Article MT122

Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade

No. 2: 'A Printer in the Town'

Sarah Dazley and the Merry family of Bedford1

The association of ballad-maker, ballad-seller and a particular event tantalisingly glimpsed in the case of Coventry Tom2 can be tentatively extended through that of Sarah Dazley, who was executed at Bedford for poisoning her second husband, William.  Briefly, Sarah Dazley was baptised at Potton, Bedfordshire, in 1815, daughter of Philip and Ann Reynolds, and married a Simeon Mead from Tadlow, just across the county border in Cambridgeshire, in 1835.  A son, Jonah, was born in 1840 but both Simeon and Jonah died during that same year, Simeon aged but 24.  In the same year again, Sarah then married William Dazley at Wrestlingworth, a village near to Potton; but he, too, died soon - in 1842.  It was only a few months later that banns were read for Sarah Dazley and George Waldeck of nearby Cockayne Hatley.

These circumstances might seem to have been, collectively, a trifle unusual and there were also rumours about the death of William Dazley.  George Waldeck had himself been warned not to fulfil his engagement and did, it seems, break it off.  Consequent to these uncertainties, the Bedfordshire coroner ordered disinterment and traces of arsenic poisoning were found in the bodies of both William Dazley and son Jonah (but not in the body of Simeon Mead). 

Eventually Sarah Dazley, having apparently absconded - in company with one, Samuel Stebbings, described as a ‘paramour’3 - was apprehended in London where she declared herself quite ready to face any closer investigation so as ‘to clear her character’.  A trial was held back in Bedfordshire and the jury gave the opinion that William Dazley had died ‘from the effects of arsenic administered to him with a guilty knowledge by Sarah Dazley, his wife.’  She was confined in Bedford gaol on 24th March 1843 and hung before a crowd estimated variously but at least once in excess of some twelve thousand on August 5th 1843.4

One newspaper report of the execution indicated that ‘a number of inhabitants’ had made the journey to watch; and then the newspaper followed with some clearly withering remarks about the lack of suitable behaviour amongst the crowd and its connection with ballad-selling, often typical of newspaper reports, justified or not:

The crowd was reasonably orderly until after the victim was suspended, when the ordinary debaucheries were carried on, "to show the moral effects of the public examples," in these legalized butcheries.  Drinking, smoking, hustling and singing were among the few displays of fine feeling, and the lawless mob were inclined to no ordinary degree by the vagabond ballad-mongers bawling out the last dying speech and confessions, and singing the copy of verses made by the woman herself; all of which, we need not add, was entirely false, and got up on the occasion, by a printer in the town, as a harvest.5
At this point it is useful to recall the alleged process of making ballads on executions.  Mayhew gave the information that the case of any murder was presented in printed form in stages - life, trial, confession and execution with, maybe, a sorrowful lamentation added.6  This pattern is often found in newspaper accounts except for the last-named which is likely to have given the most opportunity for a separate ballad-printing; but prose accounts of the event did sit side by side with verse.  As noted in the previous article in this series, Hindley printed just such an amalgam in the case of Corder’s murder of Maria Marten.7

A similar amalgam, for comparison, can be found centred on the trial and execution (28th March 1866) of Mary Ann Ashford in Exeter for the murder of her husband.  One account of the Ashford case, in terms reminiscent of the strictures on the Dazley execution cited above, suggested that ‘there were 20,000 persons present to gratify their morbid curiosity’.8  Another included brief extracts from correspondence between Mary Ann Ashford and a Frank Pratt (they had, apparently, formed a liaison); more extracts, this time from newspaper reports on William Ashford’s death; a reference to the trial and the execution; and then a ballad, of whose style the following stanzas are representative:

Good people all both far and near
Pray listen unto me
Mary Ashford she did die
On Exeter’s Gallows tree.

