Stories, Songs and Proclamations

By Karen Downham, Local & Family History Library

This week in the blog we will be looking at Broadsides, and exploring some of those in the Local & Family History Collection.

A broadside, in its simplest definition, is a sheet of paper printed only on one side. They were often posters announcing events, proclamations, and advertisements, sometimes with a song, rhyme, or news.


They may sometimes have had woodcut illustrations, but were mostly textual, and were printed to be read unfolded or posted in public places, although they could also be cut in half lengthways, making a ‘broadslip’, or folded to make  something called a ‘chapbook’.

For early, primitive printing presses, it was easiest and cheapest to print a single sheet of paper, and these could be sold for as little as a penny. They were designed to be a temporary document for a particular purpose, and intended to be thrown away after use. These broadsides were one of the most common forms of printed material in Britain & Ireland.

Huge numbers of broadsides were produced in England & Ireland, particularly with the mechanisation of the printing industry at the start of the 19th century, and many were sold by travelling chapmen (traders or itinerant pedlars) or balladeers in the streets and at fairs. The balladeers would sing the songs printed on their broadsides, hoping to attract customers.

In the times before newspapers, and before the internet and 24 hour news channels, the public had to look to street literature to find out what was happening.  For some 300 years, the broadsides were the most popular form of street literature – in a way the tabloid newspapers of their day. They were sometimes pinned up on walls in houses and ale-houses.  In later years they were used for political agitation, and also for scaffold speeches.  Broadside were often sold at public executions, and would feature a crude image of the crime or criminal, an account of the crime and trial, and sometimes a confession of guilt. There was often some sort of verse warning others not to follow the same course  and suffer the same fate!

By the middle of the 19th century the broadside began to be taken over by the cheap newspapers and by sensational novels known as ‘penny dreadfuls’, and by 1850 the penny used to buy a broadside ballad could buy part of a novel, or a cheap newspaper or magazine.

Examples of collections of Broadsides are those held by the National Library of Scotland and by the Bodleian Library in Oxford

In the collections here at Local & Family History we have a small amount of broadside material, the main item being the collection of Leeds Printed Broadsides, collected by the Leeds song collector, historian & author Frank Kidson. They contain a selection of sheets, printed in Leeds, and covering items of local and national interest, and are held in a volume fully indexed by title and first line. There are news reports, poems, and songs, some of which are still well known today. A selection of them have been highlighted here:


A New Song on the Queen’s Visit To Leeds, describes the visit of Queen Victoria to Leeds on 7th September 1858 to open the new Leeds Town Hall. The competition to win the commission to design & build the Town Hall was won by Hull architect Cuthbert Broderick.


“A New Song on the Leeds Election; Vote For Barran” concerns the Leeds North by-election on 29th July 1902, caused by the sitting MP William Jackson  being elevated to the peerage.  Jackson had held the seat since 1885. The candidates were Sir Arthur Lawson, businessman and President of Leeds Conservative Association, and Rowland Hirst Barran, prominent in a local clothing manufacturing firm, and son of Sir John Barran, former MP for Leeds. Barran won the by-election, turning a Tory majority of 2,517 to a Liberal majority of 758. He held the seat until 1918 when he stood down from Parliament.


The broadside titled Terrible Accident at Bradford is bringing news of the Newlands Mill Disaster on 28th December 1882, when a chimney of one of the large factories owned by the late Sir Henry William Ripley, fell without any warning, killing and injuring many. In total 54 workpeople were killed, 26 of them being below the age of 16, and the youngest only 8 years old.


Another disaster broadcast by broadside, but further afield this time, was the Abergele Rail Disaster, on the coast of North Wales, and at the time the worst railway disaster in Britain. On the 20th August 1868, The Irish Mail train, bound for Holyhead, and also pulling passenger carriages, crashed into runaway goods wagons carrying wooden barrels of paraffin oil, and derailed the engine, tended and guard’s van. The resulting  fire from some of the barrels breaking up in the collision prevented any attempts to rescue people in the carriages and added further to the death toll.


Death of the Prince Imperial – Prince Louis Napoleon was killed in the Anglo-Zulu War, on 1st June 1879. After taking charge of a scouting party, without full escort or lookouts, the Prince was charged and fired at by a group of Zulus. He was trampled beneath his horse, and suffered eighteen wounds from assegais (Zulu spears), one of which burst his eye. His death caused something of an international sensation with a variety of rumours abounding as to the cause of his death.


