Article MT139

Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade

No. 6: Ballad-sellers at the fair1

It is accepted that ballad-sellers operated as part of a large army of itinerant salesmen and workers spread throughout the country during the nineteenth century.  Mayhew's description of informants who travelled for the express purpose of selling copies of execution ballads has already been canvassed in this series.  As a reminder: Mayhew's informant who went down to Bury St Edmunds with the Last Dying Speech and Full Confession of William Corder also claimed, of a similar ballad on the Mannings case, to have sold 'six at one go to the railway clerks at Norwich'. Printings of the Rush murder, too, were hawked around Norfolk. Again, of the Mannings ballad, Mayhew's informant said that he had travelled between 800 and 1,000 miles selling copies but, intriguingly, that he would have done even better to have stayed in London (the executions of the three miscreants noted here took place in 1828 - Corder - and 1849 - Rush and the Mannings).   Another ballad seller 'got my living round Cornwall for one twelvemonth with nothing else than a love letter…' changing certain details to suit the locality in which he was currently operating.2

Like the careers of Mayhew's informants, those of certain Irish ballad-sellers and ballad-singers furnish instances of travel up and down the country.  In 1843 John Corral plied his trade between Tipperary town and Ahascragh, a distance, south to north, of some one hundred kilometres.  William Davis, whose 'manner of livelihood, has been for sometime past, selling speeches and ballads at fairs and markets…', could be found operating in Co Waterford.  Dennis Sheehan, a ballad-singer, actually charged with sedition (a favourite accusation at a time of general unrest in Ireland), seems to have covered most of the south-west and west of the country during 1841 including Cork, Tralee and Galway and up as far as Boyle, Co Roscommon, taking in Athlone as well - a remarkable record.  Both Corral and Sheehan bought ballads and sang them … but the author of the article consulted here suggests that, indeed, singers peddled broadsides.3 

Another parallel to these adventures, can be found in the careers, as described by Leslie Shepard, of such as 'Hawkie' (born in Stirling around 1785) and his kind roving in England and in Scotland, staying in the 'lowest' boarding-houses.  One such, David Love 'travelled all over England from Edinburgh to the isle of Wight, was married three times, imprisoned on one occasion, almost hanged, and finally passed away in Nottingham in 1824'.4  Love's epitaph has been preserved too:

…Long were his verses, and his life was long,
Wide, as a recompense, his fame was spread;
He sold for half-pence (all he had) a song,
He earned by them ('twas all he wished) his bread…5
Leslie Shepard wrote elsewhere that a street hawker could live for six weeks on the proceeds of the sale of a murder ballad.6

Collectively, these histories cover a period which demonstrates that the business of ballad-selling operated right through the nineteenth century.

There are other kinds of observations more clearly associated with fairs.   On several occasions Alfred Williams, for instance, noted the importance of fairs for distribution of ballads and gave an illustration of the trade:

A man and a woman, each with but one eye, traversed the region of the Upper Thames Valley and sang ballads at the fairs, at the same time selling the sheets…7
It is a little surprising that Williams only provided from his informants one clear example of a transaction (already mentioned in the course of this series) which concerned Elija Iles who, 'when taking the butter to Lechlade market in the donkey cart in the year 1832', bought his copy of The Bonny Bunch of Roses off a one-eyed ballad-seller.8

Interestingly, though, Williams' example of the old ballad singers was actually echoed in a newspaper report of the St. Giles' fair in Oxford in 1868:

The ballad singers mustered in force, and great amusement was created by a hoary headed old man, led along by a woman blind of one eye, when they screamed, with mouths all awry: -

Now twig the young lasses as they go along
With oyster-shell bonnet and dandy chignon…9

In several studies Roy Palmer has delineated different types of fair - 'fair proper', where goods might be bought and sold; 'hiring fair' - which speaks for itself; and church wakes.  He also underlined the variations in date and type across the country; and the existence of sub-species - horse fairs, cattle and sheep fairs: an onion fair in Birmingham.10  In Wiltshire and Berkshire, just as further examples, during the nineteenth century, the Marston Cherry Feast and the Lambourn St. Clementstide sheep fair took place at appropriate seasons, the latter in October.  Major hiring fairs were usually held during the autumn.

