Broadside Ballads

Extract from Alice's unpublished essay, 'How to Die: Victorian working-class attitudes towards death in broadside ballads':

Although ballads had been printed for sale as broadsides since at least the sixteenth century the increased number of printers in the nineteenth century caused an explosion in printed ephemera. ‘Jemmy’ Catnach, who was later hailed as one of the pioneers of promoting cheap literature that catered for all tastes, inhabited a shop in Seven Dials, London, also home to printers such as Pitts in the early Victorian period and to Fortey, Such, Taylor and Disley in the 1870s (Hindley 1886:222).

There was massive profit to be made by printing ballads: whilst the writer earned the usual shilling for a sheet about Weare’s murder in 1823, Catnach made around £500 profit for the 250,000 broadsides he produced, and 1848-9 over 2.5m broadsides (though not necessarily ballads) were produced on the Rush murder (Hindley 1871:9).

Being created for the purposes of entertainment the ballads neglect to mention practical matters relating to death, such as the necessity to arrange (and pay for) a funeral and to deck the family in mourning clothes. The lack of information on such rituals is striking, not least because this is what most middle-class literature is concerned with.

Neither did the ballads carry a didactic message: they ‘were conceived to give the public what it wanted, rather than what somebody else thought it ought to want’ (Hindley 1871:10).

Thus while their content describes various reactions to death and bereavement, the ballads were never intended to teach people how to cope with death, whether in terms of the prayers to be said at the bedside or the steps to be taken once the death had occurred, but were actually a part of the coping mechanism in place in Victorian society, providing consolation and a distraction from reality.

Produced for entertainment, their content is escapist, focusing on spiritual ideals rather than reality, catering for those who lacked access to more elaborate coping mechanisms such as writing letters, constructing large tombs and wearing mourning jewellery.


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