Behind the scenes Collections Long read Series

The Singing Detective: Dating broadside ballads during lockdown (Part 1)

In the first of two blogs, Special Collections Librarian, Julie Ramwell, provides an insight into the difficulties of dating 19th century broadside ballads.


In March 2016, The John Rylands Library acquired at auction “A volume of upwards of 600 English broadside ballads, comprising over 500 single slip ballads, and over 90 double column ballad sheets, [c.1810-1830]” from the library of the late Hugh Selbourne, M.D.  We added the album to our Street Literature Collection, and described it in a single generic catalogue record.

Four years later, as Covid-19 forced library staff to work from home, the opportunity arose to prepare metadata for the individual ballads, with a long-term view to adding them to our online catalogue and Manchester Digital Collections (MDC).  As explained in my introduction to our digitised collection of broadside ballads, the sheets are rarely dated. While it is difficult to establish an exact year of publication, often a range of dates can be deduced by following various clues.

Activity dates of printers/booksellers

A primary method of dating ballad sheets is by using the known working or activity dates of printers and booksellers named in the imprint – assuming that there is one!  Useful sources to interrogate (to which I have access at home) include The British Book Trade Index (BBTI), the Bodleian Libraries’ Broadside Ballads Online, the British Library Newspapers database and genealogical sites such as Ancestry. However, there are often gaps or inconsistencies in the evidence.

William Ford

A good example is the Sheffield printer, William Ford:

Ballad printed by Willliam Ford of Sheffield. Seven verses of six lines in one column. Woodcut of robin at head.
‘Poor Robin’
Date: [between 1829 and 1856]
Author’s own photograph. Ref: R226579.396

This ballad, also known as ‘Verses to a Robin Redbreast’, was written in York Castle gaol in 1795 by James Montgomery (1771-1854), editor of the ‘Sheffield Iris’, during his imprisonment for seditious printing. But when was it printed? To try to establish Ford’s activity dates, I began with the British Book Trade Index.  This “aims to include brief biographical and trade details of all those who worked in the English and Welsh book trades up to 1851”. BBTI gives Ford’s trading dates as 1826 to 1849 (also recorded as his date of death). It places him in Change-Alley (1828-9) and at various addresses in York Street between 1834 and 1845.

My next step was to try to establish parameters for Ford’s residence in York Street.  When did he leave Change-Alley?  Was he still trading from York Street when he died?  A search of the British Library Newspapers database placed Ford at 1 York Street in October 1831, but I was unable to determine his whereabouts beforehand. More surprisingly, I could not find any record for his death in 1849.  A quick check of the census records (conducted every ten years) confirmed that Ford was still trading in York Street in 1851, and was listed as a “Retired Printer” a decade later.  His death was recorded in the local press in 1867:

FORD. – Feb, 27, Mr. Wm. Ford, printer, Fentonville gardens, Sharrow lane (late of York street, Sheffield), aged 73.

‘Sheffield Independent’, 1 March 1867

Furthermore, I was able to establish a likely date for his retirement from the same source.  In an advertisement published on 30 August 1856, Ford states his desire “of Disposing of his Printing Office and Business by PRIVATE TREATY”.  The advert provides a fascinating insight into his business “ESTABLISHED 30 YEARS” including an inventory of his presses (two, Cape and Sherwin), metal types (“from 10,000 lbs. to 12,000 lbs. weight”), wood and metal cuts (“about 1000”) and other printing paraphernalia. Ford even shares his reasons for the sale:

Declining years, partial blindness, and total deafness, together with the want of proper assistance, are the sole causes for disposing of the same.

‘Sheffield Independent’, 30 August 1856

Francis Harvey

A number of Ford’s imprints include the phrase “Sold by Francis Harvey, Park”:

Ballad printed by William Ford of Sheffield. Sold by Francis Harvey, Park. Ten verses of four lines in one column.
‘Sheffield Butcher and Chambermaid’
Date: [between 1829 and 1847]
Author’s own photograph. Ref: R226579.191

In this tale of seduction, more commonly known as ‘The Leicester Chambermaid’, Ford has moved the action to Sheffield to engage with Harvey’s local audience. Trading dates of booksellers are even harder to pin down that those of printers. BBTI gives Harvey’s trading dates as “1833 (before) – 1845 (after)”.  However, as Harvey’s death is also recorded in the local press, the date range for these ballads can be narrowed.

On Tuesday morning, the 3rd inst., in the 68th year of his age, after a long affliction borne with patience and resignation, Mr. Francis Harvey, bookseller, Park, late sergeant in the 7th Dragoon Guards.

‘Sheffield Independent’, 7 August 1847

Keeping it in the family

Ballad printed in one column by James Catnach of London.  Sold by Mrs Harvey of Sheffield. Six verses of eight lines.
‘The New and Popular Song of My Brother-in-law’
Date: [between 1834 and 1839]
Author’s own photograph. Ref: R226579.433

This ballad, commending the author’s sister to potential husbands, was printed by James Catnach (1792-1841), one of the few ballad printers to merit an entry in the ‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’.  As a prolific London printer, with a long career (1813-1839), Catnach has attracted interest from many scholars. The date of publication here is based on his address (he expanded his premises from 2 Monmouth Court to 2 & 3 Monmouth Court in 1834) and his retirement in 1839.

Catnach’s ballads were distributed around the country by a network of agents, several of whom are named on his sheets.  This is the only ballad in the album to be ‘Sold by Mrs. Harvey, Sheffield-Park, Sheffield.’  Although trading dates from BBTI, “1834 (before) – 1849 (after)”, showed that knowledge of Mrs Harvey would not affect the dating of the ballad, biographical details were still required to create a catalogue heading for the bookseller.  Here is the illuminating entry for her death:

HARVEY. – On the 22nd ult. in the 66th year of her age, Mrs. Maria Harvey, bookseller and stationer, Broad Street, Park, widow of the late Serjeant Harvey, of the 7th Dragoon Guards, and only sister of Mr. Wm. Ford, York Street.

‘Sheffield Independent’, 3 April 1852

From siblings and spouses, to fathers and sons, familial relationships are common in book-trade history. How fitting that the connection between William Ford, printer and Francis Harvey, bookseller, should be revealed following research into the ballad ‘My Brother-in-Law’.

Until next time …

In my next blog I will look at other methods of dating ballads including: the identification of authors; publication and performance dates, and using internal evidence.

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