In this context, ballad selling and singing regularly attracted the criticism of authorities (as will be shown further below) - 'the principal nuisance…arises from a parcel of ballad singers, disseminating sentiments of dissipation in minds which ought to be trained to industry and frugality'.11

One wonders about the desperate intentions of the ballad-seller portrayed in a description set in Worcester in the 1880s in which a J Kyrle Fletcher wrote that:

The best remembered… was an elderly bind man with a concertina who had a regular stand on the Cornmarket.  He was a big stout man with a large face fringed with white whiskers.  His sightless eyes were closed and he had a perpetual smile, a most unpleasant grin I should better describe it.  He was led about by a small boy who carried a number of printed ballads still wet from the printing press, and as the old man sang he moved through the crowd selling the ballads at one penny each…12
In fact, most printers advertised their stock as being available to 'travellers' by which was meant hawkers (who may not have dealt exclusively in ballads).  One of Roy Palmer's informants, Miss Jessie Howman, born in 1894 at Stow-on-the-Wold, 'remembered her father's tales of itinerant vendors hawking at a penny a time murder ballads sung in a 'dolorous chant'…'.13

This piece in the series and the two following (Singers… and Bawlers…) attempt, as a whole, to pinpoint aspects of selling and singing in the south of England most particularly as they could be found at fairs in support of the indications set out above.  The sources were not specifically consulted to illuminate the actual transfer of ballad-sellers' wares to singers' mouths in the way that Elija Iles claimed (Lucy Broadwood gave another example - of 'an old carter in Surrey' who 'said that he had one of his songs 'off a ballet' a long time since…').14  That, in terms of specific incidences, is very much, as yet, an unknown quantity.  It must be added, too, that this piece, as the overall title of the series suggests, constitutes but a glimpse - confined as it is to small geographical areas.  In fact, the prime implication here is that this is the very area of research which could benefit from an approach by many hands so as to build up a portrait in depth of ballad-selling as it existed in various other parts of the country.

The means of filling the gaps are often hit-or-miss.  It may be possible to obtain a few census details although ballad-selling, as a peripatetic activity, often escaped detection in those terms.  The career of 'Coventry Tom' illustrated the difficulties attendant on tracing someone through such official sources.15  Ballad-sellers, like singers, did not often leave traces of their passage.

A second possibility for the gathering of material is that of instances recorded in diaries or accounts of events or a snippet within a general survey of an area - the kind of thing but in this case without mention of ballad sellers that Arthur Gibbs wrote about Gloucestershire…a collection of portraits set in a village, Chedworth, which included notice of local Mummers, the local band and, very briefly, a reference to Cirencester mop fair.16  Despite the good fortune of finding accounts such as that of Gibbs, the field is much more scattered and the yield in terms of the subject-matter of this piece most frequently poor.

A third possibility, as Keith Chandler has shown in his work on the Morris dance and its personnel, is that of local newspaper reports and that is the one followed here although, as Keith Chandler himself agrees, accessible such reports may be but searching the columns is time-consuming (yet another example of the need for many hands); and even then anomalies abound.  For instance, when, say, executions are being reported, often there are detailed accounts of trials and, sometimes, there are confessions and sometimes sermons, and, then, a description of the day of execution: but simply no mention of ballad-sellers or singers.  And executions were a particular attraction during the nineteenth century, as estimates of numbers attending demonstrate, so would be a natural stamping-ground for ballad-sellers and singers.  The first and second pieces in this series both contained evidence that the presence of ballad sellers at executions was a regular occurrence: but also helped to demonstrate how newspaper accounts frequently ignored the phenomenon.   Similarly, to come to the nub of this piece, in reports centred on another of the most likely venues for ballad-sellers at events like statute fairs, whilst the fairs themselves may be noted it is most often without a mention of ballad-sellers - or anything more than a brief glance anyway.  The following, concerning the annual fair at Kimbolton (Huntingdon-shire) is an absolutely typical example:

MICHAELMAS FAIR. - This annual fair was held on Friday, the 17th just.  The weather in the morning was singularly unpropitious, rain falling in copious torrents.  The attendance was consequently very scanty, and the amount of trade done was inconsiderable.17
So that next to nothing so far has been found in reports of the annual hiring fairs at Bedford, the Cirencester 'mop', and at Highworth, Marlborough, Faringdon, Cricklade and Swindon.  Despite the odd reference, the same general absence of sightings of ballad-sellers where the autumn fair in Exeter is concerned obtained throughout the nineteenth century nor has it yet been confirmed in detail in newspapers that ballad-selling was a feature of other west country fairs.  Nothing either, so far, has emerged from newspapers concerning ballad-sellers at fairs in Hampshire.  Surprisingly, perhaps, in this case, no evidence has been found at Weyhill, the biggest sheep fair in the south of England - but reports of the sheep fair at East Ilsley, in Berkshire, once a huge gathering although already very much in decline during the period under review, suggest that there was absolute concentration on the business in hand and that distractions were avoided by the company; and this may have been the case at Weyhill as well.  Of course, research continues; and the more likely explanation for an absence of references is simply that the particular observer did not think ballad-sellers worth a mention.

Meanwhile, at some venues such as Newbury, Witney, Oxford, Banbury, Buckingham and Abingdon, the evidence is more substantial although the overall picture is still uneven.

