A London Tale of Ballads & Broadsides

James Lark’s Broadside Ballads, as premiered by The Bromley Boy Singers in the City of London last year – and to be performed at our concert on July 10th – speaks of topics of today, but ballads and broadsides themselves have their own long and ancient history.

Ballads were originally narrative poems combined with stories of French courtly romance and legends of the Germanic lands. They had developed by the 17th century from tales told across Europe by medieval minstrels and troubadours of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Such ballads, along with other rhymes often illustrated with crude woodcuts, appeared in print across the British Isles and North America between the 16th and 19th centuries on sheets of cheap paper of the size of handbills, and known as broadsides or broadsheets. With the development of the printing press it was possible to produce such sheets in vast quantities and they served not only as a source of entertainment but also as a means to spread the latest news to a wide readership.

Writers of the sheets excited their readership with sensational tales of crime, punishment and romance, or with political news, while often transcribing such tales and news into simple verses or doggerel to be sung to the tune of an already popular air. And with these tales, the broadsides became a precursor to newspapers.

The broadsides which appeared on a city street or at a country fair would be sold by street hawkers singing the first part of the ballad’s story to his prospective customers, leaving out the final verses to tempt the customers to buy his wares. If the tune was unfamiliar, the hawker would sing it several times to help his buyers learn it – the sheets rarely included musical notation.

– – –

Most of the ballads which found their way onto broadsides originated in towns and cities, and one of the main centres of broadside production was Seven Dials, in the Covent Garden area of London’s West End. Seven Dials fell within the parish of St Giles, who has been described as the patron saint of the outcast.

The parish’s reputation through the centuries was rarely high: in 1665 the first victims of the Great Plague died and were buried there; and the area was infamously depicted in William Hogarth’s 1751 print Gin Lane, at a time when more than a quarter of homes there were doubling up as gin shops.

Covent Garden’s bad reputation had hardly improved by the start of the following century, when poet John Keats called Seven Dials a place “where misery clings to misery for a little warmth, and want and disease lie down side by side and groan together”. And by the 19th century, it was known as a “hotbed of villainy”. It was nevertheless at the same time a major centre for the printing trade – particularly of broadsides.

In Great St Andrew Street and Monmouth Court – on and near today’s Monmouth Street – stood the printing works of John Pitts, also described as a “wholesale toy and marble warehouse”, and of his rival, the ballad monger James Catnach.

Both companies were mentioned by Charles Dickens in his Sketches by Boz (see above), in which he pictured Seven Dials as “the region of song and poetry’s first effusions and last dying speeches”. Four of the five ballads which James Lark includes in his Broadside Ballads came from these printers, their neighbours and successors.

But the area was no place to linger once the sun had set: “The walk through the Dials after dark was an act none but a lunatic would have attempted”. This is best illustrated by the tale of a man called Corrigan who undertook for a wager to walk the whole length of Great St Andrew Street at midnight:

An hour later he was spotted running out of the street as fast as he could with only the torn remains of a shirt on his back. His description of the “terrific slaughter he had inflicted on an innumerable number of assailants” was greeted with infinite scepticism.

One would hope that it would be a little safer to wander through Covent Garden today!

– – –

Tickets for our Transatlantic Rhapsodies concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall are available now from the Southbank Centre.

 Increase text size  Decrease text size