For the murder of her husband, dear,
William Ashford was his name.
She poisoned him at Clist Honiton,
And died the death of shame ... 9

Following Mayhew’s description: the matter of confessions may be considered.  The presence of clergy was a ubiquitous feature of executions and confession was certainly encouraged in keeping with the solemnity of an occasion when culprits were preparing to meet their maker.  According to Mayhew, though, the confession of James Rush, in a widely-reported case, was a ‘cock’ - a fabrication.10  We have already seen, in the case of Coventry Tom, how a supposed confession may have been contrived from within the condemned cell, whether the occupant could write or not.  Nonetheless, newspapers did publish references to and some full confessions.  A report of the execution of Rebecca Smith in Devizes (23rd August 1849) ‘for murdering her infant child’ contains the following passage:
... Free from guilt and hypocrisy, she at once unhesitatingly confessed her crime, and acknowledged the justice of the punishment that awaited her, and frequently expressed a hope that others would take a warning by her fate.11
George Bentley, executed at Stafford in 1866, ‘made a confession’ to the prison authorities ‘and he fully acknowledges the justness of the sentence that has been awarded.’12  Catherine Foster, executed in Bury St Edmunds in 1847, had her confession witnessed by the prison governor and the prison chaplain and then published.13  Even after public hanging ceased to be a public spectacle in 1868, confessions were published.  That of William Bull, like Sarah Dazley, executed at Bedford (1871), was made on two separate occasions, the first witnessed by the governor of the gaol and a warder and the second, made a week later, in the presence of the governor and the prison chaplain.14  That of Henry March, who was executed in Norwich in 1877, was also published.15 

There are, too, ballad-printings of confessions such as that of Thomas Drory (mentioned elsewhere here) who, supposedly wrote of Jael Denny, his victim, that

I in a field did her entice
And with a rope I did her kill ...
and, after begging forgiveness for his crime, continued:
Farwell my friends and neighbours too,
Adieu my tender father dear ... 16
Clearly, though, the device of confession, in this case, was simply another way of casting the details of the case.

Where Mary Ann Ashford was concerned, the Western Morning News indicated that she ‘refused to make a detailed confession’17 and there is no mention of one in the ballad either.

As for Sarah Dazley, there are contradictions which cannot be resolved.  She always maintained her innocence and, in one report, is supposed to have protested to her gaolers right until the last that she did not know that her husband had taken poison and, then, seeming to comprehend how things were going to turn out, despite her protestations, ‘Pray do not leave me,’ she continued, ‘but be as quick as you can’.  In another report she is reputed to have answered the Minister and Gaoler ‘severally’ asking if she had anything to say by replying: ‘I have nothing to say’ after which she only repeatedly uttered the words, ‘Lord have mercy on my soul’. 

Yet another newspaper report gave the information that, apparently, she refused to say anything at all during her last hours and the press ‘by the under-sheriff’s deputy, were excluded from the scene, where the last words of the prisoner, about to enter the presence of her God, should have been carefully noted’.18  Further, the first newspaper report cited in this piece indicated that as ‘the unhappy woman was launched into eternity amidst the groans, sighs and tears of the spectators’ most ‘were greatly shocked at the idea of her not having made any confession’.  This may or may not be hyperbole. 

There is another aspect to consider.  The depositions in the Dazley case would have offered prime material for adaptation; and we do know that ballad-makers used newspaper accounts.  One of Mayhew’s informants, for instance, told him that, of one ballad, ‘that bit was taken from a newspaper.  Oh, we’re not above acknowledging when we condescends to borrow from any of ’em’.19  Mayhew also commented that ‘The narrative, embracing trial, biography, &c., is usually prepared by the printer, being a condensation from the accounts in newspapers ...  ’.20 

The question all the time is to do with the composition and distribution of ballads.  Much evidence, some as noted here and in the previous article, does refer to the practice.  At Aylesbury, in 1845, men were seen to be ‘turning a penny’ by the sale of a description of ‘the execution of John Tawell this morning’.21  The Times report on the execution of Sarah Chesham for the murder of her husband Chelmsford in 1851 noted ‘hawkers of ballads and "true and correct accounts" of the execution ...  ’ (and added, in an almost throwaway line about the behaviour of the crowd, that ‘all kinds of edibles appeared ...  ’).22  At Maidstone, in 1867, at the double execution of Ann Lawrence and James Fletcher,