Ultimately, material presented here needs to be confirmed by details of conditions obtaining elsewhere.  And, as shown below, when ballad-sellers did come to notice then the tone of reportage is often patronising if not overtly hostile; and, frequently, any reference to sellers and singers is by way of underlining some occurrence, whether actual or supposed according to preconceived notions, offensive to public commerce.   Court reports in newspapers are important in this respect but can hardly be counted as being unbiased.  They certainly reflect everyday municipal concerns (such as were noted at the head of this piece) and front an overall pattern of growth towards respectability during the century which decreed that fairs and executions were occasions for moral disquiet.  There was a continued attempt to abolish both.  The setting-up in 1818 of the Society for the Abolition of Mendicacy is a typical example of how private concerns were put into operation; and the whole history of the Poor Law is riddled with fears as attached to apparent and actual vagrancy.

Where executions are concerned the public spectacle was abandoned in 1868 - as one would imagine, however, the history of debate is complex and not at all confined to the effect that the event had on the public eye.  

The decline and eventual disappearance of the hiring fair is also a complicated subject.  Briefly, the two most favoured agencies for change in the hiring system, as the century wore on, were the application for jobs through replying to advertisements and the activities of agencies, both of which gradually took the place of face-to-face encounters between master and servant.  Yet, despite the disappearance of an ostensible function, 'pleasure fairs' maintained their presence and their legacy may still be found - the Newbury Michaelmas Fair is a feature of contemporary town life, for instance.  Within the geographical areas under discussion below, the fortunes of some fairs, changing their nature as they did, have received attention from commentators, if not on a comprehensive basis, and (again) with next to nothing having been written concerning ballad-selling.18

It might seem, as a further qualification, that newspaper reports were not always exact, that they did duty for more than one occasion, just as, it is alleged, did last moments and confessions of the condemned.  Thus, in a report of the Gloucester fair and mop of 1861, the correspondent, after giving a rapid account of the doings, went on to quote at length from a piece gleaned from the London Review:

We reached the market-place…where the open space is crowded with a dense and motley assemblage of shows, booths, stalls, swings, overalls round abouts, wheels of fortune, shooting-galleries, photograph tents, panoramas, weighing machines, hawkers, cheap Jacks, beggars, orange sellers, gingerbread venders [sic], ballad singers, quacks, fiddlers, brass instrument players, policemen, thieves, unfortunates, dissolute vagabonds, and other usual accompaniments of such gatherings…19
There seems little enough excuse to find this very passage, word-for-word, in the North Wilts Herald, unattributed, the year before the Gloucester description.20  It is true that each report began and concluded in a different fashion but there is a suspicion of a certain laziness somewhere on the part of a newspaper man.  And we do know that some material was sent (in the case cited above, it was obviously 'got') from London anyway…many local newspapers made London news the mainstay of their pages with a little local news added until the acquisition of advanced machinery and the adoption of newer techniques in printing and the growth of local custom all combined to make local newspaper production and sale a worthwhile commercial endeavour.

Finally, ballad-sellers and ballad-singers were often seen as one and the same.  Whilst this is the most likely scenario, it is not necessarily an absolute as the lack of absolute clarity in the examples of Irish singers might suggest; and, perhaps, ballad-sellers may not necessarily have sung their wares.  The newspaper reports and others like them given below allow latitude in understanding.  It is worth bearing in mind in this regard that sellers, if found without a licence, could be prosecuted.  Unless they had committed a misdemeanour singers could not be quite so easily admonished for any perceived bad taste.  One newspaper report, centred on the mop fair at Northampton, sums up neatly - unwittingly, perhaps - two aspects of possible offence that a singer might give:

…Wm. Warr was charged with singing "in unmelodious key," and making a disturbance before the Crow and Horse Shoe about one on Sunday morning.  There was a crowd about the house. - Defendant said he had had a little drink, and a little drink took a great effect on him.  He was fined 5s.21
Our knowledge, then, is partial in both the sense that there is no great bank of evidence available yet and because comment is so obviously biased against the event and the principals as well as a tad unreliable at times.  At the same time, where reports of fairs are concerned, the coincidence of so many reports with such similar comments is too great to count out the implied general propositions that emerged.  So that, following Williams et al, and taking fairs as a venue, the selection of accounts given below add substance to the assumed and the certifiable presence of ballad-sellers (all italics are mine).

