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Olden Life: What were broadside ballads? Karen Peck

Regulars | By Karen Peck

Ballad-singers, 1790. A violinist accompanies the woman, singing from her ballad sheet

Broadsides were used not only for news but to comment on social issues. By Karen Peck

Broadside ballads were the social media or tabloid press of the day.

Starting in the early 16th century, they lasted into the 19th century, when newspapers and other printed material took over. For a halfpenny or a penny, you bought a large, single sheet of paper (the broadside), on which was printed a ballad. The ballad would report an interesting event, crime, scandal or social matter.

There was no music printed on the sheet to accompany the ballad, but there would be a suggestion as to which tune the ballad should be sung to. Usually this was a popular, familiar tune or hymn.

The ballad-writer would sell his ballad to a printer, and subsequently had no claim to his work and was very unlikely to profit from its popularity. For the publishers of these ballads, however, they were a money-spinner. They were sold by hawkers and travelling salesmen called chapmen at markets, fairs and taverns. The seller would also often give a rendition of the tune to encourage sales.

Gallows ballads were big sellers. There was nothing like a good execution for a moral lesson on behaviour, not to mention the gory details of the crime and the accused’s confession of guilt – though these confessions were often figments of the writer’s imagination.

Along with an engaging title, many broadsides had a woodcut image at the top of the page. The woodcut wouldn’t always be made specifically for a particular broadside, but would give a general idea of what the ballad was about to those who were not very well read. The woodcuts were reused, sometimes for decades, and were quite crudely carved. Individual woodcuts could be cobbled together to form one – often incongruous – image.

Broadsides were used not only for news but to comment on social issues. The temperance movement in the 1830s used ballads to warn of the evils of drink. I found one stirring ballad with the immortal line ‘Such Taverns as these are the Railroads to Hell’.

Many broadsides delighted in the wondrous, the weird and the bizarre. I came across one such ballad, The Lady with the Pig Face. The story went that she was a wealthy, noble lady living in London. Allegedly she had a pig’s face, ate from a silver trough and spoke in grunts.

Who knows how these stories started? As with most strange tales, there may have been a small grain of truth. Maybe this one was based on some real unfortunate woman or possibly was just an attempt to smear someone’s character. It was more likely a tale invented for comic effect.

Whatever the truth, I bet it was a bestseller.


This story was from January 2022 issue. Subscribe Now