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New Digital Collection: Broadside Ballads

A selection of 18th and 19th century broadside ballads and slip-songs is now available on Manchester Digital Collections.

A selection of 18th- and 19th-century broadside ballads and slip-songs is now available on Manchester Digital Collections.

Broadside ballads are descriptive or narrative verses or songs, each printed on one side of a single sheet of low-quality paper. The John Rylands Library holds a fascinating and diverse collection of ballads as part of its Street Literature Collection.  Street Literature, as the name suggests, was popular literature, including ballads and chapbooks, which was sold on the street, at markets and fairs, or house-to-house in the countryside, by itinerant hawkers or chapmen.  Typically priced at a halfpenny to a penny, ballads were mass-produced, cheap and easily accessible to ordinary people. However, on account of their flimsy, ephemeral nature, only a small percentage of those produced still survive today.  This collection includes both individual examples, and sheets which have been preserved in albums by ballad collectors.

The Norfolk Gentleman’s Last Will and Testament’ (18th century). R150649.20

This ballad, which tells the traditional tale of two children lost in the woods, was collected by the Bateman family of Middleton Hall, Middleton-by-Youlgreave, near Bakewell in Derbyshire.  The Bateman’s album, which contains over 200 ballad sheets, was later acquired by the folksong collector, Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924).

In addition to traditional ballads by unknown authors, which have been passed down through a combination of oral and print transmission, the collection includes a range of popular, contemporary songs. While some ballads originate in the theatre or music hall, and others are written by established authors, the majority were penned by prolific but obscure ballad writers, such as John Morgan of Anne Street, Westminster. Morgan has been identified as the author of this comic song on miracle cures:

The Wonderful Pills; or, A Cure for the World‘ by John Morgan. R150649.161

Attribution is often difficult, as authors’ names rarely appear on the ballad sheets. Likewise, the majority of ballads are undated, and many lack any imprint at all. Dates can sometimes be surmised from the operating dates of printers, or from internal evidence. Occasionally, a printer can be identified by the numbering of a sheet, or by the use of specific woodcuts or ornaments. This ballad, which includes a woodcut, commonly termed ‘the prancing dandy’, is known to be printed by John Harkness (1814-98) of Preston, Lancashire. It is thought that Harkness may have omitted his imprint to make the sheet more attractive to the London market.

The Treading Mill’ / ‘Mary, the Farmer’s Bride‘: double ballad sheet printed by John Harkness of Preston. R174639.12

Although London was the centre for ballad publishing, the collection includes a number of provincial imprints. Some of these also have a local theme. ‘Owdum Weddin’, written in Lancashire dialect by the Manchester songwriter, Alexander Wilson (d. 1846) tells of a visit to Chetham’s Library to view its Cabinet of Curiosities.

Owdum Weddin‘ by Manchester’s Alexander Wilson. R159734

While some ballads relate to particular places, or to historical events, either local or national, the majority cover universal themes such as relationships, poverty or mortality. As can be seen, publishers often decorated their sheets with crude woodcuts from their stock, but these were often incongruous with the text.  While no musical notation was included, a popular tune, e.g. ‘Yankee Doodle’, might be suggested. Many ballads take the form of ‘slip’ songs, printed in a single column.

The Weavers’ Lamentation‘: a slip song. R150649.129

To aid identification of ballads in the collection, the Roud number has been supplied where known. This digital collection will be added to as part of the Library’s continuing digitisation programme.

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