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Street Literature Collection

Date range: 17th-19th centuries

Medium: Printed

Number of items: More than 2,300 items.

Street literature has been defined as ‘primitive printed matter sold in the open air by hawkers rather than through orthodox publishing channels’ (Maurice Rickards and Michael Twyman, The Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator and Historian (London: The British Library, 2000), p. 314). 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, often enlivened by crude woodcuts. They were produced in large quantities, typically in single-sheet format, or as chapbooks - 'the popular pamphlets of the poor'. (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: David & Charles, 1973), p. 26.) However, their ephemeral nature means that survival rates are often low, and until recently such material has been overlooked by librarians and bibliographers.

Playbills form a major part of the collection, consisting of around one thousand items dating mainly from the early 19th century. Manchester's Theatre Royal is well represented, including two volumes of playbills collected by James Watson (1775-1820), author of the theatrical review The Townsman (Manchester: G. Bancks, 1803-05). The Library also holds two rare playbills featuring appearances on the Manchester stage by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).

London is also well represented. In addition to the two patent theatres – the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden – playbills for around forty other London theatres or places of entertainment are included. Of particular interest is a set of seventy-six playbills, dating from 1834 to 1835, for performances at the fashionable Royal Olympic Theatre, run by Madame (Lucia Elizabeth) Vestris (1797-1856). Many of the playbills run on consecutive days, revealing how the repertoire evolved.

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, especially Liverpool, but also including Birmingham, Carmarthen, Margate and Norwich.

The collection includes around two hundred and fifty broadside ballads/slip songs with imprints from thirty different towns. These date mainly from the early 19th century and range from traditional songs to commentaries on contemporary local and national events.

Other single sheet material includes royal proclamations, acts and orders, execution broadsides, reports of murders and other crimes, horse-racing bills, and diverse public notices, often of political or religious significance. Subjects include the English Commonwealth, Popish Recusants, the Popish Plot and anti-Catholicism, Quakerism and the National Anti-Corn Law League. There are also albums of ephemeral publications relating to Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741-1821) and Joanna Southcott (1750-1814).

The collection includes around one thousand chapbooks, dating mainly from the 19th century. Scottish chapbooks are well represented including a collection of 210 items bound in three volumes formed by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe (1781-1851), the antiquary, etcher and authority on Scottish ballad literature, and a smaller collection formed by Mathew Shields (c. 1841-1891), Secretary of the Glasgow Stock Exchange. Another strength is chapbooks for children, with publishers including James Kendrew (c.1772-1841) of York and John Golby Rusher (1784-1877) of Banbury.

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.

Further information:

  • Partially recorded in Library Search.

  • Library listings available on request via Special Collections reading rooms.


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