Popular reading in the early 1800s for the less well-off frequently consisted of single-sheet items printed hurriedly and sold on the streets cheaply for a penny or halfpenny. These might include chapbooks (booklets made from a single large folded sheet), broadsheets (large-format single-sheet newspapers) or broadside ballads (popular songs, often setting new topical words to a well-known tune).
A successful publisher of these items was James Catnach (1792–1841) of Seven Dials, London. Using only his father’s old wooden presses in the family home, he became wealthy from his money-spinning descriptions of crimes and trials, and satirical ballads – despite spending six months in prison after suggesting that a local butcher planned to sell human flesh.
Cries of London is an example of how Catnach made his fortune: a straightforward descriptive song about the city’s street-sellers. The author and illustrator are unknown and the item is undated. It shows the low printed and artistic quality of the broadside: the words are clumsily written, there are errors in the typesetting, and the illustrations – which frequently had little to do with the text – are crudely drawn.
To get an idea of how much a penny or halfpenny was worth at the time, we need only browse the song itself: a penny would evidently buy a dozen walnuts or a pound (454g) of salted cod, while a half penny would buy a whole red herring.