“And it's my plan if some great man,
Dies with a broken head, Sirs,
With much bewail I does detail,
His death before he's dead, Sirs!
“And while his friends and foes contends,
They all my papers buy, Sirs,
Without a doubt I sells 'em out,
For there my talent lies, Sirs!”
- Anonymous, quoted in John Aston's Modern Street Ballads (1888)
You wouldn't think so from its trendy shops and restaurants today, but Seven Dials was once one of the worst slums in London. Intended as a smart residential area when its construction was completed in 1710, this cartwheel of streets between Charing Cross Road and Covent Garden quickly declined to become an over-crowded refuge for the city's thieves. It was here that London's thriving trade in gallows ballads made its home.
In 1751, William Hogarth chose Seven Dials as the setting for his infamous Gin Lane engraving, filling its streets with every known form of drunkenness and human degradation. A Frenchman named Grossley failed to take this warning when he strayed into the Dials in 1765, and his recollections give a vivid flavour of what Hogarth had already known. “The place was crowded with people waiting to see a poor wretch stand in the pillory, whose punishment was deferred to another day,” Grossley writes. “The mob, provoked at this disappointment, vented their rage upon all that passed their way, whether afoot or in coaches, and threw at them dirt, rotten eggs, dead dogs and ordure, which they had provided to pelt the unhappy wretch.” (1)
By 1773, the area had become so lawless that the landmark sundial column at its centre had to be removed to discourage criminals from meeting there. Rumours that its foundation stone contained a fortune in hidden cash turned out to be untrue.
Things were no better 60 years later, when Charles Dickens described Seven Dials in Sketches by Boz. “In addition to the numerous groups who are idling about the gin-shops and squabbling in the centre of the road, every post in the open space has its occupant, who leans against it for hours with listless perseverance,” he writes. “The man in the shop ill-treats his family; the carpet-beater extends his professional pursuits to his wife.” Gilbert and Sullivan were pretty unimpressed too, calling the area “soapless Seven Dials” in 1882's Iolanthe, and choosing it to represent everything the elevated Belgrave Square was not. (2)
Making his own visit to the Dials for 1888's Dictionary of London, Dickens' son Charles Jr confirms it is still “one of the poorest districts in London” where “poverty is to be seen in some of its most painful aspects”. He finds just one exception to this austerity: “Whatever there may be lack of in this territory of St Giles, there is no lack of money to pay for drink,” he writes. “At night, the public houses are ablaze with light, and on Saturday evening there is a great sound of shouting and singing through the windows, while the women stand outside and wait, hoping against hope that their husbands will come out before the week's money is all spent.” (3)
The ballad trade began at Seven Dials in the 17th Century, when printers there shared the area with an assortment of quacks, astrologers and psychics. The single-sheet publications they produced were sold for a halfpenny or a penny all around the streets of London, and told of that week's most sensational crimes, workhouse scandals and other events.
“They were the popular journalism of the day, recording, usually with a combination of report and ballad, sometimes with ballad alone, every important or interesting event,” Jonathan Goodman writes in Bloody Versicles. “The crime broadsheets, with their tut-tutting moral tone giving the excuse for a welter of gory details, are the ancestors of our mass-circulation Sunday newspapers.” (4)
A good murder could always be relied on to sell well, and these sheets often included a set of verses describing the killer's crime or claiming to offer his last confession. Rather than printing music alongside the words, these ballads' composers would often copy the structure of an old hymn and suggest their work be sung to that tune. All People That On Earth Do Dwell was a popular choice for this treatment, and one gallows ballad even had the cheek to start with precisely that opening line.
The sellers would pin their stock of ballads up on a board behind them and chant or sing a few choice verses to attract a crowd, sometimes accompanying themselves on a fiddle. Often, the singers were blind men, who would presumably have found it hard to earn a living in any other way. Some sellers worked in pairs, alternating the verses between them to add a little extra drama.
