Article MT129

Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade

No. 4: More Merry ballad-making 1

The second piece in this series, involving the Bedford printer, Merry, provided an account of the Sarah Dazley execution, indicated that a ballad had been issued and considered its potential place in the hierarchy of such material, but, of course, failed to expose the ballad itself.  On the other hand, the Merry imprint, hitherto somewhat obscure, is, at least, providing us with more detail of the workings of the broadside ballad trade.

In the latter respect, then, apart from the information already given about the fortunes of the family and its dates of operation, it is also known that Clarke Barbour Merry was occupying some old granaries as a ‘dwelling house, shop and premises’ in High Street, Bedford in 1831.2  This may suggest a change of address from the ‘old-established’ office in Castle Street but, equally, there is no reason to suppose that Castle Street was abandoned.  It could be that both premises were being used.  Indeed, the expansion may connect with the next known occurrence when Merry sold his stock in 1835.

From  Northants Mercury, 23rd May 1835.  3

Had he over-reached himself?  Printers, in general, would seem to have been subject to fluctuations in fortunes - the Exeter Flying Post recorded several sales of stock, several bankruptcies and several fires amongst printers during the nineteenth century.4  Nonetheless, there is some evidence to suggest that printers were able to begin printing again afterwards.  Bond, of Plymouth, who was declared bankrupt in 1816, was again declared bankrupt in 1831 so, in between, he must have recommenced printing (or, perhaps more correctly, working).5  And we do know that John Wilson of Bideford, after being declared bankrupt, re-emerged as a printer and that William Petuluna of Helston followed a similar course.6  We should remember, too, that even the great Jemmy served six months in prison but that, as Hindley wrote, ’During Catnach’s incarceration his mother and sisters, aided by one of the Seven Dials bards, carried on the business, writing and printing off all the squibs and street ballads that were required’.7  As shown below, after his particular brand of - unknown - misfortune, Clarke Barber Merry seems to have been quickly on the scene again.

Pursuant to this: during the same year as the sale of stock, 1835, a document entitled ‘State of the poll’ was issued by Clarke Barbour’s son, J. S. Merry.  It is, for the moment, a matter of speculation as to whether Clarke Barber had simply put John Swepson, then aged 16, in nominal charge of family affairs in order to facilitate a rapid return to printing for Clarke Barbour himself.8  At any rate, records show that, in 1837, a poll book was issued under Clarke Barbour’s name.  We have already seen that his name as printer appeared in Pigot’s 1839 directory of Bedford.  The address there was given as High Street (and see the discussion of the role of Clarke Barbour’s daughter, Mary Anna, below).9

In the 1841 census information was given that Clarke Barbour Merry was still in High Street as a printer along with son, William, and daughters, Sarah and Mary; but that the elder son, John, also described as ‘printer’ - perhaps partly as a result of his apparent temporary direction of the family firm, never mind any apprenticeship - could be found then living independently, as it were, in the house of William and Mary Waters, in Well Street (present day Midland Road), Bedford.  In an interesting reversal, the 1851 census gave Clarke Barbour’s address as 186 Well Street, where, as a widower, he was living with his two daughters, Sarah and Mary Anna, both described as ‘Dressmakers’ (one of the meanest of female occupations at the time); and that of John as being in the High Street.  Whatever had happened, Clarke Barbour Merry was not - officially, at any rate - involved in the trade from around that time.  As indicated in the second piece in this series, he was not recorded as a printer in the 1851 census and in 1861 was entered as ‘Printer Retired’ with an address in Harper Green, living along with his daughter, Mary Anna (unmarried and with no occupation listed).  He died in 1868, aged 81 - the address was given then as Harper Green, Parish of Holy Trinity, Bedford.

However, John Swepson Merry and William Merry were further recorded as having by 1842 set up in a fashion, like so many printers, and like their father, with at least one other business pursuit. 


