Publishing a Broadside.

Broadside ballads were, first and foremost, objects of commerce. Before a ballad could reach its audience it depended on some enterprising publisher, printer, or pedlar to compose it and sell it. Many people were involved in the trade: the poet who composed the ballad, the wood-engraver who illustrated it, the printer, and the pedlars and booksellers he supplied. But this description makes the process of production sound much more orderly than it actually was. For some printers broadsides were a sideline, for others they were a major part of their income; some broadsides were commissioned by pedlars who instructed jobbing printers, others were commissioned by printers from their ‘poets’ at a shilling a time, yet others were copied from the production of other printers, or reworked from an old ‘garland’ or song-collections.

In Britain, the Seven Dials area of London was the major centre for broadside production in the nineteenth century. London Labour and the London Poor, compiled in the 1850s by the social investigator Henry Mayhew, contains numerous descriptions of the work of, and interviews with, the poets, printers and ballad-singers of London. The ‘Napoleon’ of the trade was James ‘Jemmie’ Catnach, who came to London from Northumberland in 1813, and is the subject of at least one biography, as is John Pitts, his principal London rival in the first half of the nineteenth-century.

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View of Saltmarket (Glasgow) From Sketch of the History of Glasgow, by James Pagan, Glasgow 1847.
Reproduced by permission of Glasgow Libraries.

Glasgow’s equivalent to Seven Dials was the Saltmarket, but unfortunately it has not received the same attention from historians. The only study is an article by Adam MacNaughtan, from which much of the information on this page has been taken. As MacNaughtan explains, the Saltmarket had long been a centre of the cheap print trade, whether for chapbooks, speeches, religious tracts, garlands or ‘slips’, as broadside ballads were titled. At the end of the eighteenth-century chapbooks seem to have been the most popular production, and the leading Saltmarket printer specialising in this trade was J. & M. Robertson. The Robertson brothers were the publishers of several humorous or historical works by Dougal Graham (1723-1779), the ‘Skellat bellman’ of Glasgow. Graham was a well-known character in eighteenth-century Glasgow, as famous for his wit then as ‘Hawkie’ (see the section on ‘selling a ballad’) would become in the nineteenth. For examples of his writings consult the Scottish Chapbook Catalogue on the links page, or the numerous biographical works about him.

In the middle years of the nineteenth century, however, broadsides or ‘slips’ seem to have taken over in popularity from chapbooks and garlands, although they never entirely replaced them. This may have been due to the influence of James Catnach, whose enormous output certainly reached Glasgow (the Murray Collection contains numerous examples). Some Saltmarket printers, such as William Carse and John Muir, supplemented their other products with broadsides; others made it a mainstay of their business, such as Robert MacIntosh, James Lindsay and Matthew Leitch, proprietor of the Poet’s Box. Not all of these operated from premises in the Saltmarket, but none were very far from it. It is Lindsay’s output which dominates the Murray collection. James Lindsay came to the business late, having previously been a rag-merchant. There is a connection between cheap print and rags, because rags were collected for the making of paper, and ballad-pedlars were often rag-pickers as well. Lindsay first set up as a stationer in Anderston in 1847, before moving to King Street Glasgow in 1851 (when he was 30). Around this time Lindsay bought the stereotypes of a large number of chapbooks previously published by Francis Orr and Sons. In the advertisements accompanying his ballads in the 1850s Lindsay offered "Upwards of 5000 sorts always on hand; also a great variety of Picture-Books, Song-Books, Histories &c. Shops and Hawkers supplied on Liberal Terms. Handbills, Circulars, Invoices, Business and Fancy Cards, Large Posting Bills, Society Articles, Pamphlets and Letter-Press Printing of every description, neatly and expeditiously executed on moderate terms." A catalogue dated 1856 lists 200 ‘slips’, each with two songs. Lindsay was, therefore, a wholesaler: his trade was largely with ‘flying stationers’, the pedlars and street criers who came for stock, rather than with customers off the street. Lindsay moved offices several times, but never wandered far from King Street. The firm was still trading at 13 King Street in 1905, and James Lindsay and Co. had premises at 85 High Street in 1909. It is uncertain whether broadsides still made up a substantial part of the firm’s output at this date.

Although Lindsay was prolific we know little about how he operated. We know more about the Poet’s Box because its proprietor and self-styled ‘Poet’, Matthew Leitch, often detailed the sources of his ballads in introductions to his one-penny broadsides. Lindsay’s broadside ballads were seldom specific to Glasgow, and probably many were copied from London or other publishers. Leitch’s inspiration tended to be more home-grown. For example Bob o’ the Bent (in the Murray Collection), is introduced thus: "The author of this song is Mr William Watt, of East Kilbride, who is the author of many other brilliant pieces. This exquisite, and almost unequalled, piece of Scottish poetry, is now, The Poet is happy to say, in its second edition of 10,000 copies. We suppose the facts on which the song are based are already well known to all, as also the flourishing and beautiful parish of Shotts here mentioned. The Poet has received the warm and heartfelt thanks of a great number of drunken farmers, and others, in all parts of the country, for publishing this song; and they assert, as an undeniable fact, that is has done more good to the happy cause of temperance than all the itinerant teetotal preachers could do in a century." Not only do we know the author of this piece, but it is clear from the text of the ballad that it was meant for performance (as it lapses on occasions into speech). The Poet’s broadsides were often inspired, and sometimes commissioned, by the professional or semi-professional singers who frequented the Saltmarket pubs such as the Oddfellows’ Saloon and the Shakespeare Saloon (both mentioned in other introductions), or by popular numbers from theatrical shows. The Poet ends the broadside with an advert for his shoe blacking, while others carry adverts for shoe-laces, ink and jobbing printing. Like most Poet’s Box productions it is dated: August 26, 1854.