The largest of the papers they sold were about A3 in today's terms, and known as “broadsheets' or “broadsides”, two terms which came to represent the whole trade. Once a song had exhausted its topical value, it could be tagged on to the end of a lengthy strip of other old songs, and sold again as part of a value-for-money anthology called a “long song”. Gallows tales were a big part of every ballad-seller's business, and those specialising in them became known as “death hunters” for their ceaseless pursuit of a new execution story.
Until 1832, English law required that murderers must be executed within two days of their conviction. Faced with this, the ballad-printers had time to produce only a single account, telling the whole story from the criminal's background to his final punishment in one go. “It was sentence o' Friday and scragging o' Monday,” one 1840s ballad-seller recalled. “So we had only the life, trial and execution”. (5)
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 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.
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.
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.
Street ballads would be produced just as quickly as the newspapers they competed against, often appearing on the streets just a few hours after the trial or execution they described, and offered London's poor a far more affordable way to keep up with the most entertaining aspects of the news. At a time when newspapers cost sevenpence or more, ballads could be had for just a penny, and that made them a very big part of the literate poor's reading.
“One paper-worker told me that, in some small and obscure villages in Norfolk, it was not uncommon for two poor families to club for 1d to purchase an execution broadsheet,” Mayhew writes. “Not long after Rush was hung, he saw one evening, after dark, through the uncurtained cottage window, eleven persons, young and old, gathered round a scanty fire. An old man was reading, to an attentive audience, a broadsheet of Rush's execution, which my informant had sold to him.”
That Rush broadsheet was phenomenally popular, as Mayhew discovered when he asked his contacts in the trade to calculate some sales figures. This produced the following table of six recent executions:
|James Rush (1849)||2.5m copies|
|Frederick and Maria Manning (1849)||2.5m copies|
|Francois Courvoiser (1840)||1.66m copies|
|James Greenacre (1837)||1.66m copies|
|Daniel Good (1842)||1.65m copies|
|William Corder (1828)||1.65m copies|
By far the oldest of the cases in Mayhew's table is William Corder's execution for the 1827 murder of Maria Marten near Ipswich. The song that story inspired - Murder in the Red Barn - began its life as a set of verses on Jemmy Catnach's broadsheet, and is still regularly recorded today. By the time Mayhew gathered his data no-one could put a firm figure on how many copies Thurtell's even older tale had shifted, but all agreed its total sale had been “enormous”.
“The money expended for such things amounts to upwards of £48,500 in the case of the six murders above given.” Mayhew writes. “All this number was got up and printed in London.” On that basis, London sales for the six most popular ballads would have totalled about £4.9m in today's money. Rush alone would have brought in over £1m for the balladeers, and went on to provide a healthy income for other story-tellers too.
James Rush was a tenant farmer in Norwich, who owed his landlord, Isaac Jermy, the huge sum of £5,000. As the deadline for payment approached in November 1848, Rush shot Jermy and his son Isaac Jr dead on the porch of their Stanfield Hall home. He also shot Jermy Jr's pregnant wife and Eliza Chestney, her serving maid, but both of them survived.
Jermy was embroiled in a dispute about ownership of the estate, and Rush hoped the rival claimants would be blamed for his murder. He wore a wig and false whiskers - some say a mask - to disguise himself as he shot the family. Unfortunately, Rush's girlfriend Emily Sandford, who he'd been relying on to support his alibi, declined to co-operate in court and, despite his vigorous efforts to defend himself, Rush was hanged at Norwich Castle.
Mayhew was impressed by the quality of the Rush broadsheet he inspected. “Rush's sorrowful lamentation is the best, in all respects of any execution broadsheet I have seen,” he writes. “Even the copy of verses [...] seems, in a literary point of view, of a superior strain to the run of such things.” Mayhew also points out that these verses are always supposed to have been composed by the condemned man - adding wryly that even illiterate criminals seem able to accomplish this - and notes the unusually sympathetic tone these take in Rush's case.