It does seem that many printers had more than one line of business.  Pigot’s 1822 Commercial Directory for Wiltshire has Messrs. Brodie and Dowding operating in Salisbury as Booksellers, Printers, Stationers and publishers of the Salisbury and Wiltshire Journal; and William Bailey of Calne as Printer, Stationer (‘etc.’) as well as ‘sub-distributor of stamps’.  In 1830 William Bailey had gone but a Thomas Bailey was listed as bookseller, stationer, printer and subdistributor…William Bird Brodie and Charles George Brodie were then operating as Booksellers, stationers and as ‘patent medicine vendors’.11  In Winchester, the firm of Jacob and Johnson was listed in Pigot’s 1828 Directory as booksellers, stationers and binders; in 1844 as booksellers, stationers and agents for the Family endowment assurance and the Hampshire, Sussex and Dorset fire assurance; and in both 1852 and 1854 as booksellers and stationers and agents for the second assurance mentioned directly above.12  Assurance and lottery agencies were, it seems, favourite additional jobs, as examples in Devon testify, this kind of multiple practice being in keeping with the volatile nature of the printing business itself as it has already been noticed.13 

More to the point where ballad-printing is concerned, Andrew Brice, in Devon, ballad-printer, was, at a slightly earlier date, an agent for rat poison.14  Pitts himself issued stock from his ‘Toy and Marble Warehouse’ by which was probably meant battledore cards and primers for children; Fortey, inheriting Catnach’s stock, advertised ‘Children’s Books Song Books etc’.15  Samuel Harward, ballad-printer in Cheltenham, also sold patent medicines, was at one time a paving Commissioner in Cheltenham, and ran circulating libraries.16

So that the Merry family can be seen to conform in this respect although, in contrast, there is other evidence to the effect that a printer actually pursued his one trade.  Willey of Cheltenham, for instance, seems to fall into this category.  There is no record of additional trade pursuits in his case.17  It is as well, then, to look closely at individual printers.

In 1843, in Bedfordshire, came the Sarah Dazley affair, in which the brothers Merry were involved. Then, as noted in the previous Merry piece, William died in 1846.  After this time, where the Merry family fortunes are concerned, comes a hiatus in enquiry.  John Swepson Merry seems to have disappeared from Bedford records - but does turn up in the 1881 national census, unmarried, living in Surrey with two cousins, one from Clarke Barbour Merry’s birthplace, Moulton, Northamptonshire.  He was listed in the census as ‘Printer, compositor’.18  Clearly, though, John Swepson’s association with the Merry imprint in Bedford is in doubt from the mid-century point on.

We have already found19 that Mary Anna Merry’s initials were given on ballad-printings (see also full list below); but, in the 1861 census, she was recorded as aged 30, unmarried, and with no occupation, not even dressmaking.  In 1866, she married (out of Harper Green) a John Wyant, Labourer, son of William Wyant, Grazier, at Holy Trinity, Bedford; and moved to John Wyants’ home at Riseley, just outside the county town.20  She was recorded in the 1871 census as residing with her husband and two children, a boy and a girl, from John Wyant’s previous marriage, in Riseley.  It is possible that her fortunes then dipped.  John Wyant died in 1876.  His daughter had died just before him. The 1881 census shows that Mary was widowed and living in the same house as an Elizabeth Moore, back in Bedford.  In fact, she was listed as being a servant.21  On this evidence, we still cannot be at all sure when she was involved in the family firm or in what capacity - as part of the family pool of hands or in directing affairs. 

There is one contemporary piece of information which may be relevant, even at a remove.  According to one newspaper report, reprinted in the Bedfordshire Times, women, much to the disapproval of the writer, were being employed in printing offices.  Arguments now familiar to us were advanced as to why women should be excluded:

Women are totally unfitted, physically and mentally, for the labour of the compositor - labour requiring the moist unremitting mental application, as well as great physical endurance, and to suppose that females are capable of this is a great mistake.
Further still:
The system, too, has great moral disadvantages, from the association of the sexes in such a manner as would be required by this business.
The “proofs” of female compositors sufficiently prove how ill-adapted they are for the work.  Whoever saw a lady’s letter “pointed” correctly, and how very rarely are a dozen consecutive words spelled correctly by the fair sex.22
If this be thought something of a tangential pursuit in this particular survey, it nonetheless could well have been applied to Mary Anna Merry, not simply because of the strictures themselves, but because of the fact that women in the printing industry had been brought to notice.  Of course, this is not the only such evidence.  As will be seen in a later piece, Elizabeth Williams ran the family firm in Portsea at one stage; and Ann Batchelar, Mary Birt and Anne Ryle all carried on businesses started by their families in London.23

For the present, Mary Anna’s part in the Merry family fortunes must be accounted something of a mystery, except that certain information is given on the ballad-sheets which help to identify something of her contribution under the Merry imprint.