There were the usual hawkers of "last dying speeches and confessions," and other itinerants who live by similar scenes.23
The Northampton Mercury, indeed, in an account reminiscent of the one printed by the Banbury Guardian, reported that at the Dazley execution, ‘Vagabonds of both sexes were bawling out the last dying speech and confession of the woman of "three" murders, when in truth she did not acknowledge one.’24  It is a matter of no little conjecture that an observer might well describe what was expected to happen and not necessarily what actually happened in something of the same way that some ballads would appear to have been concocted and others put out before the ‘drop’.  Still, where Sarah Dazley is concerned, references to the selling of a ballad are clear enough.

In terms of probability and circumstance, then, the odds are that a ballad about Sarah Dazley was contrived.  If so, some or other of the features described here would most likely have appeared.  Regret for the crime, we would expect.  According to the printed ballad, Harriet Tarver, executed at Gloucester in 1836 for poisoning her husband, hoped that her ‘orphan child’ would take warning and shun ‘vice and bad company’ and

You married women wheree-er [sic] you be
I pray take a warning by me
Pray love your husband and children to [sic]
And God will his blessing bestow.25
Any reference to the actual crime seems, usually, to have been somewhat restrained in character.  Henry March, for instance, fell out with a ‘shopmate’ and ‘With a large bar of iron his life took away’.  Mary Ann Cotton, convicted of a series of murders of husbands, children and neighbours, ‘watched them yield their latest breath’.26  In the case of Sarah Chesham,
On the twenty-eighth of May,
The wretched woman she did go
To a shop to buy the fatal poison,
Which has proved her overthrow;
The dreadful dose she gave her husband,
Soon after which Richard Chesham died ... 27
It was left to newspaper accounts to stretch out the lurid details.

All this would allow any ballad-maker latitude to compose an attractive (salacious?) narrative; to escape fidelity to actuality; and thus to steal a march on ostensibly accurate newspaper accounts; and to have been able to choose a particular viewpoint, whether that of an onlooker or of the principal, for a more effective dramatisation of the event.  Similarly, the idea of last words and confessions, palpably not always capable of clear verification, would still attract a ballad-maker’s skill and still invite an audience, even a prurient one.  We know this, at the least, from the continued popularity of execution ballads which regularly referred in their titles - somewhat in the manner that the Drory case was presented - to exactly the ‘last words and confession’.28 

Where the unfortunate Sarah Dazley was concerned and the possibility of a ballad having been made on her execution, we do, in fact, have information about ‘a printer in the town’ whose activities date from 1818 through one, Clarke Barber Merry, ‘Printer, Bookseller, Stationer, Paperhanger, Bedford’, who, in 1820, printed election pieces concerning local politicians.29  In 1821 the Bedfordshire Quarter Sessions Records included a letter from a C B Merry asking the Magistrates to consider his services for printing purposes.  Pigot’s Bedford directories listed Clarke Barber Merry as printer, High Street, Bedford, in 1830 and in 1839.  There are more recorded manifestations of the family concern throughout the middle years of the century, including a song-text, Trelawny and Victory to the tune of With Helmet on his Brow, printed in 1854.  We do also know of broadside ballad-sheets with the Merry imprint on them - there are ten such in the Bodleian collection30 - and certain details on the sheets and, even more so, dates associated with one or two of them, give a further perspective on the progress of the firm through the century.  One of the ballad-sheets has the initials, ‘C B Merry’, on it.  Another places The Drummer Boy of Waterloo, positing a fairly obvious date, alongside Woodman, Spare That Tree which latter dates from 1837.31  A third focuses on the subject of the siege of Lucknow, which took place in 1857.  Taking these factors together and noting that there are shades in between, the point here is that a period of time during which the Merry imprint flourished is clearly indicated.

We know that Clarke Barber Merry’s sons, John Swepson Merry and William Merry, were printers but William died in 1846 and, moreover, John Swepson was not recorded in the 1851 Bedford census.32  There may be one answer to an implicit mystery: the initials, ‘M. A.’, appear on five ballad-sheets.  These seem to have belonged to Mary Anna Merry, daughter of Clarke Barber Merry, and baptised in 1830.  It is not possible, at this stage, to be clearer about Mary Anna’s involvement.  It does, nevertheless, look as though Clarke Barber Merry had passed on the business since, although he was listed in the 1851 census, it was not as a printer.  In 1861 he was listed as ‘Printer, Retired.’

