Crime and Punishment in Leeds, 1850

  • Volunteers’ Week takes place every year from 1-7 June. Leeds Libraries held a celebratory reception yesterday, recognizing the efforts of our volunteering team – including event supporters, At-Home Service deliverers, partners and, of course, heritage volunteers – several of whom have written for this very blog. Today, we hand over to another of these, Joan Ellis, who’s been researching the history of crime in Leeds, including the strange case of an ‘assault with a worsted sock’…

When I volunteered to research historic crimes for the Local and Family History Library, the brief seemed quite wide. At my induction, an 1850 edition of the Leeds Mercury on microfilm was chosen to show how the newspaper archive worked, but it wasn’t long before I decided this would be a good starting-point. As the aim was to create something that could help people find information on past family members, I decided to create a spreadsheet detailing crimes reported in the Leeds Mercury during the first six months of 1850 (an achievable sample to start with). I further decided the best way forward was to record details of hearings which appeared to have had an outcome – for example, committed for trial, fined, or dismissed. This would make it relatively easy for users to look up information in an easy-to-access format.

Postcard view of Armley Jail, opened in 1847 (

After reviewing the first few articles, it soon became apparent what fields I would need to record the information. The full spreadsheet has many columns but I’ve listed the main ones below:

  • The date of the newspaper edition (January-June 1850).
  • The page on which the article appears.
  • The headline under which the article appears. (Not only should this make it easier to find the original, but this can often be interesting in its own right. For example, the headline ‘An Elderly Orphan’ reports the tale of an elderly man of nearly 60 arrested in a state of ‘helpless intoxication’ who, when asked whether he had anyone to look after him replied that he had neither father and mother.)
  • Where the hearing was held.
  • The name of the person accused and any further information given in the article, for example where they are from and/or their occupation. (I soon discovered there were inconsistencies in the spelling of names, sometimes within articles, a notable example being the case of the ‘Horrible Murder and Mutilation at Otley’ report, where the original spelling of one of the accused was Towlarton, but appeared as Tollerton in the trial report. In the same example the name Jacques/Jaques was interchangeable within and across the articles.)
  • As with the accused, I have tried to include information such as where the victim resides, their occupation, etc.
  • Identifying the charge in a consistent way was not always easy. I have again tried to use the information contained in the article, but the results are somewhat arbitrary. As a result larceny, theft, stealing from shop door are pretty much the same but appear as separate entries.
  • The outcome – whether the charge was proved, dismissed or whether the outcome was to ‘commit for trial’.
  • The sentence. Fines, penalties and short prison terms were all imposed at the hearings, along with any prison terms identified from the sentencing reports, such as found in the ‘Trial reports and outcomes from Leeds Borough Sessions’.

Many of the reports involved public houses, and I have also compiled a list of pubs mentioned in the various articles, some of which are still in existence, or have only relatively recently closed down.

In all, I recorded some 869 cases, of which 385 cases (about 44%) were some form of theft or robbery. There is then a sharp drop to 83 cases (9.5%) involving assault. Licensing laws are the next highest taking up 79 cases (9%), with Bye Laws, etc, following closely behind at 60 cases (6.9%).

As mentioned above, the charges field was somewhat arbitrary so, in summarising the data, I have tried to combine relevant entries to give a general idea as to events in 1850. As can be seen, cases of fraud, intent to defraud, etc, have an entry – 40 cases. So too do cases involving counterfeit coin, embezzlement, etc – 38 cases. Combined, they have 78 cases or 8.9%.

Then, as now, clampdowns on various crimes can highlight certain types of crime. For example, there are 19 cases of gambling reported. Fourteen of these were at Huddersfield, where a ‘Superintendent Heaton’ seemed to have been determined to stamp out the practice of playing ‘unlawful games of chance’. The full stats are available in the spreadsheet, and I reproduce a copy below (you will notice that I have combined the charges which fall into broad areas):

I have also summarised below the number of charges by town. As some of the cases were taken straight from sentencing reports – for example, the Yorkshire Assizes trial and sentencing reports – the accused, victim and offence would be listed, but not where the offence occurred. Where full trial reports have been covered, which include where the offence took place, I have not included these if they do not fall in the Leeds or surrounding areas covered:

Armed with my spreadsheet, I soon became immersed in my research, and it was clear that I had fallen into a Dickens novel set in and around Leeds.  What stands out is that there was a lot of petty crime, for which some quite hefty sentencing could be given. For example, there was a case where stealing cheese resulted in a 16-year-old boy being transported for seven years. There was also a case where a 12-year-old was transported for stealing a book, as his father and a brother were under sentence of transportation.