You can see what he means. Most killers given a set of verses just tell us how evil they've been and make a few pious remarks about not following their example. Rush, on the other hand, is allowed to wax sentimental about his love of the English countryside, place part of the blame for the killing on his victim and feel sorry for himself about Emily Sandford's betrayal.
“My friends and home to me were dear,
The trees and flowers that blossomed near,
The sweet-loved spot where youth began.
Is dear to every Englishman.”
“If Jermy had but kindness shown,
And not have trod misfortune down,
I ne'er had fired the fatal ball,
That caused his son and him to fall.”
“Oh, Emily Sandford, was it due,
That I should meet my death through you?
If you had wished me well indeed,
How could you thus against me plead?” (9)
The convoluted history of disputes over Stanfield Hall's proper ownership had left a legacy of resentment in the area, and that may explain why the ballad writers were prepared to give Rush whatever benefit of the doubt they could muster. The biggest potential profits lay in ballads which reflected your buyers' prejudices, and Rush's sales figures suggest they judged the market shrewdly.
Just as with Tawell's case, though, healthy sales for the true story only encouraged balladeers to milk the case a little further. It wasn't long before they'd concocted a fictional confession for Rush, supposedly delivered to the chaplain at Norwich Castle. “The newspapers screeved about Rush and his mother and his wife,” one balladeer told Mayhew. “But we, in our patter, had him confess to murdering his old grandmother fourteen years back and how he buried her under the apple tree in the garden - and how he murdered his wife as well.”
The case was a juicy enough one to inspire several tellings in other media too, including a series of pottery figures and a 1948 movie.
Narrative pottery telling the story of recent sensational murders was popular as a mantelpiece ornament in the 19th Century, and both Rush and Manning's cases received this treatment. Stoke Museums' Pugh Collection has figures of both James Rush and Emily Sandford from a wider set based on the case.
“Portraits were produced of the main characters,” the collection's website says. “Rush, Sandford and (it is believed) Eliza Chestney. In addition, models of the houses involved in the murder were produced - Potash Farm, Stanfield Hall and Norwich Castle. Hence the purchaser could obtain all or part of a series which built up into an account of the Rush murders.”
Fascination with the case had hardly dimmed a century later, when Stewart Granger starred in the 1948 melodrama Blanche Fury. All the names have been changed, but Granger's Philip Thorn and Valerie Hobson's Blanche are really just stand-ins for Rush and Sandford. Like his real-life counterpart, Granger hangs in the end.
For all the cavalier attitude the ballad-writers sometimes displayed, we shouldn't run away with the idea that their accounts could never be relied on. Each phase of the publication cycle had its own character, and some stages produced a far more truthful account that others.
As soon as a suitable murder appeared, the first step was to produce a handbill-sized sheet with an initial report of the crime, followed by a larger version as soon as a few more details had emerged. Both of these would draw heavily on newspaper accounts of the case, and stick pretty closely to those facts. Once someone had been arrested, Catnach and the rest could print a confession - real or imagined - and follow that up in due course with a straightforward account of the trial.
That trial document would have a few sections lifted out later, leaving room for a stock account of the execution to be inserted, and perhaps a set of verses telling the killer's story. Sometimes, the execution sheet would also include a solemn sermon delivered to the man before his death, but these again were often taken from stock. Slap on an appropriate woodcut illustration from the collection you kept on hand, and you were ready to start the presses.
Using stock descriptions of the execution and sermon in this way let the ballad-printers prepare the sheet in advance, and get it out on sale to crowds watching the hanging itself. Judging by the execution accounts and sermons he'd seen, Mayhew notes, “both subjects are marvellously similar on all occasions”. Looking at one particular sermon, supposedly delivered to a man called Hewson as he prepared to hang, he adds: “It will be seen that it is of a character to fit any condemned sermon whatsoever.”