A full list of known Merry pieces as ballads is given below:

The one ballad in the Bodleian collection with Clarke Barbour’s initials on it was entitled

National British hymn, written in
the third year of
George the Peaceful 1822
By a hard-whole Englishman, aged 72 25

The metrical pattern alone makes it quite clear that it was meant to be sung to the tune of God Save Our Gracious King:

The tone would appear to be commensurate with Charles Barbour’s other sallies into the political and social arena.

Such material included pieces on the 1820, 1837 and 1854 borough elections (as indicated in the list given above) and involved The Marquess of Tavistock, Francis Russell (1788-1861; brother of John, 1792-1878, who himself became Prime Minister); Francis Pym; and John Osborn.  Russell was MP for Bedford between 1812 and 1831and acceded to the title of 7th Duke of Bedford in 1839.  Pym (1756-1853), a JP, lived at Hassells Hall, Sandy, a few miles distant to Bedford.  Osborn (1773-1843) lived at Chicksands, a few miles to the south.

Election stuff, generally, may be counted as being particularly ephemeral and would not necessarily have meant that the Merry family took sides.  There is evidence that the firm printed for more than one political party.27  However, the ballads issued in 1820 were clearly favourable to the Tory candidate, John Osborn, whose opponent was the Whig, Francis Pym.  Though details are still missing on Osborn’s career, he certainly represented Bedford in 1818 (and previous to that date). 

During the 1820 elections one piece set out a potential stall:

Eventually, colours were nailed to a specific mast: The King (as in Sir E Dolben’s piece) was George IV, an acknowledged fornicator, who was, notoriously, that very year, embroiled in a messy attempt to put aside his Queen, Caroline of Brunswick.  The Merry ballad may well appear to have indicated a convenient blind spot.

Another piece placed the two candidates, Osborn and Pym, in opposition:

One more referred to Pym as ‘the Sandy Hack’ and ‘With Tavistock close at his back…’ as opposed to ‘the true and brave Osborn’ (27 above, 26th February 1820).  Another again, addressed to freeholders, issued a clarion call: A few days later: Finally, in yet another piece: This (30 above) was dated March 19th, 1820 and issued on the eve of a poll. 

In 1826, A New Song (31 above) favoured the Tory candidate, Macqueen.  This was Thomas Potter Macqueen (1791-1854) who represented Bedford as a Tory member of Parliament between 1826 and 1830.  Macqueen’s main claim to fame lay in his involvement in matters Australian - encouraging emigration, setting up land ownership schemes in Australia…  He it was who, in 1832, first mooted the idea of a national bank of Australasia.

We catch a glimpse, in the ballad, of what were supposed Tory priorities:

Another piece (32 above) from the same time, A Plaintive Ditty…, set Macqueen against Pym; ‘Mac’, in the end, proposing a ‘radical cure’, that of Pym’s resignation.  This suggests that Pym was the current incumbent.28  In 1837, the piece, already mentioned, entitled The Triumph, supported MacQueen.

One more, produced in 1854 (37 above), referred to the success of Catholic emancipation, implying that the particular candidate, Trelawny, may have approved favourable legislation but was, nonetheless, a good Protestant still.  ‘No Popery’ was, by then, ‘a worn-out cry’.29

Perhaps the details of such pieces need not concern us unduly except to note the apparent following of the fortunes of Tory candidates.  Obviously, the firm would have been engaged in producing other material.  In this respect, for instance, a notice can be found under the aegis of John Swepson Merry and William Merry indicating that a thousand circulars were made out (there are no details of customer or cause).30  Broadside balladry, then, was probably not the most prominent of the Merry firm’s concerns.31

Finally, in the course of tracing the Merry contribution to ‘political literature’ it has emerged that there were other printers in Bedford who each issued election material - Hill, White and Webb, for instance.  Hill and Son put songs on the occasion of the 1832 elections - ‘Whitbread and Crawley for Ever’;  ‘The Bedford Union Society ALTOGETHER’; and ‘Britons looking forward in the Hope of Bright Days’ (by M Haydon).32  White printed an ‘Address from W H Whitbread trusting that he will again be elected as a member for Bedford’.33  Webb, in 1820, printed ‘An address from William Henry Whitbread soliciting the honour of being elected for a second time and promising constant attendance to the interests of Bedford’.34  Yet it was Merry who had printed ‘An Address by William Henry Whitbread thanking the electorate for electing him’ in 1818.35  To add to this particular mélange: Webb printed ‘Song in support of Whitbread and Russell to the tune of Hearts of Oak’ in 1830.  Taking sides, as noted above, was not the first consideration of the printer; and candidates did not seem to mind which avenue they chose through which to publicise themselves.