The perception of the ‘accused’ could also affect the outcome. I refer to one particular case where a women of ‘dissolute habits’ had been dragged into a field by four men and left for dead. They were charged with manslaughter but they were discharged, the judge having referred to the victim as a ‘woman of abandoned habits’. Perhaps the most ‘sensational’ case was the one relating to the ‘Horrible murder and mutilation at Otley’, mentioned above. This involved several men working on excavating a reservoir at Romalds Moor. After a good afternoon and evening drinking in Otley, the men started breaking the windows of houses on their way back to their lodgings. Why they did this does not come to light, but when the men were challenged by residents, a sequence of events occurred, resulting was several stabbings, one of which was fatal. The initial report of this incident was very poor copy, so I have transcribed this article and, for consistency, the trial report relating to this case.

Despite being plunged into what could at times seem like a dark history of Leeds, there were some lighter moments. The ‘elderly orphan’ mentioned above was one example. Another was about a ‘man from the country’ who had visited Leeds in order to buy some pigs and, after visiting ‘several public houses’, he and a companion met with two females in Kirkgate and took them to a dram house. On leaving, the man went ‘up a yard’ with one of the females, who put her hand into his coat pocket and took out his purse. Whilst remonstrating with the woman, another woman came up to ask what was going on. The report suggested the purse was passed to the second woman. It went on to report that the complainant’s wife, ‘a great strapping woman’, attended the examination in court and ‘looked thunder and daggers at her other half as he detailed one foolish act after another’.

A yard off Kirkgate, 1901 (

There were other one-off cases which evoked other emotions. A washerwoman was charged by a surgeon with ‘injuring and spoiling his grass’ by spreading her clothes out to dry in his grass field. The article goes on to report that the surgeon noticed the clothes in the field and walked his horse about on them. He also complained she assaulted him with a worsted sock. Another example was a report of two ‘idle vagabonds’ who had spent the night at the Vagrant Office and were charged with tearing up their clothes in order to compel the Relieving Officer to provide them with new ones. They had done this thinking they would be sent to Wakefield and there be provided with clothes. One of the boys was in ‘a state of nudity’ and had been provided with a sheet. The report goes on to say that if they appeared again, they might be treated to ‘a sound thrashing’. The outcome was for them to be sent back to prison until some coarse wrapping could be stitched into a smock and trousers.

What was fascinating about this piece of research was the way it opened up the geography of Leeds. Many of the streets and lanes still exist, as do most of the areas of Leeds mentioned in the articles. Interesting also was the way certain areas of Leeds and its surroundings were regularly mentioned – the Bank being one area – whilst there were several mentions of the ‘Old Post Office Yard’ just off Kirkgate, one of which referred to a ‘house of ill-fame’.

In all, I found this a fascinating look at Leeds and the surrounding area in 1850, albeit on the darker side of life. I hope anyone using this piece of research will find it as interesting and as informative as I have.

  • A huge thanks to Joan for this fascinating and useful study. We’re still in the process of compiling her research and findings into an accessible resource but are happy to assist with any enquiries you may have about it. Email us at: Also, keep following the Secret Library blog to find out about future heritage volunteering opportunities this summer.

“We Smile”: A Curious Donation of Photographs

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

We recently received a new addition to our collections: a photograph album featuring images of holidays in the North of England during 1920 and 1921. The album was donated to us in the hope we could identify the people depicted in the photos and then – perhaps – trace their descendants. The connection to Leeds itself is small, but significant—a studio portrait taken by a photographer on Woodhouse Lane and holiday trips to Potternewton and Roundhay Parks – among other places further afield.

