Single-sheet ballads (of the sort that rolled off presses all over the country) are fascinating. Over the centuries, people have written songs on all sorts of subjects – many commenting on the pressing issues of the time. They appear to be one way of getting a grievance out there, to solicit public support for a cause, or to celebrate something significant.
An earlier post, The Jolly Machine – Michael Raven and urban English folk song looked at some local offerings through the lens of Michael Raven. This time, Roy Palmer is my guide.
Palmer A Ballad history of England (publ. 1979)
Our song sheet collections comprise publications aimed at a middle-class clientele, particularly so for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They (mostly) have a composer’s name on them and usually also one of a reputable publisher. This contrasts with ballad production: the words come from the people, with no one person attributed. The tunes are those already around, and the ballad sheets were sold on the street.
As Palmer points out in his introduction, Charles Dickens knew this well. Think of Silas Wegg from Our Mutual Friend. You might also gather that the ballad seller wasn’t one of the more reputable traders to be found on a Victorian street. Palmer quotes the following from a writer in the 1860s about the whole ballad industry:
our modern political songs and ballads [are] the best popular illustrations of history … the rude but most expressive monuments of the great political struggles in which our jealous ancestors were engaged: and on that account they merit, if not our critical admiration, at all events deliverance from absolute oblivion. In the absence of these artless effusions, our social history would be incomplete.
I’ve chosen a couple of ballads with local connections.
The Cottager’s Complaint (1778)
The town of Sutton Coldfield is justly proud of its park, being as it is a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Its origins are not a municipal green space, but have their roots in royal deer parks. So as open land, it was already important to the townspeople when Sutton Coldfield took its turn to be on the receiving end of an Enclosure Act.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these Acts were a mechanism whereby any remaining rights to graze livestock on common land were extinguished. Such land became the outright property of the landowner who had previously only held it. Although many people hadn’t exercised that right in centuries, there were still individuals (cottagers) who scraped a living from using common land.
A Bill introduced in 1778 was defeated, as was another attempt in 1790. It was not until 1824 that Sutton Coldfield had its Enclosure Act and even then, the Park was exempt. Despite what I said earlier about anonymous ballads, this one was written by John Freeth to combat the first attempt in 1778. Freeth was a well-known Birmingham coffee shop owner and writer of ballads.
Here’s one of the verses, together with the chorus:
My ewes are few, my stock is small, Yet from my little store, I find enough for Nature’s call, Nor would I ask for more; That word, ENCLOSURE! to my heart, Such evil doth bespeak, I fear I with my All must part, And fresh employment seek.
Oh the TIME! the happy, happy TIME, Which in my COT I’ve spent; I wish the CHURCH-YARD was his doom, Who murders my content.
And here’s a performance:
Song, on obtaining the Birmingham and Worcester Canal Bill (1791)
It is said that within Birmingham’s city boundaries flow more canals (by mileage) than Venice. True or not, it does present a very different view of what is normally regarded as an urban city centre. The second half of the eighteenth century in England was when the industrial revolution really took off, benefiting Birmingham along with other Midlands and Northern towns and cities.
The road system was still largely unsuitable for large movements of goods, so the same period saw a huge increase in the building of canals. Birmingham doesn’t sit on a navigable river. To enable the town’s rapid expansion, canals were needed. The purpose of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal was to connect the town with the Severn at Worcester, making the journey shorter than before. The canal opened in stages between 1793 and 1815.
Our ballad celebrates obtaining the necessary permissions to start building.
Here’s a couple of verses:
Redditch, where the sons of the Needle reside, Who commerce revere, and make friendship their pride, The prospect enrapture – and Bromsgrove no less, Has cause at the victory joy to express.
In Europe’s grand Toy-Shop how pleasing it will be, Well freighted with trows, and barges to see; The country ’twill charm, and new life give to trade, When the seat of the Arts shall a sea-port be made.
Palmer quotes a contemporary article from The Times:
It is with considerable pleasure we announce to the public, the progress of the Worcester and Birmingham canal which … renders the conveyance between the port of Bristol and Birmingham certain, cheap, and expeditious.
Here’s a version sung to a modern tune:
Canals were eventually overtaken by the railways. We are lucky that many of them remain – ready for holiday traffic, rather than the transportation of chocolate crumb, and coal.