Blogging isn’t something I was taught. Revisiting my first post a few days ago, I winced at the lack of information, and the things I evidently hadn’t got my head round. So here is the new, improved version to mark the first anniversary of this blog … 

The Library of Birmingham has extensive music collections. Both printed and audio. One of the least known is our historical collection of song sheets. We have thousands and thousands of them, dating from the start of the C18 through to the 1960s.  The main problem in featuring this collection is deciding which individual sheets to look at.

I’ve chosen a couple to look that which have local connections. They’re both from the nineteenth century and have pictorial covers which are wonderful and amusing to look at.

Simon Squeers – the undertaker’s man (publ. 1878)

Music: Vincent Davies      Words: John Cooke Jnr
simon squeers
Damaged front cover of ‘Simon Squeers – the undertaker’s man’ 

If you’d like, you can see the words of the complete song here . The undertaker is lamenting his lot. In taking on his profession, he finds that he suddenly becomes much less attractive to the opposite sex.

I have to wear a suit of black, upon this noble frame,
On Sundays as on other days, my clothes are just the same;
The girls all laugh and titter as they see me passing by,
And say to one another, Oh! My! Isn’t he a guy!

The song is clearly one for the music hall. Sometimes, the covers of music hall songs sheets show the actual performers in costume – it’s not obvious from this cover whether that’s the case. Possibly not, as the performers enjoyed having their names in print as much as the composers and lyricists. Though perhaps his face was so distinctive, he didn’t need his name?

The most obvious local connection is the publisher – listed as H. Beresford of 99 New Street. Whether they had any particular reason for publishing this song, is not known. What is worth noting is the cost of the sheet – four shillings. This was a substantial proportion of the weekly wage  for the working poor in late Victorian times, so it was likely that it was bought only by the middle classes.

The Bombardment of Alexandria (publ. 1882)

Music: Harry Fitter Ball      Words: Tom Browne
Bombardment of Alexandria
The equally damaged but still arresting front cover

It was quite common for songs or other music to be composed to commemorate British military campaigns abroad – the title of this is self-explanatory to a degree. For more information see this article . What is striking and funny about this cover, is the illustrator’s attempt to do Egyptian costume. The head wear looks relatively convincing, but by the time you get to the footwear, the lace-up boots are entirely Victorian.

Showing the costumes

The bright and highly-coloured front cover must have made it stand out when people were browsing. Interestingly enough, all the colour didn’t increase the price. It too is four shillings.

I can’t find any obvious information about the singer or composer which is a pity, but not uncommon. The text as you might expect, is uncomfortably jingoistic in places. Here’s a less provocative sample:

They storm’d proud Alexandria, where Cleopatra dwelt,
Where Antony, the warrior, at the shrine of beauty dwelt,
From here we brought a Needle, not so long ago;
From there we got the ‘needle’, and we let the whole world know …

In staring at the cover, one of the venues listed caught my eye – the Royal Aquarium . Aquarium? The mind boggles.

The Royal Aquarium ca. 1876

This place of entertainment in Westminster was designed to be a competitor to the Crystal Palace. And, yes, there were thirteen large tanks designed to take living sea creatures. Which they never did, something that made it a source of ridicule. The separate theatre hosted music hall acts amongst other things. It was demolished in the early 1900s to make way for the Central Methodist Hall

Again, the publisher is Birmingham-based, but the address is missing because of the damage to the sheet. The blank sections in the image are repairs – archival grade paper used by our conservator to stabilise the whole sheet. Loose music sheets like these are vulnerable to wear and tear, and were never meant to be long-term possessions. This is probably the main reason why there are apparently no other libraries or collections which hold this particular song.