An 1855 report concerning the St. Giles' Fair in Oxford reads as follows:


Monday and Tuesday last witnessed the annual and ancient gathering in St. Giles's, and it is scarcely necessary to say that it was accompanied with all the characteristic features of an English pleasure fair.  Everything connected with the war proved the centre of attention.  Noisy ballad singers, - gifted with a 'forty-thousand power' of bawling, - were not only sure of an audience when singing a warlike song, but speedily disposed of the exciting production, until the stock was completely exhausted.  Ragged urchins and more respectable looking members of the "fast generation" were either whistling or singing the at present popular chorus -

Here, seller and singer are given as one and the same.  The 'war' was in the Crimea and it is worth noting that a particular song was invoked.  A report in the Banbury Guardian concerning the same occasion had suspicious echoes of the one above in the lines:
every noisy ballad-singer was surrounded by an enthusiastic audience as soon as it was discovered that the song he was singing was "The Army and Navy for ever," or any other warlike song, copies of which he soon disposed of at his own price….23
Perhaps it was the same observer in both cases, an example of syndication; or perhaps a slightly lazy coverage in the line of the Gloucester report given above.

An 1860 report from Reading describes how, at the Michaelmas fair, there were:

…dealers in all sorts of "nic-nacks," children's toys and gentlemen's braces, hardware and software, down to the jeweller who carries the "Royal Victoria Bazaar" on the head of a stick, and the learned gentleman who exposes for sale that side-wall of literature composed of English, Irish and Scottish ballads, &c.24
'Side-wall' is an intriguing description and might well tally with the scenario of 'thousands' of ballads pinned up on walls at Banbury as noted in a report from 1862.25  Together the two observations might just indicate that songs were sometimes displayed but that there was no singing involved.  Indeed, Mayhew made special mention of 'Pinners Up' who displayed their wares in the manner indicated above.26

A letter from 1863 informs us of the goings-on at Bicester:

To the Editor of the Bicester Herald.


This fair was held on Friday the 2nd inst., the weather being beautifully fine for the occasion.  The number of persons attending the fair was very small compared with some past years…Those fond of singing were supplied with a great variety of the most popular songs, the vendors thereof occasionally supplying a tune gratis.

The writer went on to say that:
We never remember seeing fewer than were present at Buckingham Fair last Friday.  The takings of the stall keepers must have been very small indeed.  By ten o'clock the streets were cleared, most of those who came to the fair having departed27
A report (1866) on Barnstaple Fair indicates a norm in observation.  Amongst attractions such as swinging boats, Cheap Jacks, and a conjuror and his wife later brought up before the magistrate for being drunk, there were 'dealers in songs and ballads'.28

At the Banbury Michaelmas fair, which seems to have been noted on a regular basis, a report from 1871 gave the information that:

Banbury "statty fair" took place on Thursday, when we had the annual influx of genus showmen, though not so great an extent as in previous years…Babel of discordant sounds caused by the beating of drums and gongs, the grinding of organs, the playing of bagpipes, the blowing of trumpets, and the shouting of showmen…Add to these the ballad singer, song book hawkers, peripatetic piemen…There was dancing at the Buck and Bell and at the Corn Exchange on Friday evening…29
This report is useful in placing ballad-sellers amidst myriad activity and indicating - perhaps nostalgically - a decline in the importance of the fair, echoed in many reports, not least those at Newbury included below.  It also makes that distinction, already emphasised, between singers and the 'song-book hawker'.  The very fact that the items were named as 'song-books' might suggest that the correspondent was au fait with what was on sale (the connection between hearing, handling and understanding is further explored in the forthcoming piece entitled Bawlers…).

At Wallingford, where once again seller and singer are seen as the one person:

Our long established Michaelmas hiring and pleasure fair was held on Monday and Tuesday last…two or three Cheap Johns perseveringly plied their calling, as also did a vendor of the "Fearful wreck of the Princess Alice," and other ballad singers…30
At Witney Feast in 1880:
…Monday [12th]…Baskets and ballads were vended…31
Finally, in Abingdon, at the Michaelmas Fair 'late' in the day (1891),
The latest songs were sung and freely sold by both sexes, who gave prominence to a doggery, production [sic] entitled, "Where did you get that hat?".  The ditty appeared to suit the popular fancy, although it cannot claim to be an important contribution to the ballads of England.32
These references are indicative and a further concentration on reports in one newspaper reinforces the emerging picture whilst, at the same time, offering the kinds of qualification already noted above.  In the Newbury Weekly News, between 1867, when the newspaper first appeared and when there was a lengthy description of the fair and its functions and its attractions but no reference to ballad-sellers or singers, and up until the 1880s, the Michaelmas Fair was often merely mentioned as being about to take place or as having taken place.  Typical is a report from 1872 which declared that the fair had 'passed off quietly' - although there is sometimes a lament for times past and most often a conviction that the occasion was in decline.33  Such comment, probably written by the editor, often, in effect, warned readers against the coming event.  For instance, after a description of how the hiring itself functioned at the Michaelmas fair one report concluded as follows:
At such times there are generally a number of loose characters on the alert to victimize the unwary, and it may not be amiss to bear in mind the caution which the police issue at such times, "Beware of base coin and pickpockets."34
Over the next few years the police were congratulated on having prevented such outbreaks or kept them in check.35