A few names of some of the people depicted in these images are given as captions: Gill, Syme, Bottom, Dunn, Strafford. A search of various family history resources yielded only one possible clue – the employment of two servants with the Gill surname by the Syme family in Headingley.

The 1911 Census return for the Syme family – showing the presence of two domestic staff surnamed Gill. Taken from (free in all Leeds Libraries)

And that tenuous connection is really all we have. So, we’re calling on members of the public to take a look through some selected images from this mysterious photograph album: do get in touch – on 0113 37 86982 or via – if you recognise any of the people or places shown there. You can see the album in full by visiting the Local and Family History department of Leeds Central Library, and you can view further images of historic Leeds by browsing our Leodis archive.

“Abysmal Performance of Depravity Rock”: The Sex Pistols in Leeds, December 1976

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

Forty-years ago this week, the Sex Pistols finally began their 1976 UK tour. “Finally,” because – as the BBC has remembered this week – all but three of the projected dates on that tour were cancelled following the band’s notorious TV appearance on Bill Grundy’s Today show.

Those cancellations included the intended first show, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, meaning that the actual first performance took place at Leeds Polytechnic on the 6th of December. The Pistols’ reputation for ‘bad’ language followed them to Leeds, where – as the Yorkshire Evening Post reported – college officials and local Councillors expressed serious reservations about the group’s arrival in the city:


It’s probably no surprise to hear that the band didn’t keep to those demands that they cut out the swearing while playing at the Polytechnic, as this review of the gig made clear (also from the YEP):


Strong words, indeed – “a vile, disgusting show”; “crude, mindless”; “abysmal performance of depravity rock”; “musically bereft, verbally moronic and crude”; “an abomination of bawled revolution” – the language of a cultural war fought with the kind of venom and ferocity that has only now returned to public discourse.

You can judge for yourself whether the Pistols’ performance matched or exceeded the spectacularly low levels described in the YEP by listening to the full concert: the first time, indeed, that ‘God Save The Queen’ – that “abomination of bawled revolution” – was heard by a live audience; a transmission from an era distant past and yet also now, perhaps, all our tomorrows.

The newspaper articles seen here were found using the newspaper archive available in the Local and Family History department of the Central LibraryA complete guide to all our newspaper holdings is available. Contact us on 0113 37 86982 for more details.


Remembering the Barnbow Tragedy: 100 Years Ago Today

  • by Louise Birch, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

Leeds Central Library’s recent exhibition The Barnbow Story in Pictures used photographs taken from the munitions factory to give insight into the lives of the women who worked there. A selection of the exhibition photographs have been included below but, if you would like to see more, please go to and search for ‘Barnbow’.

Set up during WWI by the Leeds Munitions Committee, Barnbow was a 200 acre site answering the need for shells vital to the war effort. The workforce of 16,000, mostly women, covered three shifts over a 24-hour period, six days a week. Holidays were unheard of, and the TNT poison that turned the skin of the workers yellow gave the women the nickname ‘Barnbow Canaries’.


Women who previously worked in domestic positions flocked to work at Barnbow where wages far exceeded those of domestics, though were still lower than the rate that male workers received in the same role. With this increased income came a newfound independence and, along with it, highly dangerous working conditions. The location of Barnbow was kept a secret, reported only as a factory in the North of England by the press, the greater public unaware that here was the site of the most prolific munitions factory in the UK.

Below is an extract from the 1919 publication How the Shells were Filled: The Story of Barnbow, making public for the first time the details of the explosion that caused the deaths of 35 women and the greatest loss of life in Leeds…

“It is a trite saying that accidents will happen in the best regulated concerns. And, not withstanding all precautions, care, foresight, vigilance, accidents happened at Barnbow.