Even more pertinently, we also know that it was John Swepson and William who were involved in the Sarah Dazley case.  For, in this respect, a discovery was made recently, that of a poster situated in the Bedford Museum which revealed a simple picture with the legend ‘The Execution of Sarah Dazley’ on it and accompanied by the initials of J S and W Merry.

Frustratingly, however, that is all ... no text concerning Sarah Dazley appears to have survived.33  As in the case of Coventry Tom, clinching evidence of a specific event and an attendant ballad simply eludes our grasp.

Roly Brown - 28.2.03
Massignac, France

Article MT122


1.  There are, as usual, several debts to be acknowledged and I would particularly like to thank the staffs at the under-mentioned libraries for their provision of material and help with consultation during a number of visits: Plymouth public library for the Tavistock Gazette, The Western Morning News and the Western Daily Mercury; the West Country Local Studies Library, Exeter for the Exeter Flying Post; Wiltshire Public Record Office, Trowbridge for The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, The Salisbury and Wiltshire Herald and the Sherborne Mercury; both Trowbridge and the Oxford Local Studies Library for The Northampton Mercury; and Oxford also for Jackson’s Oxford Journal and The Banbury Guardian (other material was made available in all these libraries as well); the Essex Public Record Office for The Times and the Chelmsford Chronicle articles; Chris Smith and the Norfolk Studies Library for sending me the Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette reports; and Joanna Pateman and the Kent Record Office for forwarding the Maidstone and Kentish Journal newspaper accounts and Deborah Saunders and the Centre for Kentish Studies for additional information, all cited in the text below.  I also have to thank the Bodleian Library for permission to quote from copies of broadsides included in its Allegro archive and Cambridge University Library for permission to quote from copies of broadsides from the Madden collection.  Access to the Madden collection was most often gained through the auspices of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House and I would like to thank the EFDSS and especially Malcolm Taylor and his staff at the library for patience and help.

2.  See Musical Traditions, Article 131, January 2003

3.  Bedfordshire Mercury and Huntingdon Express, April 1st 1843 (see end for acknowledgements).

4.  Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Saturday August 12th 1843, p.4, gave its estimate as 10,000.

5.  Banbury Guardian: Thursday 10th August 1843 - which newspaper spelled the name as ‘Dazeley’ whereas other newspapers left out the first ‘e’.

6.  See Henry Mayhew, Life and Labour of the London Poor (London, Frank Cass and Co.  Ltd., 1967, Vol.  I), pp.280-285.

7.  The murder took place in 1828.  Hindley’s piece was first printed by Catnach and is found on p.80 of The History of the Catnach Press (first published in 1887 and re-issued in Detroit by The Singing Tree Press, 1969).

8.  Tavistock Gazette, Thursday 29th March 1866 unpaginated.  The Exeter Flying Post (28th March 1866, p.8 - though the report was written on Wednesday March 28th) followed a similar line, referring to ‘every species of vice and immorality’ amongst the crowd.

9.  I am indebted to Sue and Phil Warrilow (Braunton, Devon), for forwarding a copy of this piece which is included in a Devon Library Services Theme Pack, Law and Order (n..d.).  The exact source of the printing has not yet been identified.

10.  Mayhew: op cit, p.281; and for a note on this phenomenon, the previous piece in this series.

11.  See Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette for Thursday August 23rd 1849, p.3.  Identical reports can be found in The Salisbury and Wiltshire Herald (Saturday August 25th 1849, p.4) and the Northampton Mercury, (Saturday September 1st 1849, p.4).  This succession of reports is an interesting indicator of how news may have travelled and in what form.

12.  Western Daily Mercury 28th March 1866, p.2.

13.  The Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette, 24th April 1847.

14.  Bedfordshire Times, 4th April 1871.  This execution took place behind closed doors; but there were, it is reported, numbers of people gathered outside the prison walls.