The Soldiers Prayer Book is a song concerning a soldier playing cards in church, and popularised in Country and Popular music in the 1940s. It first became a hit in the U.S. with the recording The Deck of Cards by T.Texas Tyler. The story is in fact much older than that, the earliest known reference being in a book belonging to Mary Bacon, a British farmer’s wife in 1762, and later recorded in a the 19th century British publication The Soldier’s Almanack, Bible and Prayer Book.

The two broadsides below contain two songs which are well known today – Oh Susannah, and The Wild Rover. The song sheets show how the broadsides may have been folded lengthways down the middle, to make a Chapbook with a different song on each side.

broadside-image-7             broadside-image-8

 We also hold copies of Broadsides printed at Jacobs printers of Halifax, in a book of notes from Bankfield Museum, Halifax, in the chapter War Ballads and Broadsides of Previous Wars, 1779 – 1795. A few examples are shown below.

address-to-pitt      against-address

The two proclamations show support for, and feeling against, William Pitt the Younger, during the period of constitutional crisis when King George III was suffering a temporary but incapacitating mental disorder , requiring Parliament to appoint a regent to rule in his place.


The third broadside here would seem to be announcing a meeting concerned with raising a local fund to help families affected by war.


Linking in with this topic, the Leeds-based Commoners Choir will be performing in Leeds Central Library on Sunday 13th November in an event titled “Literacy, Books and the Print Revolution”. There will be a free concert and exhibition with a hand-printed souvenir for all who attend. More details and ticket booking are available on  the Leeds Inspired website.



  • Roth, Henry Ling, 1855-1925. . – Bankfield museum notes ;, second series, no. 1-11 . – Halifax : Bankfield Museum, 1912
  • Kidson, Frank – Leeds Printed Broadsides – collection of Leeds Street Literature
  • Henderson, William, writer on ballads . – Victorian street ballads : a selection of popular ballads sold in the street . – London : Country Life, 1937



Illuminating the Rich History of “Light Night” in Leeds

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

No doubt most readers of our blog will be spending this evening enjoying one of the many wonderful art events happening around the city centre as part of the annual Light Night celebrations. And most readers will probably already be aware of how those celebrations started – in 2005, as part of the launch of the region-wide Illuminate Cultural Festival, itself based on the French model of the Nuit Blanche: an annual all-night or night-time arts festival. Twelve-years later – showing every sign of continual and vibrant growth – Light Night remains a highlight of Leeds’ cultural year.

But what few visitors to those spectacular displays of ‘light’ in a myriad of weird and wonderful locations and forms will know, is that Leeds has something of a long history when it comes to such things. These ‘Illuminations’, as they were known, were social events involving the whole town and held to celebrate major occasions such as British victory in war. As David Thornton writes in his superb reference work Leeds: A Historical Dictionary (2015) –

At a given time in the evening set by the Mayor, the windows of all the houses in the town would be lit with candles and shops would present illuminated displays…[C]rowds,, who were used to darkened streets with little illumination, wandered around the town enjoying the glittering spectacle.

– which certainly sounds familiar! We wanted to find out more about these intriguing (mainly 19th-century) events – so, using the free access enjoyed by all users of the Leeds Library Service to the British Library’s 19th-century Newspapers Online, we did a quick search of the Leeds Mercury to discover more.

The first Illumination we found occurred in 1820 and was in celebration of the government’s withdrawal of the extremely controversial Pains and Penalties Bill. This is how the Mercury reported the events in Leeds and Hunslet:



And here is how the Mercury reported on the spectacular array of illuminations on September 18, 1855, to celebrate the ending of the Crimean War (in part, at least – the full article can be read via the aforementioned 19th-century Newspapers Online resource):

illuminations-1855-2 illuminations-1855-3

illuminations-1855-4 illuminations-1855-5illuminations-1855-6

So, while you’re enjoying tonight’s wonderful selection of displays, just remember that you’re part of a rich tradition stretching back over 200-years. Remember also that, as always, the Central Library is playing host to its usual weird and wonderful installations and exhibitions; all themed around the ‘elements’ and our collections. We look forward to welcoming you this evening!

To get in the ‘light’ mood, why not read last year’s Light Night article, on Joseph Priestley and his writings on the subject? There’s also a research guide highlighting some of the most interesting light-based books from around the Central Library’s specialist departments. 

Theatres Through Time: A Talk, a Trail and Tate Wilkinson

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

We are pleased to announce the following event that will take place in the Local and Family History department of the Central Library on Monday the 10th of October: Theatres Through Time. This is to celebrate the launch of the city’s new Theatre Heritage Trail and will take the form of a mini-exhibition highlighting some of the fascinating theatrical collections at the library – including books and playbills. That exhibition will then be followed by a talk by the creator of the trail, Dominique Triggs, on the history of Leeds theatres. If you’re interested in attending the event, please click on the advert below to go straight to the ticket booking website.