“Explosions occurred on three separate occasions while work was in progress. The first and most serious, was on the night of December 5th, 1916; […] The night shift had just started operations on 4.5 inch shells, when a shell, which had been placed in position on the machine for the purpose of having the fuse firmly screwed in, burst with a loud report, and other projectiles close at hand followed suit with disastrous results.  Now, however, was demonstrated the value of the sand bags and protecting shields […], as well as the wisdom of constructing the factory in isolated sections, for the effect of the explosion was confined to the building in which it occurred.  Naturally, great alarm was caused throughout the factory, but it was soon allayed. And the thousands of workers engaged in the other building resumed their duties with the utmost courage and cheerfulness possible in the circumstances.  Not only so, but within a few hours, when repairs had been completed, girls were found readily volunteering to work in the very room where the accident happened.  Meanwhile the injured were conveyed to the Leeds General Infirmary, and splendid service was rendered by the Factory Medical and Surgical Staff, nurses and other helpers. […]


“Although, owing censorship, no account of the disaster appeared in the public Press at the time, the news travelled quickly, and, as a matter of hearsay, became much exaggerated. It was not possible, however, to exaggerate the admiration with which the workers’ conduct was regarded.  Here is Sit Douglas Haig’s tribute paid in a special Order of the Day issued from the British Headquarters in France:-

“The Commander-in-Chief desires to bring to the notice of the troops the following incident, which is illustrative of the spirit animating British women who are working with us for the common cause.

“One night recently a shell burst in a shop at a filling factory, in which the great majority of the workers are women. In spite of the explosion, the work was carried on without interruption, though several women were killed and others seriously wounded.  The remainder displayed perfect coolness and discipline in dealing with the emergency.  As the result of their gallant and patriotic conduct, the output of munitions was not seriously affected.

“The Commander-in-Chief feels sure that the Army will appreciate and be inspired by this splendid example of the loyalty and determination with which their comrades in the munition factories are helping towards victory.”

[Taken from: How the Shells were Filled: The Story of Barnbow, told now for the First Time, Published by Authority, Leeds, 1919. Available in Local and Family History, shelf mark: LQ 623 BAR]


Due to government censorship and fears over morale, the explosion and location of Barnbow were kept out of the national press, and the obituaries of the women who died carried ambiguous references to “killed in accident” or “died suddenly”. Here are the names of the women who lost their lives in the explosion. Where possible we have included further information about them.

