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.
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.
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.
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