Dominique has also written a great article if you’re keen to do some background reading before attending the talk.

As that talk will demonstrate, Leeds has a long and rich theatrical history, stretching back to at least 1722, when Ralph Thoresby noted, in his diary – and with some disapproval! – the appearance of a group of players in the town. The collections and books available in our Local and Family History department pay tribute to the depth of that history, providing a comprehensive overview of the many theatrical spaces and personalities that Leeds has played host to. With a history encompassing such diversity of people and locations, many might feel (at least this writer does) that a defined starting point or focus is required before attempting to make sense of that past.

One useful starting point would be the figure of Tate Wilkinson. Wilkinson was first an actor and then, most famously, a theatrical manager who opened the first permanent theatre in Leeds, based on Hunslet Lane and fittingly known as The Theatre or the Leeds Theatre; one of several such establishments Wilkinson operated in Yorkshire and which encompassed what is known as the ‘Yorkshire Circuit’. The Theatre was opened in 1771 and Wilkinson remained connected to it until his death in 1803. Much has been written about Wilkinson and the Theatre; and, rather than repeating the known facts again, we shall instead direct interested readers to our Discovering Leeds website to find out more.

Tate Wilkinson

Tate Wilkinson

What we can do, however, is highlight some of the relevant playbills and books available. Most obvious is the aforementioned playbills, of which over 200 from the Wilkinson era can be viewed here in the Library. You can see some selections from that collection in this previous blog post, or browse our Leodis playbills collection for a wider selection (simply select ‘The Theatre’ and narrow the search to playbills between 1781 and 1803).

A selection from the 200+ playbills during the Wilkinson era. This includes the earliest playbill at the Central Library, from 1781

A selection from the 200+ playbills during the Wilkinson era. This includes the earliest playbill at the Central Library, advertising a production of ‘School For Wives’ that took place during May of 1781

Readers can also find out more about Wilkinson’s story in his own words: the Library holds a first edition of his 1790 Memoirs and a facsimile copy of his comprehensive 1795 The Wandering Patentee: Or, A History of the Yorkshire Theatres, From 1770 to the Present Time. An index to that last four-volume book is also available. Anyone wanting to go even deeper will find texts such as The Yorkshire Stage: 1766-1803 and The Theatrical Manager in England and America: Player of a Perilous Game of great interest.

The title page of Wilkinson's Memoirs

The title page of Wilkinson’s Memoirs

And that’s just scratching the surface of the books and other materials which can help you gain an insight into this fascinating subject – click on the image below to view a research guide listing many other theatrical collection items available in the Central Library.

theatre research guide

The Civil War in the Library

The English Civil War took place from 1642 to 1651, and was a combination of military and political clashes between Parliamentarians (Roundheads), and Royalists (Cavaliers – led by King Charles I). They were primarily fighting over the nature of the government of England. The war was eventually won by the Parliamentarians, and Charles I was put on trial and executed on 30th January 1649.

The Battle of Leeds took place on 23rd January 1642, 374 years ago. Leeds was apparently of little strategic important (being much smaller than it is now). At that time, Briggate was the main street, and it still remains at the heart of the city centre.

Map of the battlefield. Reproduced from the Discovering Leeds website.

Map of the battlefield. Reproduced from the Discovering Leeds website.

Leeds, and the whole West Riding, had remained loyal to Parliament, but was then seized by the Royalist Sir William Savile, who had significant fortifications built to defend the town from recapture. In early 1642, Parliamentarian Sir Thomas Fairfax mounted a counter attack, marching his forces onto the site where the University of Leeds sits today. He sent a trumpeter to demand Savile’s surrender.

After Savile twice refused to surrender, battle was joined. The British Civil War Project states that a snowstorm was raging at this moment, although this isn’t mentioned in the limited primary sources I have read (of course that does not mean there was no storm). It certainly would have been an incredibly dramatic scene either way.

The battle lasted over three hours, and the Parliamentarians, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax, emerged victorious, with 600 prisoners. Apparently just 40 men were killed, a surprisingly low number for such bloody times. The Royalists were later decisively locked out of the North at the Battle of Marston Moor in July 1644.

Leeds Central Library boasts a huge collection of original tracts from the Civil War, bound into individual slim volumes. These tracts were issued by both Royalists and Parliamentarians, and were essentially reports on developments in the war. They seem to have had a propaganda function, as they were made available to a public audience. Browsing through them, it seems like the collection held at the Library mainly relates to events and developments in the Yorkshire area.

