The Ballad Business

The Ballad Business

Every title in the 100 Ballads database was commercially produced in London and most were retailed to a socially broad national market via shops and stalls run by traders, and by itinerant ballad-singers and ‘bawling’ hawkers in towns, at markets and fairs, or on the streets. Based on research carried out for the 100 Ballads site and another large project, the essay that follows briefly outlines a renewed history of the seventeenth-century ballad business and highlights some of the most significant changes to the trade’s operations and organisation.[1] Section I discusses the methods and approaches that have been adopted in order to produce the publication histories of all 120 songs in the database. Section II explains how and why it was that, from the 1570s onwards, London’s popular music trade became increasingly dynamic, professional, and specialised. Section III recounts the fraught circumstances that led to the formation of the ‘Ballad Partnership’ and a transformation of the wider ballad trade. Section IV explains how, after 1624, the ballad trade divided into two complementary business models: one dealing in old and the other in new songs. Section V considers the economics behind the various changes in the graphic design of ballads discoverable in the database, while specifically highlighting the post-Restoration appearance of political ’crossover’ ballad titles that were published in both white- and black-letter formats. Finally, Section VI shows how the ballads included in the database illuminate the shifting regulatory frameworks that impacted the retail ballad trade.

I. Researching the Ballad Business

Despite the large size and scale of the seventeenth-century ballad business, researching the producers, distributors, regulations, and mechanisms of the trade presents many challenges. Evidence must be pieced together from all-too-fleeting references found in Stationers’ Company records, judicial and state papers, correspondence and diaries, and contemporary print. Few individual business or probate records survive, while those that do are not particularly representative of the trade’s wide spectrum of producers. The most plentiful sources are, of course, the ballad sheets themselves. Imprints, colophons, and licensing straplines provide essential and often revealing evidence, but are notoriously problematic to interpret as the scholarly literature and many a fraught email discussion between interested parties can testify![2] Even the handful of authors and publishers who became well known to contemporaries – whether through prolific production, genuine popularity, or notoriety – remain historically shadowy figures.

Despite these difficulties, three characteristics of the seventeenth-century ballad business can help historians of the trade to identify typical trade patterns that can help to fill some of the gaps in the documentary record. The first of these was the organisational homogeneity of the trade. From 1557 until 1695, the Stationers’ Company of London had a monopoly of all non-University printing, bookselling, and bookbinding. The company controlled entry to the printing trade and was responsible for suppressing unlicensed presses and printers. But the company’s primary purpose was to protect its members property rights to the best-selling ‘copies’ (i.e. printed ‘works’ or ‘titles’) that they owned, by recording them in the company’s registers.[3] 

Barring two exceptions, all the publishers named in the 100 Ballads database were members of the Stationers’ Company. Some were booksellers, such as Thomas Pavier, Francis Grove, Thomas Vere, and William Thackeray. Others were printers, such as John Trundle, John Mallet, Alexander Milbourn, and William Onley. Several were women, some of them booksellers, such as Mary Coles, Elizabeth Brooksby, and Bridget Deacon, and some printers, for example, Elizabeth Mallet and Elizabeth Purslowe. As widows, all these women ran businesses and trained apprentices in their own names. Another trade widow, Sarah Tyus, is unnamed in the database because she lost her visible identity as an independent stationer when she married her husband’s former apprentice, Thomas Passinger.[4]

Of the two exceptions, one was the political songwriter, James Dean, who sold musical publications from his shop during the early 1680s. We know that Dean employed Elizabeth Mallet and Nathaniel Thompson to print his songs and ballad-singers to sell them on the street, but, because he was not a member of the Stationers’ Company, his bookselling activities were curtailed after 1685 by James II’s rigorous censorship regime (see Section VI below).[5]  The second and more important exception was the entrepreneur, Thomas Symcock, who, between 1618 and 1631, threw the whole Stationers’ Company unto confusion by claiming that a royal patent gave him rights to print all ballads. Combatting this claim proved transformative for both the development and reputation of the ballad trade (see Section III below).

A second key feature of the black-letter ballad trade was its geographical homogeneity. Almost every publisher named in the database, whether bookseller or printer, was based in the City or Liberties of London. Before 1666, most owned (or leased) shops and warehouses that were located on London Bridge or in one of the small streets that made up the Old Bailey, Holborn, and West Smithfield districts. The Great Fire of 1666 wreaked havoc on the print trade. Many booksellers and indeed the Stationers' Company were burnt out and forced to relocate. For instance, one leading Ballad Partner, Francis Coles, relocated from the Old Bailey, which was badly damaged, to a shop in Vine Street. Location mattered, and several stationers worked their way up to larger or better positioned premises during their careers. For example, Philip Brooksby changed address several times, finally taking up a prime position in Pye Corner, while retaining his distinctive shop-sign, the Golden Ball. Such changes of address offer useful clues when dating ballad editions.

