Introduction: Broadside Ballads and the Oral Tradition.

A broadside ballad might be defined as a song text (or texts) printed on one side of a single sheet of paper. Sometimes there will be an indication of a tune, although music is very rare, and frequently they are illustrated. Yet fixing the boundaries of the genre is not as straightforward as this definition might suggest. For example, a broadside simply means a single-sheet of paper printed on one-side: the term can be be applied to royal proclamations, newsletters, adverts, anonymous libels… Look at the condemned prisoners ‘dying speeches’ from Glasgow University Library Special Collections reproduced at These are certainly broadsides, and collectively they are known as ‘hanging ballads’, but are they broadside ballads? Most do not include song lyrics at all. The term ‘ballad’ can be equally unhelpful. A ballad is usually defined as "a song that tells a story". However, the collection that forms the basis of this website includes drinking songs, patriotic songs and love songs, all without any obvious narrative content.

A further layer of difficulty is presented by some folklorists’ use of the term. Folksong collectors distinguished between ‘traditional ballads’ and ‘broadside ballads’ (and, for that matter, ‘literary ballads’ and ‘drawing-room ballads’). Traditional ballads were those narrative songs handed down by oral tradition, while broadside ballads were those disseminated by print. However, as in most cases the origin of the song was unknown, in practice the distinction was made between the more homely ‘broadsides’ about sailors’ homecomings, rustic love and urban poverty, and the ‘muckle sangs’ (to use the Scottish term), which were concerned with royalty, nobility, war, tragedy, and the supernatural. The standard reference work for the traditional ballads is F.J. Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98). In fact several of the titles listed by Child appear among the broadsides on this website: for example the ballad of Lord Beigham or Bateman is referred to as Child 53, but was also issued by James Lindsay of Glasgow in the 1850s (and its history in print goes back to 1624 at least). Sung ballads might end up as printed texts, and printed texts might take on a new life in song. This website is designed to probe the relationship between the broadsides and oral traditions.

One might also question whether broadsides should be separated off from other categories of print and song. Many of the printers whose broadsides appear on this website also sold chapbooks, song-books and other forms of cheap-literature. The ‘flying stationers’ who sold the ballads also dealt in religious tracts, children’s ABCs, ribbons, combs… The ballads themselves also appear on hand-written sheets and private manuscript song-books. Why not consider the broadside ballads alongside these other products and texts, as Adam Fox has done?

Yet broadside ballads are sufficiently distinct as a genre to have their own history. They are almost as old as print technology, as they were probably already in circulation at the end of the fifteenth century. The first press set up in Scotland, Chepman and Myllar of Edinburgh, issued broadsides as well as books. And broadsides were still being produced in the twentieth century: Sanderson of Edinburgh was selling broadsides in 1944, and broadsides were being hawked around the fairs of Ireland in the 1950s and ‘60s (they are still found in some other European countries). Within this half-a-millennia of history, broadside ballads seem to have flourished in two particular periods, at least in Britain: the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth century (the era of the so-called ‘black-letter’ or Gothic script ballads); and the mid nineteenth century (by which time printers had adopted Roman or ‘white-letter’ type). Both were periods of urban growth, and in some senses broadsides were an urban cultural form, written (where we can establish the identity of the poet) by urban writers, and printed in the cities. Yet, although broadsides were at home on city streets, they had a wider public. They were carried by pedlars and ‘chaunters’ to markets and fairs throughout the country. Even at the end of the nineteenth century the ballad-singer remained one of the main entertainments at the Scottish hiring-fairs where agricultural labourers sought employment for the coming year. Sailors and emigrants carried them abroad, to be copied by printers in Dublin, New York and Sydney. Broadside ballads had global reach. They were one of the earliest examples of mass culture.

Glasgow Fair 001.JPG (195870 bytes)
'Glasgow Fair', from The Northern Looking Glass, 1825. Reproduced by permission of Glasgow University
Library, Special Collections. Ballad singers were a regular part of the entertainment of the fair, and one
may be plying his trade in this crowd.