Obviously, there is more still to be uncovered in this respect and the implications for a bigger study of such material are clear enough whether that material was ephemeral or not.36

Apart from ‘political’ pieces in the Merry stock there are then some which are the legacies of earlier times, a feature very much part of the staple stock of many nineteenth century broadside ballad printers: in this case the pieces are The Female Cabin Boy, The Silly Old Man and The Cunning Cobbler - Catnach and Harkness printed all three; Pitts, the first two; Hodges, The Cunning Cobbler and The Female Cabin Boy.37  The theme of The Cunning Cobbler could be found in the writings of Boccaccio. The Female Cabin Boy revamped another old joke, involving women dressed as men, but was actually printed alongside Still so gently o’er me stealing which was taken from the opera by Bellini, La Sonnambula, first performed in England at the Royal Opera House in 1833.38  Mixed messages are being given here which indicate how a ballad-printer may have used older and newer stock together.  Charles Hindley and, later, Leslie Shepard both underlined such a practice.

Hindley, in describing Catnach’s output, indicated that the printer, in issuing all sorts of songs and ballads, ‘introduced the custom of taking from any writer, living or dead, whatever he fancied, and printing it side by side with the productions of his own clients’.  He ‘naturally’ had a taste for old ballads; made sure to bring standard and popular song within reach of all - which often meant that he chose ‘the worst and the vilest’ of them as being suitable for street sale - and that ‘As a rule there are but two songs printed on the half-penny ballad-sheets - generally a new and popular song with another older ditty’.39

Of Pitts, Mr Shepard wrote that his stock contained ‘a mixture of the songs of stage or pleasure gardens, and good old-fashioned traditional country songs’; of chapbook style songsters (usually consisting of a single sheet folded into an eight-page pamphlet) which often had the title ‘Being a Choice Collection, of the Newest Songs Now Singing at all Public Places of Amusement’; and very early broadside ballads such as Captain Ward…  Indeed, Mr Shepard credited Pitts with reviving a market for the older material.  Pitts, he reckoned, ‘brought many old country songs to London, and circulated the latest hits of stage and pleasure garden in the countryside.’ 40

Mr. Shepard added that:

As example, Mr Shepard gave titles such as Tarpauling Jacket [sic] and The Outlandish Knight; and ‘quite the most astonishing sheets’ with ‘early favourites’ like The Children in the Wood and A Tragical Ballad of the Unfortunate Love’s Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor.41

We do not know enough about Merry to confirm in full the family’s place in this context.  It could be that the surviving Merry texts are but part of a larger output.  Whatever the case, the tie-up in kind as set out above and below is clear enough.

There are, furthermore, clearly dateable Merry printings apart from the one or two mentioned in the second piece in this series - that is: the date given is the first available time at which they could possibly have appeared.  The Old Folks at Home, a Stephen Foster song, is an example, first published in 1851.42

Donald’s return to Glencoe is a rather more unusual inclusion.  Printings were put out by, amongst others, Harkness, Fordyce and Ross in the north of England.  London printers include Paul and Ryle, Fortey and Such, all four of whom are relatively latecomers in the printing stakes.  Any of these printers may have inherited the text, of course, from some other printer; or got it orally.  Whatever the source, the overwhelmingly favoured reference where there is one in all these printings is to the French and Spaniards as Donald’s opponents in war.43  Known sung versions are to be found in the Grieg-Duncan collection and all but one (which dates from 1914) were noted during the period 1905-1910.  Various dates for acquisition were given, either through oral means or from ‘broadsheet’, of some thirty, forty or fifty years before.44  Importantly, these, too, favoured French and Spanish conflicts.  Admittedly, Spain and France were long-standing enemies of England but we might also think that these conflicts were those of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries - the Napoleonic wars.  The Merry choice of material subsequently offered a small intrigue.  Merry was, as far as is known, the only southern English ‘country’ printer to issue the piece.  Moreover, Merry’s text, which otherwise follows the narrative line in the sung versions and other printings, has the startling inclusion of Russia and Persia as enemies, which would appear to set the narrative at the time of the Crimean War - 1854.  This, in turn, is a printing date commensurate with several other Merry issues as discussed here.