Mayhew doesn't give any examples of the standing text he has in mind, but these are not hard to find. On January 5, 1846, for example, a Borough printer called Sharp had two broadsides on sale for that day's hangings, one covering the execution of Martha Browning at Newgate and the other Samuel Quennell at Horsemonger Lane. Here's how he begins his account of Browning's death:
“At an early hour this morning, the Rev. Chaplain visited the wretched woman, and remained with her till the last moments of her earthly career. Precisely at ten minutes before 8 o'clock the prison bell commenced to toll. At that time, the whole of the vacant ground in the front of the gaol and near to it was literally studded with human beings, many of whom had been waiting many hours to witness the awful scene.
“About 8 o'clock, the mournful procession reached the top of the gallows, lead by the Chaplain, who read in a most impressive manner the burial service. The wretched woman Browning followed with her eyes turned heavenwards, but we were unable to hear whether or not she responded to the prayers.”
Meanwhile, Quennell's spectators across the river were reading this:
“At an early hour this morning, the Rev. Chaplain visited the wretched man, and remained with him till the last moments of his earthly career. Precisely at ten minutes before 10 o'clock the prison bell commenced to toll. At that time, the whole of the vacant ground in the front of the gaol and near to it was literally studded with human beings, many of whom had been waiting many hours to witness the awful scene.
“About 10 o'clock, the mournful procession reached the top of the gallows, lead by the Chaplain, who read in a most impressive manner the burial service. The wretched man Quennell followed with his eyes turned heavenwards, but we were unable to hear whether or not he responded to the prayers.”
It continues in this vein for another 42 words, changing the pronoun's gender as necessary, but otherwise producing an identical account. Whatever really happened at a particular execution, it seems, Sharp's report would always insist that the bells started on time, the chaplain performed well and the condemned man never stared at his shoes. I particularly like the bit about Sharp's reporter being “unable to hear whether or not he responded to prayers”. How do you disprove that?
Far from the dignified scene which Sharp implies, public executions were a noisy, chaotic affair, as Charles Dickens discovered when he went along to watch Maria and Frederick Manning hanged at Horsemonger Lane in 1849. The crowd this husband and wife team attracted is estimated at anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people, and the ballad-sellers there would have mingled with other vendors supplying food and drink. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, was one of those watching, and wrote in his journal that it had been “a most wonderful, horrible and unspeakable scene”.
That evening, Dickens sat down and wrote a letter to The Times describing what he'd seen:
“When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching and laughing and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on negro melodies, with substitutes of 'Mrs Manning' for 'Susannah' and the like, were added to these.
“When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment.
“When the sun rose brightly - as it did - it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world.” (12)
You'd never guess at an atmosphere like that from the ballad-printers' stock accounts. These give the impression that public executions were a dignified and solemn affair, with church bells tolling over a silent crowd, the condemned man mounting the platform with a firm step and great decorum all round. Given how willing they are to use sensational copy everywhere else, it seems a shame the broadsides were so sedate in this one area, but speed of production was evidently so important that this one section of bland copy was thought a price worth paying.
Sharp cheerfully illustrates both Browning and Quennell's ballads with a woodcut of Newgate, easily identifiable by the fact that St Sepulchre's church is visible. But this too was standard practice. Ballad-printers selected their illustrations with what John Ashton's Modern Street Ballads calls “a charming impartiality”. I'm sure they did their best to find an appropriate illustration from whatever blocks they had available, but the results are sometimes comic. (13)
The collection of street ballads I've seen at the British Library include a portrait of a despairing man in the condemned cell which JV Quick uses to represent both Henry Williams in 1836 and John Pegsworth a year later. There's also a courtroom scene from Paul's store which serves to illustrate the trials of both Mary Arnold in about 1840 and Michael Steyton in 1843, with the same mutton-chopped witness giving evidence both times. Sharp's woodcut of the gallows at Newgate seemed to serve every printer in the Dials, requiring only the number of hanging men to be amended before it could be dragged out again. Horsemonger Lane Gaol had its own stock portrait too.
