Political Poetry and Song in Broadsides


An example of subject and woodcuts found in broadsides. From Sp Coll Mu23-y.1

An example of subject and woodcuts found in broadsides. From Sp Coll Mu23-y.1.

Taking place today is the Political Poetry and Song in Scotland event with archivists and researchers from across Scotland and the UK meeting to discuss and celebrate the wealth and variety of political poetry and song produced and collected in Scotland. The event aims to scope out material for an online catalogue on this subject and to generate an interdisciplinary research agenda with the event initially culminating in a public poetry reading and recital. More information on the event can be found on the Centre for Robert Burns Studies web pages.

Part of the day’s activities will involve a trip to our Special Collections seminar room where participants will have the opportunity to look over a selection of items from our collections that demonstrate the kinds of political poetry and song found within Scotland. One example from this which caught my eye is a Collection of broadside ballads, chiefly printed in Glasgow at shelfmark Sp Coll Mu23-y.1, part of our Murray Collection, because of the total variety of subjects and tones found in the volume’s contents. 

Lament of Archibald Hare

‘Lament of Archibald Hare’ from Sp Coll Mu23-y.1.

These ephemeral items sprang to popularity in the early 1800s and were usually single sheets of paper printed on one side that were unfolded and read or else displayed in public places. Broadsides were sold at a cheap price, around a penny, by street pedlars. The contents of these broadsides display a mixture of a fascination with murderers and those condemned to death; retellings of famous events, lives or legends all liberally sprinkled with sentimentalism, humour or satire; and others still that hint at radical politics for the period during the 19th century.

Slave's dream

‘Phoebe Morel or The Slave’s Dream’ from Sp Coll Mu23-y.1.

Ballads in Broadsides are generally preceded by a title and in many cases are accompanied by a woodcut. The ‘Lament of Archibald Hare’ is an example of broadside ballads working as a news source whilst also showing the popular interest in misery stories such as Hare’s. The tone is struck by the line above the woodcut ‘A voice from the Dungeon‘ where we take a good look at the woes of Archibald Hare as he awaits a death sentence for murder.

However these ballads are not always just a tawdry glimpse into another’s misfortune but may point towards a desire for political reform or at least an empathy for those suffering injustices. For example, the pictured ballad of ‘The Slave’s Dream’ seems to empathise with the plight of the slave Phoebe Morel and suggest that those who deal in slavery, these ‘heartless strangers’, are wrong to abuse another being in this way and seems to outright criticise slavery with the lines:

“-claimed me as their slave.

And this was in a Christian land,

Where men kneel oft and pray ;-

The vaunted home of liberty,

Where lash and chain hold sway.”

This ballad is a popular one that has appeared in various different forms over the years and its ubiquity in popular literature throws up questions about how slavery was perceived by the general public in Britain during this period. Were Scottish audiences particularly interested in questions about the right to liberty and the hypocrisy of Christian slave owners, perhaps drawing parallels between this and the struggle for enfranchisement for the working classes?


The ballad of ‘Hardie and Baird’ from Sp Coll Mu23-y.1.

This brings us to another recurring subject in our broadsides which is the fate of Andrew Hardie and John Baird, two men executed in Stirling after engaging in the Radical War in Scotland in 1820, a week of strikes and marches calling for reform of the government and better rights for workers. Whilst the uprising in 1820 seems to have been short lived the names of Hardie and Baird continued to be remembered fondly through these ballads and a real feeling of outrage at their execution comes through in this example. The two men are variously referred to as ‘two hero’s brave’ and ‘martyrs’, whilst a verse is even dedicated to describing how their mothers must have felt:

“But methinks that I hear their poor mothers weep,

That oft times have dangled their sweet  babes to sleep;

But when that to manhood their children had grown,

They were drag’d from their bosom and murder’d and torn”

The ballad openly expresses a belief that their execution was unjust and that these were good men and in doing so the ballad sympathises with their cause even if it does not outright discuss the reform that Hardie and Baird were campaigning for.

These broadside ballads, whilst being ephemeral and representing a slice of nineteenth century popular culture, also give us an insight into the kinds of sympathies that people had. Though these are not scholarly or considered articles they give us an idea of what the average Scot was interested in hearing about and the enduring popularity of ballads about figures like Pheobe Morel and Hardie and Baird might suggest that a feeling of discontent about the Government and worker’s rights was prevalent at this time and found its expression in these populist ballads printed in broadsides to be disseminated and pinned up in meeting places.


James Lindsay’s printers note beneath a ballad in Sp Coll Mu23-y.1.

Broadsides were often  printed and sold locally and of these three pictured examples each was printed by James Lindsay, who was a printer and stationer in the Saltmarket in Glasgow for around sixty years and boasted of being able to supply a great deal: ‘Upwards of 5,000 different sorts always on hand; also, a great variety of Song-Books, &c. Shops and Travellers supplied on most reasonable Terms.’ Whilst looking at these ballads I found myself wondering to what extent the printers themselves took an interest in the kinds of subjects they printed about, and if they thought to push certain political agendas. Did James Lindsay publish ballads about Hardie and Baird because he believed in political reform and in more rights for the ordinary Scot? Or are the subjects found in broadside ballads dictated by availability and public popularity?

At any rate, after my brief foray into the world of broadside ballads I’m confident that the Political Poetry and Song in Scotland attendees have a rich pool of material to draw from and plenty to discuss!

 – SKG

Categories: Special Collections

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