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View of Saltmarket (Glasgow) from Black's Picturesque Guide to Glasgow and the West Coast, Edinburgh 1852.
Reproduced by permission of Glasgow Libraries.

The Poet also accepted commissions (as a student at Glasgow University the collector David Murray had made use of his services to write and print ballads during Rectorial elections). Many cheap print productions were commissions from jobbing printers. ‘Hawkie’, for example, recalls in his memoirs publishing for a "Crispin procession in Edinburgh the account of the ‘Ancient King Crispin’ (patron saint of the shoemakers), in twelve pages of six-line poetry" which he had written himself. He had it printed by Robert Menzies in the Lawnmarket, Edinburgh. Hawkie told Menzies not to put the printer’s name on it, in order to prevent other ‘criers’ knowing from whom to buy it. Hawkie’s desire to be the sole retailer of his own productions often led to quarrels with his printers, who were keen to get a larger market.

In addition to the regular publishers of broadsides, other entrepreneurial printers would occasionally try their hand. Urie gives a description of just such an undertaking in his memoirs. Urie had been apprenticed as a stereotyper to Neilson of Paisley (he may have set the type for some of the Orr chapbooks later bought by Lindsay), but gave it up to try his hand as a wood-engraver. At that time (1841) "all the wooden blocks for illustrations had to be brought from London, there being no wood engraver in the West of Scotland". His first commission was to illustrate a broadside on the execution of two Irish navvies, Dennis Doolan and Patrick Redding, for the murder of John Green, their foreman on the Glasgow-Edinburgh railway construction site at Bishopbriggs. This had been a controversial trial, and the executions were likely to bring a large crowd into the city. Urie recalls "On the day before the murderers were to be executed, Mr Brookman, who had been foreman in the well-known printing works of Foulis and Co., but who then carried on business for himself at the corner of Union Street and Argyle Street, came to me and said -- ‘Could you not make an engraving of the execution that is coming on?’ ‘I will try,’ I said, and it was agreed that we should go out to take a sketch of the scaffold early in the morning. We went accordingly, and I took a sketch of the gibbet. Then I engraved the picture, sketching in the victims from memory, and it was printed on a broadsheet along with the ‘The last dying speech and confession of Dennis Doolan.’ Newspapers were scarce and dear, for the stamp duty and paper duty still remained, so that our broadside, which was put out at the popular price of a penny, sold by the thousand on the day of execution. The speech and confession attributed to Dennis were purely imaginary."

Going to the expense of creating a new block to illustrate this kind of broadside was somewhat extravagant, and such practices may account for Brookman’s financial troubles, for soon after this incident (according to the Glasgow printer turned memoirist Andrew Aird) "the bladder burst and disaster overtook him." This broadside caused problems for other people as well. On May 17 1841, three days after execution, it was reported in the Glasgow Herald that "On Saturday afternoon, a labourer, named Hugh McIlwee, from Kilsyth, was placed at the bar of the Police Court, accused of having assaulted in the preceding evening, a speech crier, named Mills, who was selling accounts of the execution of Doolan and Redding. From the evidence which was given it appeared that the prisoner, and some other labourers, had taken offence at the duty in which the speech crier was engaged, and then assaulted him, driving him at the same time through the window of a shop, and smashing some of the panes. The utmost excitement prevailed for a short time, and but for the timeous apprehension of the principal assailant by the Police, it might have led to one of those party riots, which, from small beginnings, are often very disastrous in their results. McIlwee was sentenced by Bailie Robertson to 60 days imprisonment."

The assault on Mills should remind us that broadsides were not produced in a vacuum: they both reflected and fed into a particular social, cultural and political context. For twenty-first-century readers it is difficult to reconstruct how these ballads were created, disseminated, and received by the public. Nonetheless, if they are to be useful sources for the social historian, this is what we must do.


David Hopkin
Valentina Bold
David Morrison



Aird, Andrew. Reminiscences of Editors, Reporters and Printers during the Last Sixty Years. Glasgow, 1890.

Fairley, John. Dougal Graham, Skellat Bellman of Glasgow, and his Chapbooks. Hawick, 1908.

Fairley, John. Dougal Graham and the Chap-Books by and attributed to him. Glasgow, 1914.

Hindley, Charles. The Life and Times of James Catnach, Late of Seven Dials, Ballad Monger. London, 1878.

John Cheap (1877), George MacGregor (1883), or John Fairley (1908, 1914).

MacGregor, George (ed.) The Collected Writings of Dougal Graham, 'Skellat' Bellman of Glasgow. Glasgow, 1883.

Maley, Willy. ‘A Hungry Belly Has No Ears’, Scottish Labour History Review, no.6, 1992-3.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. London, 1861. Vol.1.

McNaughtan, Adam. ‘A Century of Saltmarket Literature, 1790-1890’, in Peter Isaac (ed.) Six Centuries of the Provincial Book Trade in Britain. Winchester, 1990.

Shepard, Leslie. John Pitts: Ballad Printer of Seven Dials, London, 1765-1844. London, 1969.

Urie, John. Reminiscences of Eighty Years. Paisley, 1908.