Mayhew noticed something particularly odd about the woodcut used The Trial of Mr and Mrs Manning for the Murder of Mr Patrick O'Connor. “A portrait of Mr Patrick O'Connor heads the middle column,” he notes. “From the presence of a fur collar to the coat or cloak, and of what is evidently an order with its insignia round the neck, I have little doubt that the portrait of Mr O'Connor was originally that of King William IV.”
Of all the cheek exhibited by ballad-printers of the Victorian era, I think this example may be the best. Using the portrait of an English king just 12 years dead to represent a common murder victim while his famously stern niece was still on the throne must have been a very risky business - particularly when the document carrying that portrait had your name and address at the bottom. Mayhew doesn't tell us which printer took a chance on that particular venture, but it's a miracle the offender didn't end up writing a gallows ballad for himself.
Appendix I: A gallery of bloody British broadsides
What follows is a list of the main broadsides I've used in writing this essay. Click any title to bring up a PDF of the broadside's full sheet in a new window.
All these sheets come from the British Library's collection from the period 1780-1867. These were compiled in two fat scrapbooks by James Kendrew, a York printer, and his son John.
The Awful Murder of Sarah Hart.
Life of James B. Rush.
The Horrid Murder of the Barmaid.
Trial and Execution of Martha Browning.
Trial and Execution of Samuel Quennell.
Confession of Henry Williams.
Life and Execution of John Pegsworth.
Verses on Mary Arnold the Female Monster.
The Trial and Sentence of Mary Arnold.
Trial and Sentence of Michael Steyton.
The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs.
The Gallows Child.
Effects of Gambling.
The Life and Trial of Palmer.
The Silent Grove.
The Liverpool Lodger.
The Unnatural Murder.
Murder at Westmill.
Streams of Crimson Blood.
The Murdered Maid.
Cruel Lizzie Vickers.
Jones and Harwood.
The Sister and the Serpent.
The Foreigner's Downfall.
Appendix II: John Morgan and his Beautiful Muff
Like any jobbing hack, John Morgan had to be prepared to turn his pen to any writing that paid.
He composed not only murder ballads, but also campaign songs for politicians, dialogue songs in a blackface minstrel style, protest songs on issues like the rising gin tax and songs praising popular celebrities of the day. When these options were exhausted, there was always a market for good old-fashioned filth.
Oxford's Bodleian Library has a couple of prime examples of Morgan's innuendo-laden sex songs - The Cottage and The Beautiful Muff - which would not seem out of place in a Carry On film. The language may be a little more formal than Kenneth Williams or Charles Hawtrey would use but the jokes themselves are identical.
The Beautiful Muff, for example, describes a buxom young lady out walking on a cold winter's evening. She's wrapped up well against the cold, with her hands tucked in a tube of fabric and fur to keep them warm. Or, as the first verse tells us:
“She was muffled up warm in a boa rather ruff
At her front she displayed a most beautiful muff”.
A beautiful muff indeed, as the next verse explains:
“Now this muff was the finest that ever you saw
And all the young men their attention did draw
It was lined with red silk, though the outside was rough
And as warm as a toast was this beautiful muff”.
She meets a dashing young man in the street, who praises the elegance of her muff, complains that he is “stiff with the cold” and asks if she will lend him its use for a moment. She refuses, at which point he offers her twenty guineas to rent her muff. When she turns that down too, he suggests they go for a drink instead, and off they trot. After a couple of glasses of strong wine, she falls asleep, leaving the young man to play with her muff to his heart's content. Then comes the reckoning:
“When she awoke she stared with surprise
'My muff you have damaged forever,' she cries
'You have played it rare tricks, I can see sure enough
For quite out of shape is my beautiful muff'.”
She takes her leave with a warning that any ladies reading should remember that young men are not to be trusted where muffs are concerned. Morgan suggests this cautionary tale be sung to the tune of the old folk song Dumble Down Deary (aka Richard of Taunton).
