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.
- Article by:
- The Gentle Author
- Poverty and the working classes, Reading and print culture, London
The Gentle Author explores William Marshall Craig’s Cries of London prints, which portray the realities of life for street traders in the early 19th century.
- Article by:
- Ruth Richardson
- Reading and print culture, Popular culture
From public notes and broadsides to catchpennies and printed songs, Dr Ruth Richardson examines the variety of street literature which informed and entertained the public before newspapers were readily available.