Behind the scenes Collections Long read Series

The Singing Detective: Dating broadside ballads during lockdown (Part 2)

This is the second of two blogs by Special Collections Librarian, Julie Ramwell, providing an insight into the difficulties of dating 19th century broadside ballads.


While working from home during lockdown, one of my tasks has been to compile metadata for an album of 19th century broadside ballads.  In my first blog, I discussed the value of activity or trading dates for members of the book-trade. However, not all ballad sheets carry imprints.  In this blog, I will examine other methods of establishing suggested dates of printing.

Authors and publication dates

Authors’ names, like dates, rarely appear on ballad sheets.  However, while the authors of many traditional ballads are lost in time, it may be possible to identify the lyricists of popular, contemporary songs using online searching. Occasionally, this can help with dating. As the titles assigned to ballads vary and overlap, it is helpful, where possible, to compare the first (and subsequent) lines of songs to avoid misidentification. To this end, digitised song books and music scores have proved invaluable. 

Two ballads printed in one column.  Each with three verses of eight lines plus a two-line chorus.
Charles Dickens, ‘Ivy Green’, and John Labern, ‘Cabbage Green’
Date: [between 1836 and late 19th century]
Author’s own photograph. Ref: R226579.41

These two ballads have been extracted from a larger sheet and lack author, imprint or date.  However, it is easy to discover that ‘Ivy Green’ was written by Charles Dickens (1812-70) and appeared originally in his first novel, ‘The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club’, in 1836. This gives us an earliest possible date of printing.

 ‘The Cabbage Green’ is a comic parody of Dickens’s work by the songwriter John Labern (1815-81). Parodies – a number of which are found in the album – depend upon the audience’s familiarity with the original ballad. Sadly, I have been unable to determine when Labern’s song was written.

Performance dates and performers

Although broadside ballads tend to be printed without musical notation, most are associated with a particular tune, and many derive from the music hall or theatre. Knowing that a song was written for a particular opera, pantomime or burletta can also aid dating. Care must be taken to distinguish the author of the words – the librettist – from the composer or arranger of the music.

Two ballads in two columns. Two four-line verses plus chorus. Seven eight-line verses plus chorus. Woodcut of dancer at head of first column.
T. W. Moncrieff, ‘The Cachuca’, and ‘The Charity Boy’
Date: [between 1837 and late 19th century]
Author’s own photograph. Ref: R226579.276

Capitalising once again on the popularity of Charles Dickens, the first song on this sheet derives from T. W. Moncrieff’s burletta ‘Sam Weller, or, The Pickwickians’ which was first performed at the New Strand Theatre, London on 10 July 1837. ‘The charity boy’ is an earlier song – it is found in ‘Hodgson’s National Songster’ (1832).  While this sheet probably dates from the late 1830s or 1840s, a cautiously broad date range is given, allowing for the longevity of some ballads.

Two ballads printed in one column divided by a single rule: Both have two eight-line verses.
Alfred Bunn, ‘When All Around Our Path is Dreary’, and ‘The Heather Bloom’
Date: [between 1844 and 1847?]
Author’s own photograph. Ref: R226579.197

Here, the origin of the first song is stated beneath the title. M. W. Balfe’s opera ‘The Daughter of St. Mark’, with words by Alfred Bunn, was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London on 27 November 1844.  ‘Mr. Borrani’ is the stage-name of the Cheltenham-born baritone, Conrad Gascoyne Boisragon (1813-90).  Press advertisements suggest that Borrani appeared in this opera between 1844 and 1847. Most likely, the ballad was printed during this period.

Internal evidence

When external evidence is exhausted, it is time to check for any clues within the ballad itself.

Ballad printed in one column. Swelled rule under title. Twelve verses of four lines.
‘Lament for Wm. Bruce, Charged with the Murder of his Wife in Rothsay’
Date: [1841?]
Author’s own photograph. Ref. R226579.392

Murder is a popular ballad theme, and verses often refer to real events. This is one of two ballad sheets in the album concerning uxoricide  – the killing of one’s wife. As dates, names and places connected with the crimes are included – in this case ‘The seventh of August’, ‘William Bruce’ and ‘Rothsay’ – the year can be determined by searching digitised newspapers.  An article entitled ‘Case of Murder at Rothsay’ (‘Fife Herald’, 19 August 1841) soon confirmed the year that the murder took place. The newspaper report corroborates many details found in the ballad, e.g. the wife’s intemperance, the number of children, and the husband’s claim that the injuries were caused by a fall. 

In this instance, it is probable that the broadside was written, printed and sold within a short period of the crime being reported. However, while internal evidence can prove that a ballad was not printed before a specified date, the actual date of printing may be many years later.

Ballad in one column printed by John Harkness of Preston. Woodcut of soldier at head. Three six-line verses.
Date: [between 1846 and 1874?]
Author’s own photograph. Ref. R226579.108

Without an imprint, it might be assumed that this ballad was printed soon after the Peterloo Massacre (16 August 1819).  However, John Harkness of Preston did not begin printing until 1840.  The suggested date range is based on his  known period of residence at 121 Church Street.

All or nothing

Incomplete ballad sheet printed by James Catnach of London. Seven ballads in three columns. Woodcut of St George and dragon at head.
‘The Artful Dodge’; Charles Selby, ‘Horticultural Wife’; ‘Jame[s] of Dundee’; ‘The Pirates Bride’; J R Planché, ‘Gentle Moon’; Sir Lumley St George Skeffington, ‘Woodland Maid’, and Edward Fitzball, ‘On the Banks of the Blue Moselle’
Date: [1839]
Author’s own photograph. Ref: R226579.481

For those elusive ballads which yield no clues, internal of external, as to the year of printing, a broad statement, e.g. ‘[19th century]’ has been adopted, along with the explanation ‘Date based on style of printing.’  However, I would like to finish with this incomplete ballad sheet printed by James Catnach.  (Broadside Ballads Online includes the full sheet containing sixteen ballads.)  One of the ballads, ‘Horticultural Wife’, originates from Charles Selby’s burletta ‘The King’s Gardener’, which was first performed at The Strand Theatre, London on 1 April 1839.  This is the same year that Catnach retired.  Behold, the only sheet, so far, to boast a single, undisputed year of printing.

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