The Cottage is narrated by a young woman, who begins like this:
“Come all you rakish bachelors and listen to my tale
I have a cottage neat and snug I'm putting up for sale
It's in a pleasant valley with a rising hill above
And a crystal stream of water is running through a grove”.
The chorus runs:
“Then occupy my cottage, it is in good repair
It has a pleasant entrance and will suit you to a hair.”
She then gives a verse each to all the gentlemen who've visited her cottage, detailing their occasional difficulty in finding the entrance, their sometimes clumsy antics while inside and the fact that few proved able to remain as long as she'd hoped. Her favourite visitor seems to be the brave young soldier:
“He marched in like a hero, the door was opened wide
His pouch and ammunition and balls he left outside”.
Undaunted by her sometimes unsatisfactory experience, she closes the song with another invitation:
“So all young men and bachelors, come hasten be in time
Come and view my cottage, you'll find it snug and prime
The roof is well thatched over, the entrance neat and plain
And all who ever entered there have wished to go again.”
To see these two songs in full, visit The Bodleian Library's site or use the two links here: The Beautiful Muff, The Cottage.
Appendix III: Murder by the numbers: Men versus WomenJust as it is with tabloid journalism today, it sometimes seems that women can't win where gallows ballads are concerned.
Any male-on-female murder is deemed newsworthy because it offers the prospect of a gentle, helpless victim struck down by her far stronger assailant.
And yet, when it's a woman who kills a man, that makes even bigger headlines simply because of its comparative rarity. If by any chance that woman has harmed a child - as Mary Arnold did - then she can be presented as an unnatural monster and promoted to the front page.
Let's step back for a moment and see how these factors play themselves out in practice. I've got copies of 60 execution ballads from the British Library's collection in front of me, some with men and women working together to commit the crime, sometimes with multiple victims, and sometimes involving infants whose gender is never specified. There's 64 killers in all, and 82 victims. Of these, 51 of the killers were men - about 80% - and the remaining 13 were women (20%). Among the victims, there were 30 men (37%), 40 women (49%) and 12 infants (14%).
The figures for murderers actually hanged in England and Wales' between 1800 and 1850 present a rather different picture. Among all the killers punished in this way, 523 were male (94%) and just 35 female (6%). The victims were split into 256 men (50%), 218 women (42%) and 40 infants (8%). (14)
The comparison suggests that ballad makers tended to over-represent cases involving a woman as either the killer or the victim. Cases with an infant victim are over-represented too, but both male killers and male victims are under-represented.
I can't pretend it's a remotely scientific survey - for one thing, I've left out the unidentified adult victims from the hanging stats - but these results do seem to make sense. They suggest that, like news editors today, ballad-printers preferred a case where a woman or child was slaughtered, because they knew that would make better copy. A woman who killed was even better. The majority of workaday murders - those committed by one man on another man - could not compete unless they offered some extra little twist like Rush's comical disguise or Thurtell's particular brutality.
(1) The Annals of London, edited by John Richardson (Cassell & Co, 2000).
(2) Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens (Penguin Classics, 2006).
(3) Dickens' Dictionary of London 1888, by Charles Dickens Jr (Old House Books, 1993).
(4) Bloody Versicles: The Rhymes of Crime, by Jonathan Goodman (Kent State University Press, 1993).
(5) London Labour and the London Poor, by Henry Mayhew (Wordsworth Classics, 2008).
(6) The History of the Catnach Press, by Charles Hindley (Charles Hindley, 1886).
(7) Mary Arnold, The Female Monster, by John Morgan.
(8) The Ode Less Travelled, by Stephen Fry (Arrow Books, 2007).
(9) Title unknown. Quoted in Mayhew.
(10) Title unknown. Quoted in Hindley.
(11) Weekly Dispatch, January 3, 1819.
(12) Letter to The Times, November 13, 1849.
(13) Modern Street Ballads, by John Ashton (publisher unknown, 1888).
(14) Capital Punishment in the 18th & 19th Centuries, compiled by Richard Clark (http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/index18.html).