Sometimes at Newbury, during the 1880s, more substantial reportage appeared even though when there was any lengthy survey it was often if not antagonistic or disdainful then simply amused.   Whilst there was no mention of ballad-sellers and singers in 1886, the fair merited a lengthy description which included familiar refrains, particularly of decline…

The old-fashioned shows are gradually dying out.  The fat women, the giant the dwarf, the performing pony, and such like phenomena, seem to have made way for roundabouts and swings.36
A report from 1887, repeating the 1886 lament, also referred to ballad-sellers amongst others:
…Where were the fat women, the earned pig, the marvellous bare-backed riders, the wild animals, the freaks of nature, the grossly misunderstood worshippers at the shrine of Thespis, the boxing saloons, the dancing booths, the astounding conjurors, the side-splitting wits who had wares to sell, the startling jokes, the frolic and fun of which our fathers never tire of recalling?  All gone and not a wrack behind!…[At the present fair]…There were also the usual attendance of individuals who sang and sold songs to the tastes of all, comic songs, sentimental songs, patriotic songs, or any other songs, but they seemed to work very hard to coin a few coppers from the pockets of those who surrounded them.37
In 1888, the correspondent, unable to find much to say about the Michaelmas Fair in Newbury itself, resorted to quotation:
A contemporary, describing a Warwickshire Hiring Fair, says the exhibitions are of the lowest class, always vulgar, very often indecent.  The public-houses are turned for the nonce into dancing an drinking saloons and are crowded with half-tipsy girls and boys, for they are nothing more, who drink away their money, and too often their virtue at the same time…

…Then for the modest expenditure of a penny everyone is afforded an opportunity of three shies at a door, with the felicity of bringing out either "Jack the Ripper" or "One them from Whitechapel."  The gutter poet also works the same profitable lay, and rapidly disposes of his stock or broadsheets with a rude sketch of the murderer and one of his victims with the addition of four songs devoted to the murders…38

Here, obviously, a most particular situation with particular goods for sale was being described.  The jaundiced viewpoint needs no additional comment.

In 1891 there were echoes of previous reports…

The old-fashioned shows are fast disappearing.  There was not a single monstrosity, not a six-legged sheep, an armless man, or a stout lady…
Both the 1892 and 1893 reports also reported a 'falling-off' in various ways, the latter including a complaint that:
The shows have almost disappeared.  The menagerie, which used to be a powerful attraction, now avoids the fair as an unprofitable occasion.  The travelling theatre has become an obsolete institution, and the monstrosities of fat women, giants, dwarfs, armless men and legless women, and what not, appear to have found a more lucrative mode of business.39
In 1896, unable to resist a scathing coupling of the ballad trade with misdemeanour, the observer noted that:

The Fair brings with it a scamp following of very undesirable characters, ballad-mongers, men with brazen lungs and wretched voices…40

This also reminds us of the Barnstaple report of 1866; and a report on Buckingham fair from 1862 had taken the opprobrium to an even more scabrous level, where:
There has been such a sprinkling about the neighbourhood of al the various hangers-on of the vagabond fraternity of a country fair, that everybody blesses himself and hopes before long to be well rid of any worse effects from such a gathering together of the scum and scrapings of the members of our last country fair.41
In total, the Newbury references and those given elsewhere in the text here provide a reasonable sample of the kinds of reportage if scattered in location and varied in length and importance of notice.

There is more, though, in support of the phenomenon of ballad-selling as a discrete activity, as the Newbury reports lead us to expect.  It is clear that ballad-sellers formed part of a large, mixed bunch of vendors and entertainers and that such persons, in turn, were but an element in the activity of itinerants across the country - as noted at the head of this piece.  The following passage describes the period immediately after the cessation of hostilities with France in 1815 (and the writer goes on to survey the phenomenon as it continued well into the twentieth century albeit changed in certain aspects).  The observable 'human traffic', not necessarily in consistent waves, nevertheless, he writes, was 'caused by… transitory passages…':

…seasonal migration of harvesters, including a high proportion of Irish who cross over in the late summer, travel extensively for work, and return home in the autumn; navvies pursuing construction projects, such as housing, canal and, later, railway undertakings; unemployed 'tramping artisans', like shoemakers and ironfounders, searching about for work in a near long before employment exchanges and the telephone; and paupers and convicted vagrants being deported to their home parishes under the Settlement and removal Laws.  Pedlars, and migratory beggars and thieves add to this mélange of transients, and the whole flow-rhythm is affected by trade cycles and military and naval operations…42
One might just add to the very last observation that demobbed soldiers and sailors were particularly large in numbers after the Napoleonic Wars especially and that there were sporadic peaks of activity such as that associated with the influx of Irish vagrants during the famines of the 1840s - the 'hungry forties', be it noted, when English people also suffered badly.  The case, whatever, is made and can be seen to offer complexities of designation and particularity.