The first appearance of the text of The Rose of Allandale is given as c.1835.  The words are credited to a Charles Jeffreys (1807-1865) with the air to a Sidney Nelson (1800-1862).45  We have, then, a general period of time after which it is most likely that a Merry got hold of The Rose of Allandale.

It was printed alongside Nancy in the Strand which indicates that ‘old’ and ‘new’ material need not have been separated by centuries.  Nancy… is a light-hearted piece which refers to the appearance of a ‘Bobby’, to the Balmoral boot, and to

Each reference can be dated in some way.  Peel’s force began operating after 1829 but only in the Metropolitan area: it took another twenty years - towards the mid-century mark - for the force to expand throughout the country as a system which people found advantageous rather than intrusive where order was concerned: a reflection of a prevalent attitude - boiling up to a doctrine at times - against governmental interference in any kind of business or social developments.  The Balmoral boot did not appear until after the completion of building at Balmoral castle in 1856.  Knickerbocker drawers were being worn in 1863.  The last two dates might suggest an extension to those already implied in the text above for the Merry firm’s activity.

One more point may be made about The Rose of Allandale.  It came, not from accepted ‘tradition’ (which would include much of our ‘old’ material) but direct from the drawing-room and, like the Foster piece, must have been absorbed into a printer’s treasure-chest because it rendered commercial success.  One of the best examples of a writer plundered in this way is that of Charles Dibdin from whom songs such as Hot Codlins, Ben Backstay the Boatswain and, of course, Tom Bowling came and were taken into printers’ stock.47  Burns (Bonny Mary of Argyle, Highland Mary, The De’il’s away wi’ the Exciseman, Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonny Doon and so on) was another writer so used though not to nearly the same extent.  Other authors from whom material was taken who had achieved a status more than that afforded by minor scribbledom include Thomas Campbell and Thomas Moore.48  Hindley’s point about Catnach’s cavalier acquisition of text is equally well illustrated here.

Another instance of a general period of time during which a piece may have been produced may be gauged in the text, Who’s your cooper?, where the subject is the crinoline dress which had appeared in England, made up of a framework of horsehair, in 1840.  It was not until 1860 that the cage crinoline, which rested on a framework of steel wire, was adopted.  The halfway house in the particular text was to

This piece does not appear to have been printed elsewhere.49

The Tax on Gin, with its reference to ‘Billy Gladstone’, has been dated by the Bodleian to (or around) 1854, and, presumably, comments on measures introduced in Gladstone’s second budget (1853) when, as chancellor of the exchequer in Aberdeen’s government, he raised duties on all spirits manufactured in Ireland to a level commensurate with those in England and Scotland.  We may, in this ballad, then, be subject to something of a liberty in interpretation (a good story was never spoiled by historical accuracy).50  It is also worth noting that, apart from Merry, only Fortey, Disley and Such appear to have printed this piece, all beginning their printing mid-century or thereabouts and, so, perhaps, confirming such a date for the Merry issue.  The theme may have been used in the way that newspaper reporting worked - sufficient unto the day.  The drift is clear enough:

During the course of the ballad it was then hoped that Gladstone always had the tooth-ache, that his wife would run away with a footman and that, eventually, he might be shot by a ‘Rifleman Volunteer’.

The ballad, then, reflects contemporary concerns and in a similar way to Who’s your butcher? and The Farmers, Millers and Bakers; but it was not necessary to attach a ballad to a specific date or occurrence except as a springboard.  General propositions would often account for popularity (or otherwise); and older stock could do duty.  There are plenty of songs which have updated references - like The Kerry Recruit, which seems first to have been issued as The Lawyer Outwitted and only then as The Kerry Recruit and which, moreover, got attached, in some sung versions, to the Crimean War.  The French and Spanish connection already discussed above offers another possible example of a constant theme persisting in changed circumstances.

So - meat, in the first-named Merry piece, was being bought at ‘Ninepence to a Bob a pound’.  At what date this was the case is not at all clear; but, as noted, apart from Merry only Disley and Such, beginning to print around the mid-century mark, issued this ballad.

