Broadside ballads: When the news was spread through ballad – BBC News

Spreading the news in the 19 th Century was often conducted in the medium of ballad. “Broadside ballads” would be sonorously bellowed on street corners, keeping folk abreast of “whats going on” in the region.

Media captionThe ballads were sung during the course of its 19 th Century to tell employees the latest news

“There was no telly, there was no radio, and we were even five years off the publication of the first Manchester Guardian, ” says radio presenter Mark Radcliffe, who has travelled around his native Lancashire to make a film for Inside Out North West about the ballads.

“But there was a kind of social media back in the 19 th Century – they just didn’t call it that.” The subjects covered by the broadsides were wide-ranging, from the Peterloo Massacre and Manchester’s Great Flood of 1872 to light-hearted ditties about henpecked spouses and gossipy songs about extramarital affairs. The topics speak of conflict( The Spinners Lamentation, 1846 ), poverty( Tinkers Garden, 1837 ), civic insurgencies( The Meeting at Peterloo, 1819) and communal misfortune( The Great Flood, 1872 ). However, they also recall good nights out( Victoria Bridge on a Saturday Night 1861) and day trips around the region( Johnny Green’s Trip fro’ Owdhum to insure the Manchester Railway, 1832 ). “They genuinely are a slice of real life and social history from 19 th Century Manchester, ” says Radcliffe. “Looking through them, well it’s a clich, but all of human life is here. “There’s stuff about Peterloo there for a start, but there are tales of slayings, executings, industrial action, prostitution, excessive drinking, deaths of the famous and even ballooning for some reason.”

The Great Flood – selected verses

The thunder rolled, the lightning flashed, The rainfall came pouring down, And soon the rivers were swollen In country and in town. Still on the mighty water went Where lay the silent dead And soon alas! the coffins were Uplifted from their bed. Ghastly forms of old and young Lay is accessible to our view; God grant that such appalling sights May ne’er be seen by you. Nor yet unmindful would we be, Of those who suffered loss, But grateful that from harm we’re free. Help them to bear their cross.

Because the broadsides were printed on low-quality newspaper and their nature was ephemeral – merely a thin sheet – many did not survive. They would be pasted on top of each other on a wall, or pinned above a fireplace.

Image caption Mark Radcliffe describes the 19 th Century ballads as a “kind of social media”

However, some people, including the diarist Samuel Pepys, made a habit of collecting them. Jennifer Reid, an expert in Lancashire folk traditions, detected the Manchester broadsides when she volunteered at the city’s Chetham’s Library. She now sings them herself at folk reveals – often accompanied by a clog dance. “Back in the day you’d buy the broadside from a hawker in the street, ” she said. “He’d sing them – all apart from the last poem that is, so they didn’t give away the end of the story. They weren’t daft.” “It’s all the themes you can think of that affect we are currently, ” says Ms Reid. Manchester Library has several thousand ballad sheets dating from the 1600 s to the end of the 19 th Century, says the library’s head of music Ros Edwards. “They are a wonderful social record of what happened over those years. Terrible sorts of things – all sorts of events. Political events, international events even, as well as local events. ” Broadsides began to decline in popularity when they could not keep up with other, newer, forms of cheap print. Chapbooks – small booklets, inexpensive to make and to buy – became fashionable as literacy increased, and the invention of the telegraph led to a demand for up-to-date accurate news rather than long rhyming tales sung in the street. BBC Inside Out North West: Broadside Ballads will be broadcast on Monday 19 September at 19:30 BST on BBC One.

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