Two of the publishers named in the database, James Dean and his close colleague, the notorious Catholic printer, Nathaniel Thompson, set up their shops in Westminster. This brought them closer to their target customers in the Court, parliament, the legal profession, and the theatre-going public, for whom they produced only ‘white-letter’ (roman type) ballads, often with lines of musical notation (see more about this in Section V below).

A third homogeneous trait developed during the first quarter of the seventeenth century. Black-letter ballad producers became an increasingly specialist and close-knit community. Tracking the changing patterns of publishing activity over the course of the long seventeenth century from c.1570 to c.1711 reveals how ballad publishers increasingly co-operated with each other in business, while innovations in ballad design, new musical trends, and popular new tunes, were swiftly adopted by all the trade specialists.

The database brings together one hundred and twenty ‘best-selling’ songs, many of which were kept in print for over a hundred years. Tracing the publishing histories of each song, identifying each edition and copy, and placing them all in order of publication has involved a complex mix of methodologies and much new archival research. One unique aspect of the approach taken has been to incorporate the valuable trade evidence provided by the time-specific political and topical song productions that have been expressly excluded by former scholars (most notably Cyprian Blagden).[6] At the same time, each publication history has been informed by a prosopographical approach, paying close attention to the individual lives of publishers, their personal and professional networks, their catalogue of works (not just ballads), changes of address or circumstances, and their typical trade practices. Biographical material noted in the established but dated scholarly sources has been re-checked and augmented by many new archival discoveries: for example, finding the long-lost record of Philip Brooksby’s burial, which took place two years later than is usually stated, helped to clarify several imprint anomalies. Additional historical context has been provided by taking into account the impact of shifting regulatory frameworks on publishing practices across the century (see Section VI below).

Though fundamentally historical in its approach, the project owes a great debt to the conceptual and analytical tools developed by bibliographers and historians of the book and to digital resources conceived and created by literary scholars, librarians, information specialists, and those working in the digital humanities. The systematic comparative analysis carried out on hundreds of ballad editions (or ‘reprintings’) and copies held in libraries that are thousands of miles apart was only made possible by the unprecedented access to high quality digital copies of the majority of extant broadside ballads provided by the English Broadside Ballad Archive (cited as EBBA throughout the database) and Bodleian Ballads Online (cited as Ballads Online). We are further indebted to the British Library’s digital English Short Title Catalogue (cited as ESTC), both for the invaluable records it provides of still undigitized copies of titles, and for the kind and prompt attention given to our queries by the ESTC team. We are also grateful for the dedicated librarians and archivists who have generously investigated and supplied missing images, notably the British, Bodleian, Brotherton and Beinecke Libraries, the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society Library, Harvard’s Law Library, and The National Archives of the UK.

A key outcome of the 100 Ballads project has been to bring the inevitably fuzzy picture of the seventeenth-century ballad business a little more into focus (all new findings are recorded in the Publication History sections under each title). It has revealed the dynamic and continually shifting nature of the trade; it offers a more refined account of the operational dates and make-up of the most significant producers; and it provides a clearer sense of the economic and regulatory models that sustained and restrained the popular music business through the century. Nevertheless, although the detailed (and often frustrating) work carried out for the project has enabled many adjustments to our current bibliographical knowledge (which we will be sharing with the ESTC and other authorities), uncertainties abound and much remains unresolved. Not for nothing have ballads been dubbed ‘fugitive sheets’. While the project necessarily drew a line early in 2024, so that final quantification and assessment of the order of ‘popularity’ for the featured ballads could be made in preparation for a public launch of the website, the bibliographical and historical research continues. New contributions, suggestions, and critical queries are always welcome - the 'Update' boxes await!

II. Professionalisation and Specialisation of the Ballad Trade

The 100 ballads database tracks the ‘best-selling’ single-sheet ballads of the seventeenth century, not least because the extent, reach, and organisation of the sixteenth-century ballad trade is far more difficult to evaluate.[7] Before the 1570s, the size of the print trade was relatively small and restricted compared to the century that followed. The relatively high costs of print production and comparative rarity of printed items meant that even ‘cheap’, popular, topical genres were considered valuable. Consequently, when the Stationers’ Company was first set up in 1557, proportionately large numbers of ballad entries appeared in its registers of copy rights.[8] Despite the (possibly skewed) impression the registers give of a vibrant and thriving trade, collectors were few in this period and survivals are rare. Carol Ann Livingstone catalogued just over 300 extant sixteenth-century English and Scottish broadside sheets (not all of which were ballads), many of them found in printer’s waste.[9] Just three pre-1600 ballad titles survive in more than one edition, and only a handful survive in multiple copies.[10] 