  • Ethel Jackson of Leeds, died aged 20: Yorkshire Evening Post 9th December 1916 ~ Jackson – December 5, 1916 suddenly.  Ethel Agnes, daughter of Mr and Mrs W Jackson, New Row, Colton. (Today, Ethel Jackson Road on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.)
  • M. Keyworth of Leeds, died aged 26: Yorkshire Evening Post, 9th December 1916 ~ Killed by accident. 5th Dec, aged 26.  Emmie, the third and dearly beloved daughter of Thomas and Eliza Keyworth, of Bennett Road, Headingley.
  • M. Alderson of Leeds, Martha died aged 27.
  • Katie Chapman of Leeds, died aged 41: Yorkshire Evening Post, 8th December 1916 ~ On Dec. 5, suddenly.  Katie aged 41, the beloved wife of John William Chapman, of 11, Rillbank Grove.
  • Gertrude Reid of Leeds, died aged 27: Yorkshire Herald, 13th December 1916 ~ The internment has taken place in the south of England of Mrs Gertrude Reed, who also met her death last week under distressing circumstance.  The deceased, who was 27 years of age, was a native of Staffordshire, and her mother, Mrs Houldcroft, resides at 87 Lincoln-street, York, she was a member of a very patriotic family.  Her husband, Private Geo. Reed, is a prisoner of war in Germany.  He was called up on the outbreak of war as a Reservist, and re-joined the West Yorkshire Regiment; he fought at the battle of Mons, where we was wounded and fell into the hands of the Germans.
  • Agnes L. Power of Leeds, died aged 36.
  • Elsie Martha Atkinson of Leeds, died aged 18: Yorkshire Evening Post, 8th December 1916 ~ Killed by accident, on Dec 5, Elsie Martha, aged 18, daughter of Mrs Annie and the late Mr John Atkinson of 2. Thornville Terrace, Burley, Leeds.
  • Mary B. Schofield of Leeds, died aged 42: Yorkshire Evening Post, 8th December 1916 ~ Suddenly. On Dec 5, 1916. Mary Amelia, aged 42 of 48 Potternewton Lane.
  • Florence Whiteley of Leeds, died aged 31: Yorkshire Evening Post, 8th December 1916 ~ Killed by accident on December 5. Florence aged 31, daughter of Mrs J. E. Naylor, widow of the late Ambrose Whitley, of 3 Danube Grove, New Wortley.
  • Amelia Stewart of Leeds, died aged 28: Died 25 days later in hospital from internal injuries, December, 30th 1916. (Today, Amelia Stewart Lane on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.)
  • K. Bainbridge of Leeds, died aged 40: 40 years old at the time of her death, Kate was married with four children. Her husband William served with the West Yorkshire Regiment, but had become ill with pulmonary tuberculois and spent most of 1916 in hospital.  On December 6th, 1916 his doctor recommended permanent discharge with the following report:  “Not a result but aggravated by active service exposure. Permanent is getting worse.  Total incapacity. Very hard case.  Wife killed last night in Barnbow explosion, and he has 4 children, eldest 9.  He is extremely ill and urgently needs money.  Earnings – nil.”  William Bainbridge died Febrary 27th, 1918.
  • Edith Sykes of Leeds, died aged 15: Edith’s older sister Agnes also worked in Barnbow’s Room 42 but the night of the explosion Agnes was home sick with flu. Edith was injured in the explosion and taken to Leeds Infirmary where died several weeks later.  Her older brother Herbert was in the Army, based in York and borrowed a gun carriage from his Barracks to carry Edith’s coffin. It is possible that Edith lied about her age to work at Barnbow as birth records indicate she was 15 at the time of her death.
  • Ida Worslop of Leeds.
  • Mary Jane Blackstone of Leeds, died aged 35: Yorkshire Evening Post, 8th December 1916 ~ December 6, at 5, Thornville Terrace, Burley (from accident). Mary Jane Blackstone, aged 35, wife of Arthur Blackstone.
  • Helena Beckett of Pontefract, died aged 33.
  • Jane Few of Pontefract: Jane had married Charles Few only weeks before the explosion while Charles was home recovering from wounds suffered in France. Jane’s mother was too ill to attend the funeral but the local paper reported the funeral “became a demonstration of sympathy on a huge scale”.  Despite being unable to report the nature of her death Jane’s sister posted the following notice in the paper, “Sweet be your rest, sister dear, tis sweet to breathe your name, in life we loved you very dear, in death we do the same.” Today, Jane Few House on Ethel Jackson Road on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.
  • Emily Sedgwick of Harrogate, died aged 39: Emily was not injured in the Barnbow explosion but died 2 years later. The coroner found her condition to be related to the shock she suffered in the 1916 incident.
  • Kathleen Eastment of York, died aged 17: Yorkshire Herald, 16th December 1916 ~ the first funeral was that of Kathleen Violet Eastment, aged 17, daughter of Mrs Eastment, a widow, residing at 11, Diamond-street, The Groves, York.  The deceased was of a kindly disposition, and her death is deeply regretted by a wide circle of friends.  She was an only daughter.  It is interesting to record that a brother of the deceased, Bombardier George Francis Furnell (25), is serving in his Majesty’s Forces.  He has been in the Army for 7½ years and was present at the funeral.  The service was conducted by the Rev. Father Chadwick and the coffin was draped with the Union Jack.