Where the focus of this piece is concerned one observer of the Portsmouth Free Mart Fair, (again, just as information is found in the Barnstaple, Banbury and Newbury reports cited above) complained that 'We never recollect a larger influx of vagabonds than have followed in its wake' and went on to report instances of disorderly conduct.43  Compare Newbury again in 1886 where, the observer wrote that the annual fair brought to the town 'scores of dirty, repulsive-looking characters of both sexes'.44  More specific offences gained notice - pocket picking, for instance at the Portsmouth Free Mart Fair and after Cirencester mop.45   Hawking without a licence was also common as reports which span the period under review indicate.    Thus, in Cullompton, Devon:

Charles Lake, a hawker, was apprehended on Wednesday by P. C. Baskerville, for hawking without a licence and offering goods for sale from house to house.   He was taken before J. W. Walrond, Esq., and charged with the offence which being proved, he was convicted, and fined 10s. and costs, which he paid.46
At Williton Petty Sessions (Somerset) during the same year a somewhat novel perspective emerged:
George Carroll and Thomas Carroll (Irishmen), and Henry de Costa, (a Prussian), were charged with hawking goods for sale without licences.

The prisoners belong to a gang of six or seven fashionably-dressed individuals, who travel the country together, hawking cloth, &c., &c., having but one or two licenses between them…47

At Overton Petty Sessions (Hampshire), also in 1860:
Hugh Smith, a tramp, was apprehended at Itchingswell, and charged with being a pedlar selling razors, not being duly authorized to do so by law; and the magistrates, on the representation of Superintendent Horan, who did not wish to press the charges against the old man, discharged him on his promise to leave the district, and abandon his unprofitable calling of "Razors to sell."48
At Bedford, in 1876:
John Brennan Blackwall, 51, a decrepit old fellow, was charged with wandering abroad, and hawking without license, on the 22nd inst.

Prisoner pleaded guilty.

Police-constable Nightingale, who preferred the charge, stated that he had found the prisoner hawking a small potted rhododendron, to which he had attached imitation blossoms, made of pieces of turnip coloured with red paint …  Prisoner told the magistrates that he had walked all the way from Hitchin that day, and had only a pennyworth of bread.  He had served ten years in the navy, and had been invalided at the naval hospital, for which he had been discharged…

He was discharged on promising to leave the town.49

At the Borough Police Court in Newbury (Friday) in February 1891, a William Davis, described as 'tramp', was charged with begging.  The case was adjourned but then Davis was brought up on remand on the following Saturday for hawking goods without a license and further with being drunk and disorderly and got fourteen days for each offence.50

More to the point as regards ballad-selling, an 1880 report on proceedings at the Borough Police Court, Newbury, revealed that:

James Kerswell was brought up in custody charged with hawking without a license on the previous day.

P. C. John Gamble proved the charge.

Prisoner, who was a middle-aged man of woebegone appearance, said he was a native of Taunton, and that he had driven cattle which brought him into this neighbourhood.  A shilling in coppers was found upon him, the result of his sale of almanacks and songs.

The Bench sentenced prisoner to five days' imprisonment in default of paying a fine of 5s.51

In the next case cited, from 1887, the two most often found offences are noted together (as they are above in two cases) - the evils of drinking and of hawking without a licence:

HAWKING WITHOUT A LICENCE. - Edward Davis pleaded guilty to hawking without a licence at Mortimer, on the 25th ult.

P. C. Plumb stated that the defendant went to the British Hall hawking buttons and songs.  The defendant had no licence.  The defendant was the worse of drink.

The defendant was fined 7s. and costs 13s., or fourteen days' hard labour.52

In the course of prosecution for a more serious offence in 1864, evidence was given of the defendant's occupation:

County Magistrates' Court, 23rd April

ILL-USING A CHILD. - A tramp named John May, a man upwards of 50, was convicted of disgustingly ill-using a child at Cumner [sic], only eight years old, and the lecherous wretch was sent to gaol for the full term of six months.  The defendant went about the country selling washy journals, and ballads of that shameless description which unfortunately find an easy sale among young country girls and servants, often no doubt to their ruin.53

And, incorporating a show of sympathy, not the only known instance, of course, as the Overton example above shows, there is an 1872 report from Northleach (Gloucestershire)…

Petty Sessions, Wednesday

Jno. Browne, 63, tramp, was brought up in custody, on remand, charged with hawking books and songs without a pedlar's certificate at Winson, on the 14th instant.  Prisoner having a very bad leg, and the Bench taking his age into consideration, discharged him with a caution.54