The farmers, who refused to pay their workers enough to avoid hardship, were, in another Merry ballad (13 in list above), castigated along with millers and bakers.  Again, it would be glib to automatically assume that Merry’s printing was to be attached to a specific social phenomenon but, in terms of the sort of general proposition noted above, agricultural distress and unrest as it can be observed from the cessation of war in 1815 up, certainly, until the Swing riots of 1830-1831, was rife in Britain and Ireland, despite some regional variance.  It was not until mid-century that agriculture revived and even then labourers were hardly the most prominent beneficiaries.  One respected commentator, Keith Snell, advances several possible reasons for the worst situation including the ravages of seasonal unemployment, the effects of enclosure and of the changes in Poor Law administration…51  The Merry ballad, in this light, would seem to be journalistic in tone and it can be no surprise that familiar targets were made prominent.  Millers, in particular, were notorious for supposed dishonesty and can be found as targets throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries where popular disturbance occurred.52  It is, finally, a fact in all this that Bedfordshire suffered badly from agricultural depression.  As it happens, too, Merry seems to have been the only printer to have issued this piece.  The Merry ballad, then, may be thought apposite: and this may even be a case of the issue of a genuinely local product - we can go no further than that.

Apart from ballads which have a connection with historical actuality, we also find pieces associated with the contemporary or near-contemporary stage or the drawing-room such as The Light Guitar which was widely printed as broadside - by, amongst others, Pitts, Catnach, Wright (Birmingham) and Harkness (Preston).  It came from a musical drama called Epaulette, sung by one, Madame Vestris.53  The composer was John Barnett, the writer a Henry (Harry) Stoe Van Dyk.54  The following lines give a flavour:

The cot where I was born, similarly, dwelt in what we might now see as sentimentality: and Wait for the waggon is, again, a light and perhaps even a trifle sentimental piece where the ‘singer’ declares: One stanza imitates the conventional descriptions of older text: According to Kilgarriff, this piece was written by an F Bishop Buckley (1833-1864) and appeared around 1850.  Henson (Northampton), Ryle and Disley all printed it; and it could be found in catalogues from Pearson (Manchester) and Such.  There was also a Dublin imprint.56

Where Mary Anna was concerned, of the Merry ballads in the Bodleian library, The Silly Old Man and The Light Guitar (issued together), Nancy in the Strand and The Rose of Allandale (printed together), The Tax on Gin, Who’s your butcher?, Wait for the Waggon and The cot where I was born (the last two printed together) and Who’s your Cooper? were the ones that carried her initials:

Sold by M. A. Merry, Castle Lane, Bedford, where a
good Stock is always on Sale


Sold by M. A. Merry, Castle Lane, where a great
variety of Songs and Hymns are constantly kept
for sale.  New Copies set up for Travellers.

Other notes contain tiny variants in the wording.  If we are to interpret this information correctly, Mary Anna’s involvement at Castle Lane, not in the High Street, could well have come before her marriage and removal to Riseley; but it also seems to overlaps her father’s printing career in the High Street.  This may, then, underline the possibility that the firm was printing out of two addresses at that time.  Even so, the majority of pieces which have Mary Anna’s initials on them would seem, as demonstrated above, to be have been issued somewhere around the mid-century, after Clarke Barbour and his two sons ceased to print.  One recalls the date of The Tax on Gin; the first time that the Balmoral boot appeared and the general period during which the crinoline was adopted…hardly conclusive but, certainly, suggestive.  So, as first mooted above, we are left to wonder if Mary Anna helped her father or took on the business herself and prolonged its life until she married - or, indeed, both.  The newspaper castigation of such female employment might take on added aura of exasperation in this light.

There is one other interesting find in Bedford which actually pursues the Sarah Dazley connection, that of a ballad written on the execution, in 1860, of one, Joseph Castle.  Castle murdered his wife, Jane, in Luton; and there are newspaper accounts of the affair in which a familiar litany is recited: the state of mind of the prisoner, a statement from him concerning the murder (not, strictly speaking, a confession), a description of the execution itself and of the behaviour of the crowd, a full version of the sermon preached just before the execution…

One report described the crowd, some of whom appeared to have ‘travelled long distance on foot.’

Almost all of the windows in the vicinity of the gaol were occupied, and at several of them females were seated and standing.

The total number was estimated at around fifteen thousand.57

Another report indicated that:
Although the vast concourse of people conducted themselves with the greater discretion during the execution, some of the visitors remained in the town till the evening, and becoming excited from the effects of drink broke into disorder and got fighting.
One or two more details of such disorder were given; but it might seem that this brief mention was more in the nature of convention in reporting than it was a particular condemnation.58  The leader in the first newspaper spent some time considering the moral effects of public execution (or lack of them) - a debate very much a feature of several of the executions already noted during the course of this series.  Similarly, the objection to the presence of female spectators is a regular feature in reporting: a mixture, it would seem, of prurience and genuine concern.

