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.
“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.
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.
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.