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Street Literature Collection

1,500 items.

Street literature has been defined as ‘primitive printed matter sold in the open air by hawkers rather than through orthodox publishing channels’.1

Ballads and broadsides are the epitome of street literature, but the term also encompasses playbills and other free advertising material.

Whether distributed by hawkers or posted in public places, street literature was aimed at the mass market. Bills, ballads and broadsides vied for attention, employing bold typography enlivened by crude woodcuts. They were produced in large quantities, typically in single-sheet format. However, their ephemeral nature means that survival rates are often low, and until recently such material has been overlooked by librarians and bibliographers.

The Rylands collection dates from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and consists of playbills for London and provincial theatres; royal proclamations, acts and orders; execution broadsides and reports of murders and other crimes; broadside ballads ranging from traditional songs to commentaries on contemporary local and national events; and other public notices, often of political or religious significance.

There are more than 700 bills for plays and other entertainments, dating mainly from the first half of the nineteenth century. The majority of the collection (approximately 405 bills) relates to London.

In addition to the two patent theatres – the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden – around 40 other London theatres or places of entertainment are represented. Of particular interest are a set of 76 playbills, 1834-5, for performances at Madame Vestris's (1797-1856) fashionable Royal Olympic Theatre. Many of the playbills run on consecutive days and show how the repertoire evolved.

There are more than 180 bills relating to Manchester, principally the Theatre Royal, Spring Gardens, 1803–4, and the Library holds eighty-four bills relating to portable and travelling theatres, mainly in Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, with some relating to Devon. In addition, there are occasional provincial bills from outside Manchester, with locations including Birmingham, Carmarthen, Liverpool, Margate and Norwich.

Other single-sheet material includes a collection of 247 printed ballads, songs and broadsides, with imprints from 30 different towns, mainly from the early nineteenth century:

  • A collection of 161 horse-racing bills dating from 1825 to 1834.
  • 72 religious and political broadsides, 26 of which are of Quaker interest.
  • A collection of 40 English Commonwealth broadsides, 1649–51
  • An album containing 38 single-sheet items, short pamphlets and extracts from the collection of Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741–1821), many of which have a strong personal connection to the writer, including a ballad relating to the election campaign of her first husband, Henry Thrale, in 1765, and a song written for her second husband, the musician Gabriel Piozzi, on the event of their marriage in 1786.
  • 28 broadsides and proclamations, dating mainly from 1678 to 1680, many concerning Popish Recusants, the Popish Plot and anti-Catholicism.
  • Ten broadsides (mainly ballads) printed in Manchester in 1852 for the National Anti-Corn Law League; and five late-eighteenth-century Cheap Repository ballads, priced at a halfpenny, four of which were written by the philanthropist Hannah More (1745–1833).

Often underutilized due to a lack of awareness and poor promotion, street literature offers a wealth of research opportunities in a variety of subject areas including social and political history, and religious, cultural and theatre studies. The collection is also an important source for the study of the provincial book trade, since a high proportion of imprints are outside the traditional centres of printing, London, Oxford and Cambridge.

1Maurice Rickards and Michael Twyman, The Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator and Historian (London, 2000), p314. See also Leslie Shepard, The History of Street Literature: The Story of Broadside Ballads, Chapbooks, Proclamations, News-Sheets, Election Bills, Tracts, Pamphlets, Cocks, Catchpennies and Other Ephemera (Newton Abbot, 1973).

Finding aids

Partially recorded in ; internal listings available on request.


The John Rylands Library

Using the reading rooms in the John Rylands Library

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