Finally, as a further illustration of 'normality' and of a degree of sympathy, there is a report from 1873:

County Petty Sessions 23rd May

OFFENCE UNDER THE PEDLARS ACT.  Wm. Smith was brought up in custody, on Monday last, and charged before the Mayor (J. Hilliard, Esq.) and R. Payne, Esq., with offering ballads for sale, in the High-street, without having a certificate for selling the same.  The defendant told P. C. Holliday that he had been selling for the past three weeks. - Dismissed with a caution.55

There is sufficient evidence here which, taken in conjunction with the observations cited at the head of this piece, makes the case for the importance of ballad-sellers in the processes of dissemination of material and sets the participants at a common social and economic level.   Equally, it can be seen that ballad-sellers and singers  and musicians - and, indeed, street performers of all kinds as will be seen in later contributions to this series - were all often suspected of and were involved in misdemeanours in keeping with a wider pattern amongst the lower orders…drunkenness, public nuisance, fighting, stealing of all kinds including food, pocket-picking, allowing horses to stray and so on: the litany is long-lived and monotonous.

In 'respectable' society, opposition to and condemnation of such behaviour is made clear and, to round off this piece, a report is given below which is illuminating of attitude if more than usually virulent.  Apropos the 1864 Swindon (Wiltshire) Hiring Fair:

We should like to enquire whether there is any Act of Parliament which will enable the police to proceed against a host of lewd vagabonds who bawl at the top of their voices filthy songs, and which are purchased with avidity by the groups of rustics who assemble round these vendor.  With a cunning proverbial to their class, these fellows take care not to sell actual printed indecency; they know that is a punishable offence.  Their "songs" however, abound in covert allusions and broad inuendos [sic]; the vendors sing a filthy version committed to memory, which exploits the said allusions and inuendos [sic].  And the purchasers of these vile pennyworths are able to understand what it would be well they remained in ignorance of.  The piping crowds of rustic who on Monday took in with delight what would disgust a decent minded man, afford a strong argument for some measure of repression.56

