Tweet Follow @PlanetSlade

British broadsides: continued

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

After a career of 25 years in Seven Dials, Catnach was able to retire in 1838 with £5,000 in his pocket: a sum which would be worth over £400,000 today. When the Victorian sociologist Henry Mayhew questioned London ballad-sellers in the 1840s, Catnach's was still the name they mentioned most.
One 1840s seller sang Mayhew a couple of verses from a childhood ballad he still knew by heart:

“Come all good Christians, praise the Lord,
And trust to Him in hope,
God in his mercy Jack Thurtell sent,
To hang from Hertford gallows rope.

“Poor Weare's murder, the Lord disclosed,
Be glory to His name,
And Thurtell, Hunt and Probert too,
Were brought to grief and shame.” (9)


When Mayhew repeated these lines to another ballad-seller, there was an immediate flash of recognition. “That's just the old thing, Sir,” he said. “And it's quite in old Jemmy Catnach's style, for he used to write verses. [...] It was just his favourite style, I know. But the march of intellect put it out.”
That “march of intellect” may have been a growing taste for the stricter metrical beats we see in Morgan's work. In its day, though, the Weare ballad was a damn good earner for Catnach. It tells the tale of a particularly brutal Elstree murder in 1823, the appeal of which Catnach felt demanded a special effort. He set four different presses running with his “Full True and Particular Account” of the crime and, working day and night for a week, his shop managed to turn out and sell 250,000 copies. Thurtell's trial and execution provided another bonanza, netting Catnach £500 in penny sales from that sheet alone. Like all his takings, these coins had to be boiled in potash and vinegar before anyone outside soapless Seven Dials would accept they were free of disease.

Thurtell's trial and execution was a bonanza, netting Catnach £500 from its penny sales

Even that wasn't enough, and Catnach produced yet another sheet after Thurtell's hanging, this one headed “Weare alive again”. When disappointed buyers complained that the sheet's contents did not justify this supernatural headline, he claimed a typographical error had led to the first two words appearing too closely together: it had actually been meant to read “We are alive again”. Hindley claims this episode gave us the word “catchpenny” as a term for something designed to cheat gullible people out of a small sum.
Catnach had over-stepped the mark in a more serious way in 1818, when he produced a ballad claiming the butchers of Drury Lane were selling sausages made from human flesh. One butcher he named, a Mr Pizzey of Blackmore Street, was beaten up by angry customers. All the ballads of this era carried a note of the printer's name and address in their bottom corner, and that gave Pizzey the information he needed to sue Catnach for malicious libel. He was found guilty, and served a six month term in Clerkenwell Gaol.
John Pitts, then Catnach's main rival, used his own print shop to produce a ballad mocking Catnach's plight with the lines:

“Poor Pizzey was in an awful mess,
And looked the colour of cinders,
A crowd assembled from far and near,
And they smashed in all his windows.

“Now Jemmy Catnach's gone to prison,
And what's he gone to prison for?
For printing a libel against Mr Pizzey,
Which was sung from door to door.” (10)


Catnach's mother took over the business while he was in prison, and hoped to profit from a rumour circulating London about the murder of one Thomas Lane and his family in Dartford. Unfortunately, the rumour turned out to be unfounded, and Mrs Catnach was dragged before the magistrates for publishing false news. “The murderer's conduct was stated very particularly,” The Weekly Dispatch reported in January 1819, “although, in fact, no such event occurred.” Mrs Catnach and the two street sellers who'd been caught crying the ballad in Bow Street, were each given a severe reprimand, but then discharged. (11)
Broadsides like these - which might also include real crimes with a wholly-invented confession - were known as “cocks”, and formed another important part of the trade. One of Mayhew's contacts estimated that nearly 3,500 such fictions were printed and sold on the streets of London every week. “Reckoning them at only a halfpenny each, we have the sum of seven pounds and four shillings spent every week in this manner,” Mayhew adds. “At this rate, there must be 179,712 copies of 'cocks' printed in a year, on which the public expend no less than £374 and eight shillings.”
The best candidates for this treatment were the so-called “mysterious murders” - cases where the killer was unknown, or had not yet been arrested. “Then we has our fling,” one balladeer told Mayhew. “I've hit the mark a few chances that way. We had, at the very least, half a dozen coves pulled up in the slums that we printed up for The Murder of The Beautiful Eliza Grimwood in the Waterloo Road. I did best on Thomas Hopkins being the guilty man.”
Mayhew lists several other recent cases which gave great scope for the writers' imagination, including the murders of a Leicester Square watchmaker called Westwood and Eliza Davis, a Hampstead Road barmaid. “One of the most successful 'cocks' relating to murders which actually occurred was The Confession to the Rev. Mr Cox, Chaplain of Aylesbury Gaol, of John Tawell the Quaker,” he adds. “I had some conversation with one of the authors of this 'confession' - for it was got up by three patterers - and he assures me that 'it did well, and the facts was soon in some of the newspapers - as what we 'riginates often is'.”
Mayhew also reproduces the confession these men concocted. In addition to the murder he was hanged for, they have Tawell slitting his gaoler's throat, killing an innkeeper's daughter he'd seduced, signing on board ship as the head of a criminal gang and robbing the ship's captain. Only then does he murder Sarah Hart and end up on the gallows for it. With a tale like that to draw on, it's small wonder the newspapers were unable to resist pinching a few details.