15.  See The Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette, 24th March 1877.

16.  Confession of Thomas Drory, Bodleian Allegro archive, from Firth b.25(141).

17.  Western Morning News, Thursday March 29th 1866.

18.  Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire Express, 5th August 1843.

19.  Mayhew: op cit, p.225.

20.  Ibid, p.281.

21.  Banbury Guardian, 4th April 1845.  The execution took place on 28th March 1845.  It was also reported in Jackson’s Oxford Journal (Saturday March 22nd 1845, p.4 and Saturday March 29th 1845, p.3) where, incidentally, a confession was cited; and in Northampton Mercury (Saturday April 5th 1845, p.4) where Tawell’s acknowledgement of the murder was noted but not a confession . 

22.  The Times, 26th March 1851 (unpaginated).  This was also the occasion of the execution of Thomas Drory for the murder of Jael Denny.  For a report on both the Drory and Chesham executions see the Chelmsford Chronicle, 28th March 1851, and for a separate report on Drory see the same newspaper, 14th March 1851.  Drory, it seems - or, rather, Jael Denny, the victim - did not do well for Mayhew’s informant because ‘The weather coopered her, poor lass!’ - presumably he was travelling the country ...  Nonetheless he still expected to make money from Drory: which suggests that old news would be re-cast (Mayhew, op cit, p.225).  Sarah Chesham is not mentioned in Mayhew’s accounts.

23.  See Maidstone and Kentish Journal, 12th January 1867, p.2, the first of two reports on these executions in the same journal, the second put out two days later.

24.  Northampton Mercury, Saturday August 12th 1843, p.4.

25.  I am indebted to Roy Palmer (Malvern) for forwarding me a copy of this ballad, printed by Willey of Cheltenham and to be found in the Madden collection.  The full title given by Willey was:

An affecting Copy of Verses

Written on the Body of Harriet Tarver
Who was Executed April 9th 1836, at Gloucester, for Poisoning
her Husband in the town of Camden
- Camden being Chipping Camden.

26.  The March and Cotton ballads can be found in the Bodleian Library’s Allegro archive: taken from sources as follows: Harding B 14 (234) - no imprint; and Firth c 17(98) - no imprint.  Mary Ann Cotton was executed on 24th March 1873.

27.  Hodges (London) imprint, Bodleian Allegro archive, from Firth b 25(382).

28.  See, for example, the Disley (London) printing of Lamentation, Confession and Execution of Muller, Bodleian Allegro archive (Johnson Ballads 316).  Muller was executed in 1864 for the murder of one, Cooper, in a railway carriage.

29.  He was baptised December 8th 1786 in Moulton, Northamptonshire and died on 15th September 1868.  The reference to ‘a printer in the town’, it should be recalled, is in the first newspaper account quoted in this article.

30.  The Madden collection has no items at all from Bedfordshire.

31.  This is as a first publication of Woodman ...  . The words actually date from 1830 and a poem by an American, George Pope Morris, and the music was by Henry Russell, English-born but living in America when he collaborated with Morris.  Russell came and went to America and in 1842 was giving a series of concerts in England.  It may have been then that Woodman ... was first heard in England and that printings appeared subsequently (for more brief details of Russell’s career see Derek Scott: The Singing Bourgeois ... Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing Company, 2001, pp.39-40).  It should be said that Waterloo material could well have been retrospective as, for instance, was much to do with Nelson and Trafalgar ... that is to say, given the obvious caveat, put out much later as a commercial proposition.

32.  This might conceivably have been a temporary blip: he could have been away from home during the census take.  More information is emerging in connection with John Swepson and this will form part of another piece in this series.

33.  I am greatly indebted to Susan Edwards, archivist at the Bedford Public Record Office, who has assembled a mass of detail concerning Sarah Dazley’s case, and who sent me a copy from which some references are taken in order to supplement the first account in the Banbury Guardian above and that of others found; and who also furnished me with details of the Merry family.  It is very much due to the efforts of the Bedford Record Office that information contained in this article has come to light.

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