The term mass culture is used here in two senses. Firstly, the figures for production were huge. Between 1557 and 1709, over 3,000 ballad titles were registered by the London Stationers’ Company, but as many printers ignored this requirement (and so avoided the registration fee) this figure only provides a lower limit on the number in circulation. We can be more certain of the scale of production in the nineteenth-century, thanks to catalogues and trade adverts. For example, William Fortey (who took over the business of the London broadside ‘Napoleon’ James Catnach), advertised ‘4,000 sorts’ of ballads in 1859. And this was at a time when every provincial city could boast at least one ballad-printer. Even a modest town like Worcester had seven broadside publishers in the early nineteenth-century. Not only were there a lot of ballad titles they were printed in very large print-runs. Henry Mayhew, the social-investigator, was told by Catnach that the broadside of William Corder’s confession and execution (for the ‘Red Barn’ murder) sold over 1,650,000 copies. The second sense of ‘mass culture’ is the nature of the audience. Broadsides were cheap, they retailed at a penny a sheet, or even less. That put them within the reach of almost everybody. Their appeal was not limited to one social group: they were bought by farm labourers and school-children, market-women and soldiers. They were, however, disdained by the educated classes, and positively disapproved of by those, such as clergymen, who were responsible for policing public morals. William Webbe’s 1586 condemnation of "the uncountable rabble of ryming Ballet makers and compylers of sencelesse sonnets, who be most busy, to stuffe every stall full of grosse devises and unlearned Pamphlets", would echo down the centuries.

There were, however, some members of the social elite who did have time for broadsides: men like Samuel Pepys whose collection of 1,800 sixteenth- and seventeenth-century broadsides is housed by Magdalene College, Cambridge, and Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, whose collection of 1,300 ballads (entitled the ‘Roxburghe Ballads’) is maintained by the British Library. Glasgow University Library has its own substantial collection of English black-letter ballad as part of the Euing Collection ( Fascimiles of all three collections have been published. Collections from the nineteenth century are even larger. The one made by the Reverend Baring-Gould (also noted folksong collector) contains nearly 12,000 sheets, a microfiche index of which is available from the Wren Trust ( The Bodleian Library in Oxford claims to house 30,000 ( The Frank Kidson Collection in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, contains ten volumes of broadsides.

Yet even these vast assemblies can only supply indications for the total production of broadsides. Broadsides were designed to be ephemeral in every sense. They were too cheap to warrant protecting, they were simply glued to walls and pinned over fireplaces, where their destruction was a matter of time. But they were also ephemeral because they were produced to capture the public mood at a particular moment, only to be eclipsed in a few weeks or months by a new song. Ballads were the popular newspapers of their age, informing the wider public of royal births and famous battles. Even songs that were not connected to any current news-story were nonetheless subject to the vagaries of fashion. The public always wanted novelty from its broadsides.

It is precisely because broadside ballads both reflected and helped form the attitudes of their times that they are such a valuable source of information for historians, particularly for those social groups who have otherwise left little trace in the archives. As John Selden put it, in the mid seventeenth century, "More solid things do not shew the Complexion of the Times, so well as Ballads and Libells". The varied content of ballads illuminate not only popular responses to great events such as war, rebellion, religious strife and political conflict, they chart the flux of social change in their declarations on sex, crime, education, work and race. They provide, in the words of Roy Palmer, "the sound of history".


David Hopkin
Valentina Bold
David Morrison



Fox, Adam. Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700. Oxford, 2000.

Holloway, John (ed.). The Euing Collection of English Broadside Ballads in the Library of the University of Glasgow. Glasgow, 1971.

Palmer, Roy. The Sound of History: Songs and Social Comment. Oxford, 1988.

Shepard, Leslie. The Broadside Ballad: A Study in Origins and Meaning. London, 1962.

Wurzbach, Natascha. The Rise of the English Street Ballad, 1550-1650. Cambridge, 1990.