One such book, issued by Parliamentarians, and which directly relates to the Battle of Leeds is titled thus: A True and Plenary Relation of the Great Defeat given by my Lord Fairfax forces unto my Lord of Newcastle’s forces in Yorkshire, January 23. Which was the absolutest and considerablest victory that was obtained since the beginning of these unhappy warres

It was written by Thomas Crompton, a Parliamentarian who claims to have participated in the battle. He notes of the men fighting that day:

…most of them were but unexperienced fresh-water soldiers taken up about Bradford and Halifax but upon the Saturday before.”

It was also apparently the case that captured soldiers were released from custody after swearing an oath “never to fight again in this cause.”

To read more from this fascinating document of life in 17th-century Leeds, or to find out more about the Civil War in Yorkshire, come down to the library to check out some of these original pamphlets and books from the time. You can discover more about the Wing Collection by clicking here.

(The reference for the tract quoted here is: CIVIL WAR TRACT STC(WING) C7031. Ask in the Information and Research department on the 2nd Floor of the Central Library or call us on 0113 378 5005 to view this and other books from the Wing Collection)


Image reproduced from our Leodis photographic archive

Back to the Berthas

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

The fastest route into the past, I always think, isn’t really a family tree, a faded photo, or even an old map. It’s a story. And stories are one thing we’re not short of in Local and Family History (or the library itself, for that matter). A good story – even an average story – will give you an insight into times past in ways to which you can’t fail to respond. Try this one, for instance:

Letitia was thin, with sharp features, spectacles, usually wore a black shawl and sat at the back of the church (where she went most days) with the other widows, and visited the rest of the family regularly. She was the local ‘layer-out’. In other words, if you had a corpse on your hands, she would wash it and make it look nice for the funeral. On Christmas, she went to the house of her niece and said, “Merry Christmas! Do you know, I’ve just laid a lovely baby out.”

I actually think that’s a pretty good story. Of course, I didn’t read it in isolation like you just did. I came across it in a wider memoir, unpublished but donated to the library alongside a clutch of old photographs, which have, as we speak, all been sent off for cataloguing together. The memoir came with a title, The Berthas, which may or may not mean anything to you, depending on how versed you are in the history of Leeds. I took the opportunity to give it a more descriptive subtitle – the kind that might make it pop up as a result of a computer catalogue search if you’re researching the relevant area or time period – but I’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, here’s another story from its pages:

In their garden the priests kept chickens, the target of the local cats and dogs. They would defend their birds with an air rifle, which they also used to shoot pigeons from the roof of the church. Sometimes we would take a wounded bird home and try to cure it in the ‘snicket’ behind the house. When we failed, we usually buried the bird, but on one occasion we tried to cook it by wrapping it in clay and building a fire over it. Needless to say, we were unsuccessful. More than one small terrier dog fell foul of the priests. Floss Fozzard, the dog at no. 21, was shot by Father Morgan, who was thereafter referred to by the son of that house (a non-Catholic) as “that nasty little b*****d.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m there now, in the middle of the Berthas, with bespectacled Letitia and the trigger-happy Father Morgan. I can almost smell the smoked pigeon. The Berthas, as you might have guessed, were streets – Bertha Crescent and Mount, to be exact – out on the east of the city centre, loomed over by the Catholic church described in the last story, Mount St Mary’s, which, unlike the houses, still stands today, albeit in a state of disrepair. (If Wikipedia is to be believed, it was built over the entrance to a 17th-century mine shaft… but that’s another story.) We have a picture of the neighbourhood on Leodis, from 1947, that’s even handily labelled:


The keyword-heavy subtitle I bestowed upon The Berthas, then, was ‘Childhood Memories of Growing Up in Richmond Hill/East End Park in the 1930s and 1940s’ and, when it comes back from cataloguing, you should be able to find it at shelfmark LQP B CUL. That puts it in the Leeds ‘Quarto’ (i.e. approximately A4-sized) Pamphets, under B for Biography, and CUL, the first three letters of the author’s surname.

That author, Terry Culhane, had a real flair for storytelling – the kind of gift that meant, when I read the first few pages of his memoir, as I usually do before adding something to stock, I found it difficult to stop. He died last year but his words found their way to us via his cousin, Mike Spellman, and I can’t think of a more entertaining way to research the history of east Leeds than by reading them. After an upbringing as the second child of an Irish immigrant family, Terry’s tapestried life took him from the cobbled streets of the Berthas to a stint as a wartime spy in Berlin, a career as a teacher of Russian, and lecturing engagements around the world. I never heard any of his tales in person, but I probably won’t pass through Richmond Hill again without remembering one or two of them.