  • May Wortley of York, died aged 38: Yorkshire Herald, 16th December 1916 ~ The second internment was that of Mrs Mary Elizabeth Wortley, Beaconsfield-streett Haxby-road, with whose husband and family the deepest sympathy is felt, for she was the mother of ten children, seven of whom are under the age of 14.  The deceased was a daughter of Mr John Wilkinson, of Burton Stone-lane, York and the wife of Mr John William Wortley.  One of the sons, Alexander S. Wortley, aged 17, is serving in one of his Majesty’s ships.  He has enlisted for a period of 12 years.  The names and ages of the children are as follows: – Kezia (22), Alexander (17), Chas. William (16), Eleanor (13), Gladys (12), Ronald (11), Stanley (10), George (7), Leslie (6) and Mary (4).  The officiating clergyman was the Rev. F. H. Pritchard, Wesleyan Chaplain to the Forces.
  • Alice Smart of York, died aged 45.
  • Sarah Ann Jennings of York.
  • Mary E. Carter of York, died aged 22: Yorkshire Herald, 16th December 1916 ~ “Women Patriots: Funeral at York of soldiers young wide”. The funeral took place at York cemetery yesterday of Mary Elizabeth Carter, aged 22, daughter of Mr and Mrs Eshelby, 3, Fettergate-lane, Micklegate, York and wife of Lance-Corporal W. Carter, who met her death last week under tragic circumstances. There is one child, aged two years.  A brother is serving in France.  The deceased was of a genial disposition and was well liked by a large circle of friends.  She was formerly employed at Messrs. Rowntree’s factory.  There were pathetic scenes at the funeral, which was largely attended, a number of the deceased’s fellow-workers heading the cortege.
  • Elizabeth Mason of York, died aged 41: Yorkshire Herald, 16th December 1916 ~ The fourth funeral was that of Mrs. Elizabeth Mason, aged 41, who resided at 74, Rose-street, Haxby-road, York.  The deceased was a daughter of Mr and Mrs Thomas Booth, of 26, Union-terrace, York.  She had been married twice, and her first husband, the late Mr R. Bristow, was well known throughout the city.  The deceased is survived by her husband and five children, four of them under the age of 14, while the remaining one is 16.  The deceased was a hard-working woman, and her loss is greatly lamented by the bereaved family and parents.  The funeral was attended by a large number of Salvation Army girls, and the internment was preceded by Adjutant Kursley, who also conducted the committal rites at the graveside.
  • Lilian Ellis of York, died aged 19: Yorkshire Herald, 16th December 1916 ~ The death has occurred from injuries of Lilian Eva Ellis, a daughter of P.C. Alf, and Mrs Ellis, 8, Jubilee-terrace, Leeman-road, York.  The deceased was 19 years of age, and the eldest of five children.  She was a native of Thirsk, her parents only having resided in York for about a year.  Her father joined the York City Police Force after the outbreak of the war.  The deceased was formerly in service in Leeds and a member of the Girls Friendly Society.  Her death is regretted by a large number of friends.
  • Olive Yeates of York: Olive was survived by three children and a husband with tuberculosis. Rumours handed down by survivors reported that Olive was working on the shell that exploded. Today, Olive Yeates Way on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.
  • Charlotte Fox of York, died aged 46.
  • Eliza West of York, died aged 53: Yorkshire Herald, 16th December 1916 ~ The third funeral was that of Elizabeth West, of 40, Trinity-lane, Micklegate, York.  Mrs West was 53 years of age, and her only son is at present at the front with the West Yorks. Regiment.  The burial rites were conducted by the Rev. F. A. Mann, the rector of St Margaret’s, York.
  • Maria Evelyn Rowley of Halton, died aged 19: Yorkshire Evening Post, 11th December 1916 ~ Rowley, December 5th, by accident.  Maria Evelyn Rowley, dearly beloved daughter of Maria Rowley, aged 19 years.
  • Ada Glassby of Harrogate, died aged 30: Today, Ada Glassby Court on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.
  • Jennie Blackmore of Normanton, died aged 21: Today, Jennie Blackmore Way on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.
  • Mary Gibson of Castleford, died aged 14: The compensation submission to the Ministry of Munitions list Mary’s age as 18 however birth records show she was actually 14 at the time of her death, and would have had to lie about her age to get a job at Barnbow. Mary contributed 21s 9d per week to support her father and five siblings.  They were granted £90 compensations.
  • Polly Booth of Castleford, died aged 21. Polly’s family were granted £90 compensation from the Ministry of Munitions for her death.
  • Eliza Grant of Castleford, died aged 39: Leaving 7 children aged 6 ~ 17, all now considered as in “Partial dependency of her income of 19s 6d”. They were granted £65 compensation from the Ministry of Munitions. A story passed down from Eliza’s descendants says that December 5th was Eliza’s day off however as she had completed all her housework before the last bus left for the factory she decided to go in on the advice of a friend. Eliza was killed as she arrived, walking through the door of Room 42 as it exploded.
  • Edith Levitt of Castleford, died aged 22.
  • Maggie Barker of Castleford, died aged 17: Today, Maggie Barker Avenue on the old Barnbow site is named in her honour.




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