Roly Brown - 20.5.04
Cherves-Chatelars, France


  1. I am most particularly indebted to Keith Chandler (South Leigh, Oxon) for taking time out from his own research to look up and send me details of the activities of singers and sellers.  I would also like to thank the staff of the Newbury public library for help on this and on many other occasions; and, likewise, for their aid, the staffs at the Somerset Record Office in Taunton, at Barnstaple Library, Reading Central Library, Swindon Central Record Office, the Oxford Centre for Local Studies and Winchester Local Studies Library. 
  2. Henry Mayhew: London Labour and the London Poor (London, Frank Cass, 1967 edn.), pp.223, 281, 224 and 234 respectively.
  3. Maura Murphy: The Ballad Singer and the role of the Seditious Ballad in Nineteenth-Century Ireland: Dublin Castle's View in Ulster Folk Life, vol. 25, 1979, pp.79-102 (especially p.89 for Corral and p.88 for Davis and Sheehan).  The whole article offers a marvellously detailed account of singing as a profession in Ireland at the time.
  4. Leslie Shepard: The History of Street Literature (Newton Abbot, David & Chares, 1973), ch.4, passim.
  5. Roy Palmer (Malvern): private correspondence.
  6. Leslie Shepard: John Pitts Ballad Printer of Seven Dials, London 1765-1844…(London, Private Libraries Association, 1969), p.62.
  7. Alfred Williams: Folk Songs of the Upper Thames (London, Duckworth, 1923), p.268.  This particular vignette is one of several employing the same anecdote; in this case used as illustration to accompany the song, The Struggle for the Breeches.
  8. Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard, 27th February 1915, p.2.  This reference was kindly forwarded to me by Andrew Bathe (Cirencester).
  9. Jackson's Oxford Journal, 12th September 1868, p.5.
  10. Roy Palmer: The Folklore of Warwickshire (London, Batsford, 1976), ch.10, passim
  11. Quoted from the Polesworth Statutes of 1784 by Roy Palmer: ibid, p.142.
  12. Roy Palmer: The Folklore of Hereford and Worcester (Herefordshire, Logaston Press, 1992), pp.184-185.
  13. Roy Palmer: The Folklore of Gloucestershire (Tiverton, West country Books, 1994), p.243.
  14. Lucy E. Broadwood and John Fuller-Maitland, English County Songs (London, Cramer And Co., Ltd., 1893), p.iv.  It is probable that the 'old carter' (who gave the information 'only last year' - in 1891, that is…although, as can be seen, publication did not take place until a little later) was their informant, Mr. Grantham, who sang versions of Venus and Adonis, The Sweet Nightingale, The Painful Plough and Sheepcrook and Blackdog for them and whose help, amongst that of others including two other singers, Mr. J. Burberry and Mr. Willett, was acknowledged in the Preface to the volume.
  15. See my article, MT132.
  16. J. Arthur Gibbs: A Cotswold Village (London, Murray, 1899).
  17. Hertfordshire Express, 25th October 1862, unpaginated.
  18. The abolition of the Aldermaston Hiring Fair is documented in the Berkshire Record Office in Reading.  The rise and decline of the Wootton Bassett Hiring Fair is described in Monthly Market and Hiring Fair Records Vol. 3: 1836 to 1849 and 1851 to 1856 (edited by Rosemary Church for the Wiltshire Family History Society, 1998). Sally Alexander has written a comprehensive account of the St. Giles' Fair in Oxford (History Workshop Pamphlets Number Two, Oxford, Ruskin College, 1970).  John Webb, likewise, has produced a booklet entitled Portsmouth Free Mart Fair: The Last Phase 1800-1847 (The Portsmouth Papers No. 35, 1982, pub. Portsmouth City Council).
  19. Gloucester Journal, 12th October 1861, p.3.
  20. North Wilts Herald, 28th September 1860, p.4.
  21. Northants Mercury, 23rd October. 1841, p.2.
  22. Oxford Chronicle and Berks and Bucks Gazette, 8th September 1855, p.4.
  23. Banbury Guardian, 25th October 1855, p.4.
  24. Reading Mercury, 22nd September 1860, p.5.
  25. Oxford Times, 18th October 1862, p.8.
  26. Henry Mayhew, op cit, p.215.
  27. Bicester Herald 9th October 1863, p.7.
  28. North Devon Journal, 27th September 1866, p.6.  This report was kindly forwarded to me by Julie Parker at the Barnstaple Library.
  29. Banbury Guardian, 19th October 1871, p.2.
  30. Abingdon and Reading Herald, 5th October 1878, p.5.
  31. Witney Express, 16th September 1880, p.8.
  32. Abingdon Herald, 10th October 1891, p.5.
  33. For examples of mere mention see Newbury Weekly News, 16th October 1868, unpag.; 8th October 1882, unpag.; for lament see 23rd October 1872, unpag.; and for decline, for instance, 23rd October 1884 unpag.; 22nd October 1885, unpag..  Surprisingly, one report suggested that 'Unlike other fairs, which at the present day are in many cases on the decline or almost extinct', at Newbury the event was 'as largely attended as ever' (Newbury Weekly News, October 17th 1876, unpag.).
  34. Newbury Weekly News, 14th October 1869, unpag.
  35. As examples, see Newbury Weekly News, October 21st 1875, unpag.; 22nd October 1891, p.8.       
  36. Newbury Weekly News, 21st October 1886, unpag.
  37. Newbury Weekly News, 20th October 1887, p.5.  The newspaper shuttled between pagination and non-pagination at this time.
  38. Newbury Weekly News, 25th October 1888, unpag.
  39. Newbury Weekly News, 22nd October 1891, p.8; 20th October 1892, p.8; 19th October 1893, p.8 respectively.
  40. Newbury Weekly News, 27th October 1896, p.8.
  41. Banbury Guardian, 23rd October 1862, p.2.
  42. Lionel Rose: 'Rogues and Vagabonds' Vagrant Underworld in Britain 1815-11985 (London, Routledge, 1988), pp.1-2.
  43. Hampshire Telegraph, 15th July 1844, unpag..  Much more often the Portsmouth fair received but the briefest mention. For example, the Hampshire Chronicle reported that it was 'well attended' (19th July 1841; 20th July 1844).  In the following year it was described as the Portsmouth 'Pleasure Fair (26th July 1845).
  44. Newbury Weekly News, 21st October 1886, p.3.
  45. For Portsmouth see Hampshire Telegraph, 29th July 1844, unpag.; and for Cirencester North Wilts Herald, 12th October 1867, p.8
  46. Taunton Courier, 29th February1860, p.7.
  47. Taunton Courier, 13th June 1860, p.7.
  48. Berkshire Chronicle, 17th March 1860, p.5
  49. Bedford Mercury, 28th October 1876, p.3.  I am grateful to my nephews and great-nephew for chasing up references and supplying much material of the kind utilised here from Bedford and Hitchin.
  50. Newbury Weekly News, 5th February 1891, p.6.
  51. Newbury Weekly News, 4th November 1880, p.7
  52. Berkshire Chronicle, 4th June 1887, p.2.
  53. Oxford Times, 30th April 1854, p.5.
  54. Witney Express, 27th June 1872, p.8.
  55. Abingdon and Reading Herald, 21st May 1873, p.5.
  56. North Wilts Herald, 29th September 1866, p.5.

Article MT139

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