for the murder of Maria Marten (often spelled 'Martin').  James Bloomfield Rush was executed in Norwich on April 21st 1849 for the murder of Isaac Jermy and his son.  Frederick George Manning and his wife, Maria, were executed in London on November 13th 1849 for the murder of Patrick O'Connor.  In each case, ballads appeared; and Mayhew gave the astonishing sales figures of 1,650,000 for Corder, 2,500,000 for the Mannings and 2,500,000 for Rush (Mayhew, op cit, p.284).
  8. Mayhew: op cit, pp. 218-219.  Sometimes there was a header woodcut, a prose account of the event and then some verses tacked on.  Charles Hindley, in his History of the Catnach Press (1887, printed Catnach's amalgam of the case of Corder's murder of Maria Marten.
  9. This printing was issued by Birt of London.  I am particularly grateful to the Bodleian library for permission to quote from their copy, to be found on-line in the library's Allegro catalogue (Johnson Ballads 99).  Hocker was executed on April 28th 1845.
  10. See Mayhew, op cit, pp.282-283.  The burial fees cited here appear as motive in other execution ballads and refer, it seems, to monies paid in prior to death to one or other Burial Societies.  Mary May was executed on August 14th 1848.
  11. In the panorama of execution ballads, nonetheless, it will be found that stanzaic form varied considerably from the straightforward four-line pattern to some quite complex line-juggling.  This will become more clear as this series progresses.
  12. Mayhew does recount the lives of certain gentlemen who had fallen on hard times in their apparent descent into ballad-mongering (op cit, pp.213-217).
  13. Reference to these processes will be made in more detail as this series progresses.  See further, Leslie Shepard: John Pitts, Ballad Printer (London, Private Libraries Association, 1969), pp.47-48.  Mr. Shepard also gives the name of a Jack Stuart as another of the celebrated ballad-singers (p. 51).  Charles Hindley's portrait of the ballad-poet, John Morgan, illustrates the way in which Morgan worked for Catnach (The History of the Catnach Press, London, Reissue by the Singing Tree Press, 1969, especially pp.43-49).
  14. See Hindley's The History…, p.79.
  15. Here are just two references from the pages of two local newspapers: first, a report of one, Julius Casey, musician, stealing two pounds' worth of gold coins and two rings, the property of John David Hill, of Alverstoke, on the 26th April… (Hampshire Chronicle, 18th October 1852, p.7 - Hampshire County Sessions, Michaelmas, County Court Winchester); and, second: 'A big fellow, settled at Lambourn, named Charles Humphreys (formerly a travelling musician), was summoned by William George Stacey of Lambourn, labourer, for using threats towards him…' (Newbury Weekly News , 6th August, 1891, p.6 - Lambourn Petty Sessions, Friday July 31st).  I would like to thank the staff at the local studies library in Winchester and at the Newbury pubic library for their help in locating these and other references during numerous visits.
  16. He was actually born on 2nd April 1817 in the parish of St Michael, Coventry.  The other Sparkes, son of a gardener, was born on 23rd April 1815 in the parish of Holy Trinity, Coventry.
  17. I am grateful to Myra and John Titchener (Witney, Oxon) for sending me the details from census returns and burial registers at Chipping Norton and at Coventry; and to Lindsay Day (Stratford-upon-Avon) for further checking in Coventry.
  18. Brian Holmes and Pauline Balaam (Cullompton, Devon) kindly chased up the relevant Taunton newspaper articles for me.
  19. This aspect of production will re-emerge as the series progresses.
  20. See, for an account of the murder itself (actually on 9th Jan, 1861) and the arrest of the Wedmores, The Taunton Courier, Wed, Jan 16th 1861, p.5; for the trial, Wed, March 27th 1861, pp.7-8; and, for the execution, Wed, 10th April 1861, p.7.  Mayhew (op cit, p.282) notes how accounts of murders fell into several phases including descriptions of the apprehension of the suspect, the trial, the confession and, perhaps, a lamentation.
  21. This orderliness was a growing feature of nineteenth century executions and contrasts vividly with eighteenth-century manifestations.  It was not wholesale, however, as this series will endeavour to make clear.
  22. Mayhew, op cit, pp.281
  23. Date of Jackson's Oxford Journal: 14th May 1863.  See further Pamela Horn - Oxford's last public hanging: The case of Noah Austin in Cake and Cockhorse…The magazine of the Banbury Historical Society, Vol. 12, No. 5, Spring 1993, p.124.  The inclusion of love letters was a well-known device in the ballad-writer's armoury and need not necessarily be taken as verifiable - fictitious accounts as almost a genre were called 'cocks' (see Mayhew, op cit, for example, pp.283-284).  It would be interesting to learn who 'Hawkins' was - research is under way but he has not yet turned up in Banbury records…  I have to thank the staff at the Local Studies Library in Oxford for their help in this enquiry and in others.
  24. See W E Adams: Memoirs of a Social Atom (1903; reprinted in one volume, Augustus M Kelly, New York, 1968, pp.142-143).  I am grateful to both Paul Burgess (Cheltenham) and Roy Palmer (Malvern) for this reference.
  25. James Cossins: Reminiscences of Exeter Fifty Years Ago (Exeter, Pollard, 1878), pp.39-40.  Cossins gave the names of the two men as J James and G Champion (p. 41).  These two men were apparently executed in Exeter on August 24th 1827 for burglary at Tiverton (see Western Daily Mercury 29th March 1866, p.5: information given in the course of describing the execution of Mary Ann Ashford whose case is, in turn, being followed up currently.  The men's Christian names were given as John and George respectively).  Cossins' book was located in the West Country Studies Library in Exeter and I would like to thank the staff there for their assistance over a considerable period of time.  I would also, at this point, like to thank the staff at Plymouth public library for their help on several occasions including that when the reference to James and Champion was located.

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