Tweet Follow @PlanetSlade

British broadsides: continued

Page: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Songs
View essay as single page
Murder Ballads
Secret London

All that changed with 1832's Anatomy Act, which extended the period between conviction and execution to 14 days. Ballad-printers seized on the extra opportunity this gave them. Now they had the time to issue a sheet detailing the trial and conviction, complete with a lurid confession from the condemned man, and get that on sale before his execution took place. As soon as he'd been hanged, they could update that first account with details of the execution itself, and sell it all over again. Suddenly, every promising crime offered two chances to sell their wares instead of one, and business boomed as a result. In extreme cases, this could even be stretched to three editions: one for the confession, one for the trial and a third for the hanging.
This golden age lasted only till the 1850s, when street ballads started to be replaced by equally topical musical hall songs, but for 25 years or so, times were good. The best ballads of this period could sell 2.5m copies each, and one printer advertised that he had over 4,000 titles in stock. All the biggest ballad-printers were still gathered in Seven Dials, and the biggest of the lot was Jemmy Catnach.

James Catnach opened his print shop in Seven Dials' Monmouth Court in 1813, paying his writers half-a-crown for every ballad they produced. Just a few doors away, Catnach's rivals had their own shops. London's most prolific balladeers - the so-called “Seven Bards of the Seven Dials” - would work for Catnach one day and rival printers such as Quick, Pitts or Paul the next.
“The bards of Seven Dials' pens are kept in constant employment by the fires, rapes, robberies and murders which, from one year's end to the other, present them with a daily allowance of evil sufficient for their subsistence,” Charles Hindley writes in his 1886 History of the Catnach Press. “But, at present, it is only one of these poets, John Morgan, as he modestly signs himself, whom we are about to notice.” (6)

Morgan turned up 24 hours late, and so drunk they had to send him away again immediately

Morgan is the only ballad-writer who ever seems to get a by-line on his work, and that was enough to convince Hindley he should interview him for the book. No-one knew where the great man lived, so Hindley left word at a couple of likely watering-holes hinting he had news of a legacy Morgan should contact him about.
Morgan showed up at Hindley's Barnard's Inn offices one Wednesday morning at about 10:00am, asked if there was any money coming to him, and shrugged off Hindley's admission that this had just been a ruse. He was sure, he said, that such a fine gentleman would reward him handsomely for his time, so there was no need to discuss that further. He then stuck his battered hat under the chair, knocked back two glasses of the neat gin Hindley offered him, and announced he was ready to talk.
“And so we proceeded,” Hindley writes. “We talked and took notes. Mr Morgan talked and took gin. Mr Morgan got warm - warmer and warmer - and very entertaining. His conversational powers increased wonderfully. He became very witty and laughed. He joked and made merry at some old reminiscences in connection with old Jemmy Catnach, and admitted that, after all, old Jemmy wasn't a particularly bad sort. That is, when you knew him and could handle him properly. Then old Jemmy was as right as my leg! Still we continued to talk and take notes. Still Mr Morgan talked and took gin. [...] At length, it became very manifest that we should not be able to get any more information out of Mr John Morgan on that day.”
In the end, Hindley and his colleagues see Morgan out into Fleet Street, where he reels off for another drink with an old friend he's just remembered lives near Somerset House. He turns up for his next appointment with Hindley 24 hours late, and so drunk that they give him a little money and send him away again immediately.
For all his dissolute habits, Morgan's work still stands up well today. Take these verses from Mary Arnold The Female Monster, a composition of about 1840 which might just be his masterpiece:

“The beetles in a walnut shell,
This monster she did place,
This dreadful deed as we may read,
All history does disgrace,

“The walnut shells and beetles,
With a bandage she bound tight,
Around her infant's tender eyes,
To take away its sight.” (7)

Like many of the exploitation songs Seven Dials produced, this one follows the classic ballad form of alternating four-beat and three-beat lines, arranged into four-line verses with the even-numbered lines rhyming. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner follows this format and so does Robert Service's The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Oscar Wilde stretched his own verses to six lines for The Ballad of Reading Gaol, but observes the tradition in every other way.
It's a form that's almost bursting with narrative momentum, and well-suited to describing life's sordid realities. “The ballad is pub poetry,” Stephen Fry writes in The Ode Less Travelled. “It can be macabre, brutal, sinister, preachy, ghostly, doom-laden, lurid, erotic, mock-solemn, facetious, pious or obscene. [...] Chief among its virtues is a keen passion to tell you a story: it will grab you by the lapels, stare you in the eyes and plunge right in.” (8)
Technically speaking, the ballad is built from quatrains of alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter with an abcb rhyme scheme. Whether Morgan and the other bards of Seven Dials thought of their work that way is doubtful, but they had an instinctive grasp of the ballad's strengths, and knew just how to use them for dramatic effect. They may never have got rich from their efforts, but the men they worked for certainly did.