Consuming A Broadside Ballad.

Broadside ballads were sold to be sung, but this was not their only use. They were also advertisements, declarations of allegiance, souvenirs of nights at the theatre, mementoes of great events, and decorations for home, workplace and pub. It is in this decorative function that broadsides were most commonly evoked in literary works. For instance, the character Piscator in Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653) promises "I’ll now lead you to an honest ale-house, where we shall find a cleanly room, lavender in the windows, and twenty ballads stuck about the wall." The presence of ballads on the wall is a literary way of suggesting that the inn is a place of good cheer, although popular jollity could shade into drunkenness and debauchery. For example, in his 1807 poem The Parish Register, George Crabbe describes a household of East Anglian "snarers and smugglers" in an "infected Row" of cottages, and one of the visible signs of their degeneracy is that "Here are no books, but ballads on the wall,/ Are some abusive, and indecent all." Nonetheless, throughout the nineteenth century, ballads continued to be sought after as wall decorations.

As in literature so in the visual arts, broadside ballads frequently featured, not just to give a realistic portrayal of cottage interiors, but also as a knowing allusion to the main theme of the picture. Broadsides were already being used in this way by the Dutch genre painters of the seventeenth century, and the trick can even be found in the illustrations to cheap street-literature itself. The chapbook The Life, Trial, Character, Confession, Behaviour and Execution of James Ward, issued by the most prolific of London’s nineteenth-century ballad-printers James Catnach, includes a picture of Ward murdering his wife; stuck on the wall behind them is a broadside "last speech and dying words" illustrated with a gallows.

Catnach 002.JPG (97170 bytes)
The cover of James Catnach's chapbook 'The Life, Trial, Character, Confession, Behaviour, and
Execution of James Ward'. Note the 'hanging ballad' in the background. The picture is taken from
Charles Hindley, The History of the Catnach Press (London, 1887).

However, while literary and artistic evocations of broadsides were commonplace from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, we have had difficulty in finding specifically Scottish references which purport to show ballads in situ. Few of Sir David Wilkie’s (1785-1841) numerous paintings of Scottish interiors show ballads on the wall, although there is one in the background of the engraving by J.C. Armytage of ‘The Cottage Toilet’, if not in Wilkie’s original painting.

The Cottage Toilet 001.JPG (22181 bytes)
'The Cottage Toilet', engraved by J.S. Armytage after the painting by David Wilkie. Is there a ballad
on the wall behind the smoker? Reproduced by permission of SCRAN -  000-000- 202-731-R.

The nearest literary reference we have discovered is Thomas Berwick’s (1753-1828) Memoir of his youth in rural Northumberland. Berwick was a wood-engraver who had, in his early years, supplied wood-cuts to illustrate chapbooks and ballads. It is natural, therefore, that he should consider the pictures rather than the texts. However, most of the prints mentioned in this passage would have been accompanied, as Berwick says, by a song. Berwick may have intended his words as a criticism of the broadside printers of his own day, for whom illustrations were clearly a matter of secondary importance, as a glance at the broadsides on this website will verify.


David Hopkin
Valentina Bold
David Morrison



Anderson, Patricia. The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture, 1790-1860. Oxford, 1991.

Donald, Diana. What is a Popular Print? Whitworth Art Gallery, 2000.

O’Connell, Sheila. The Popular Print in England, 1550-1850. London, 1999.


"I cannot, however, help lamenting that in all the vicissitudes which this art has undergone, some species of it, is lost & done away - I mean the large blocks, with the prints from them, so common to be seen, when I was a boy, in every Cottage & farm house throughout the whole country - these blocks, I suppose must, from their size, have been cut the plank way [with the grain] on beech or some other kind of close grained wood, & must also, from the immense number of impressions from them, so cheaply & extensively spread, over the whole country, must have given employment to a great number of Artists in this inferiour department of Wood cutting, and must also have formed to them an important article of traffick - these prints, which were sold at a very low price, were commonly illustrative of some memorable exploits - or perhaps the portraits of emminent Men who had distinguished themselves in the service of their country, or in their patriotic exertions to serve mankind - besides these, there were a great variety of other designs, often with songs added to them, of a moral, a patriotic or a rural tendancy which served to enliven the circle in which they were admired - To enumerate the great variety of these pictures would be a task - A constant one in every house, was “king Charles’s twelve good rules” - representations of remarkable victories at Sea, and battles on land, often accompanied with portraits of those who commanded & others who had born a conspicuous part in those contests with the enemy. - The House in Ovingham [belonging to the Reverend Christopher Gregson, Berwick’s teacher], where our dinner poke was taken care of, when at school, was hung round with views or representations of the battles of Zondorf & several others - the portraits of Tom Brown the valiant Granadier [hero of the Battle of Dettingen, 1743] - Admiral Haddock Admiral Benbow and other portraits of Admirals - A figure or representation of the Victory man-of-War of 100 Guns, commanded by Admiral Sir John Balchen, & fully manned with 1100 picked Seamen and volunteers, all of whom & this uncommonly fine Ship were lost - sunk to the bottom of the Sea [in 1744] - this was accompanied with a poetical lament of the catastrophe - part of which was ‘ah hapless Victory, what avails thy towering masts thy spreading sails’. Some of the Portraits I recollect, were now and then to be met with, which were very well done in this way, on Wood - in Mr Gregson’s kitchen one of this character hung against the wall many years, it was a remarkably good likeness of Captn Coram - In cottages every where were to be seen, the sailor’s farewell and his happy return - youthfull sports, & the feats of Manhood - the bold Archers shooting at a mark - the four Seasons &c - some subjects were of a funny & others of a grave character - I think the last portraits I remember of, were those of some of the Rebel Lords & ‘Duke Willy’ [the Jacobite chiefs of 1745 and the Duke of Cumberland] - These kind of Wood Cut pictures, are long since quite gone-out of fashion, which I feel very sorry for & most heartily wish they could be revived again - it is desirable indeed , that the subjects should be well chosen, for it must be of great importance that such should be the case - as whatever can serve to instill morality & patriotism into the minds of the whole people, must tend greatly to promote their own happiness, & the good of the community, for all Men, however poor they may be, out to feel that this is their country, as well as it is, that of the first noblemen in the land, & if so, they will be equally as interested in its happiness and prosperity".

Thomas Berwick, A Memoir (ed. Iain Bain). Oxford University Press, 1979. pp.192-3.