The Bedford Record Office copy of the Castle ballad can be found as part of a large piece entitled

The Life, Trial, Confession, and execution of
For the Murder of his Wife,
At Luton, on Tuesday the 9th of August, 1859,
Tried and condemned at the Bedford Assizes, March 4th 1860

Perhaps the Castle ballad formed part of the ‘double broadside’ cited by Mayhew as one of several versions of the same news - Mayhew described how:

First appears a quarter-sheet (a hand-bill…) containing the earliest report of the matter.  Next comes half-sheets (twice the size), of later particulars or discoveries, or - if the supposed murderer be in custody - of further examinations.  The sale of these bills is confined almost entirely to London, and in their production, the newspapers are for the most part followed closely enough.  Then are produced the whole, or broad-sheets…and, lastly, but only on great occasions, the double broad-sheet…
Mayhew then described how the process could be seen in the case of Rush (a few details of the Rush murder were given in the first piece in this series).  The Merry ballad on Castle’s execution fits the description of the Rush affair, with illustrations and, probably, condensed newspaper accounts.59

On the Merry Castle printing the ‘Copy of Verses’ headed the piece either side of a very simplified woodcut of someone on the gallows above strong walls and high above the crowd and which has echoes elsewhere…it could have been made from a pre-existent block, a common enough device.  In this latter connection Leslie Shepard reported comments by William Hone who had approached the printer Batchelar with a view to buying some of the original crude blocks used for his carol sheets.  Hone offered to replace the blocks with better quality engravings but Batchelar told him that "better are not so good; I can get better myself: now these are old favourites, and better cuts will not please my customers so well." 60

The Castle lines began with high rhetoric:

Then Satan, as in the Bible, in the form of ‘Unfounded jealousy’ and ‘The demon Hate’, overtook Castle.  The writing certainly represents a step up in contrived dignity from, say, the Mary Ann Ashford ballad cited in the second piece in this series 61, but, then, the tone lapsed somewhat: And, finally, a warning was given to all ‘ to check them in their dangerous ways’ - in the tradition of executions such as those of Rebecca Smith and Sarah Dazley noted in the previous Merry piece in the series.

The accounts on the printing which followed underneath the ballad itself, like newspaper accounts, reveal Castle’s seeming inability to settle in his marriage, with one, Jane Whitecroft of Luton, and suggest that he suffered bouts of ‘irritable temper’.  The couple quarrelled frequently; she several times threatened to leave him; he told her to do so; she determined and went and he followed her to her father’s house, somehow persuaded her to return home with him and then, on the way back, murdered her.  These details can also be found in the two newspaper reports cited, with some expansion here and more brevity there.

A woodcut is set into the Bedford Record Office Merry piece depicting ‘the Murderous Attack’.

Castle went to the police to give himself up and the law then took its course.  There are details of witness statements, including that of a surgeon.  Castle, it was firmly stated, did not make a confession though he admitted his guilt (as one of the newspaper reports indicated); and he was described as ‘silent, passive and reserved’ - even callous.  ‘Latterly’ he wrote an account of his life.

The Merry printing concluded with a brief account of the execution, beginning:

No execution having taken place here since that of Sarah Dazely, about 16 years ago, the concourse of people assembled might be counted by thousands.  It was immense.  The windows of the houses were filled with pretty faces, and the tops of the buildings and projections of all kinds of erections exhibited human beings in every direction.62
So that most of the paraphernalia surrounding the executions of the Wedmores and of Sarah Dazley, together with those instances cited in support, seems also to have surrounded the execution of Castle and found at least some mention on the Merry piece.

Given the totality of evidence assembled above in respect of her possible involvement in Merry family affairs, it might seem that Mary Anna was the moving force; but this cannot be confirmed.

None of this adds up to anything startling but, given the small surprises that always occur in an individual stock, the collection of Merry printings as we have it seems to place the family amongst the mainstream printers that we know more about who issued something of a rag-bag of material.  What also begins to emerge is that the operative period for the Merry imprint began at some stage before 1820 and ended somewhere in the 1860s, perhaps on the occasion of Mary Anna Merry’s marriage.

Roly Brown
Massignac, France - 23.7.03

Article MT129


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