Sixteenth-century ballad titles were published by a range of non-specialist publishers, perhaps mostly for well-to-do audiences. The surviving sheets vary enormously in shape, size, and design, but they were invariably expensively produced, being well-printed on good paper (indeed one was printed on vellum). [11] Ballad illustrations seem to have been comparatively rare before 1600, while the few that survive were high quality productions, with several being (apparently) unique to the broadside on which they appeared.[12] One telling example, from 1554, just before the Stationers’ Company was set up, saw a publisher of high-end law books producing a broadside ballad, written by a court musician, that celebrated (but did not explain) all the obscure heraldic symbolism of Mary I’s wedding procession.[13] Moreover, from the 1580s, as news pamphlets became more common, but licencing more restrictive, it was not unusual for pamphlet publishers to avoid licencing restrictions by producing both a newsy pamphlet and a ballad on the same topic.[14] By the mid-1620s, these practices had completely changed. Illustrations had become a standard feature of a fairly standardised broadside ballad product. If pamphlets and ballads did overlap in content, the ballad was published by a specialist (and was perhaps separately commissioned), while lawbook sellers, a privileged sector of the trade, would not dream of lowering themselves to producing a black-letter ballad for the retail trade.

Already by the 1570s, but especially from the 1590s, the ballad trade was expanding in terms of both popularity and reach. Writers such as William Elderton and Thomas Deloney were celebrated (and denigrated) for their skill in ballad writing.[15] More and more ballad titles were being printed, though perhaps not always in very large numbers as the Stationers’ Company frequently restricted print runs to prevent paper shortages.[16] This prompted some book publishers to produce collections of the most popular single ballads, some of which were extraordinarily successful. For example, the Paradise of Dainty Delights ran to ten editions between 1576 and 1606, while The Garland of Good Will, a 1593 collection of Thomas Deloney’s broadside ballads (which has been used as a source for the database) was still being reprinted in the 1690s.

Like ballad writing, ballad production was becoming increasingly professionalized. Specialists developed an understanding of what made a broadside ballad saleable and how to sense a potential hit that might serve shifting public tastes. They also devised business strategies for reducing risk and maximising profits on titles. Successive masters and mistresses passed on their knowledge and expertise to apprentices, the best of whom became leaders in the trade. For example, we can draw a clear line from Thomas Pavier, the founder of the ‘Ballad Partnership’, to Francis Grove, the trade’s leading ‘speculative’ publisher between 1628 and 1662, through to William Thackeray, a dominant figure in the cheap print trade from the 1670s to the 1690s.

Described as ‘one of the most enterprising and successful publishers during the first [two] decades of the seventeenth century’, Thomas Pavier, was introduced to the trade by his own master, William Barley, an early music publisher and bookseller. [17] Pavier gained his freedom to operate independently in 1600 and, seven years later, he took on Thomas Langley as an apprentice. Little of Langley’s catalogue survives, though he knew how to spot a hit: see, for example, his co-registration with a printer, John White, of the first known edition of An Excellent Ditty, called the Shepherds wooing Dulcina in 1615. Langley was freed in 1614 and, two years later, took Francis Grove as an apprentice. For several years, Langley and Grove worked closely with Pavier – perhaps from the same shop – but, by 1622, they had moved to a premises in Snow Hill, where Grove remained for the rest of his highly productive career. Grove’s expertise and influence can be judged by the fact that he published the first editions of ten percent of the hit ballads listed on the database. Notably, in the 1630s, both Langley and Grove worked closely with Thomas Lambert, whose name appears five times in the database despite his short working career (from 1633 to 1641). Grove passed on his considerable expertise to several apprentices, his last being William Thackeray.[18] Like his master, Thackeray proved to be an active and successful figure in the speculative ballad market and built up an extensive network in the trade. Later in his career, Thackeray joined and ultimately led the Ballad Partnership. It was Thackeray who, in 1689, drew up the only surviving Ballad Partners’ contract along with a list of the best-selling titles the partnership then owned. In consequence, Thackeray’s name appears on 108 editions in the database.

At the start of the seventeenth century, the trade’s response to the ever-expanding market for ballads was to make them ever-more desirable to a broader audience.[19] For example, as noted above, illustrations became a standard feature, though the oldest and longest ballads, such as A Memorable Song on the unhappy hunting in Chevy-Chase, between Earl Piercy of England, and Earl Dowglas of Scotland were not illustrated until after the song was shortened in the eighteenth century. Livingstone also notes that songs had become simpler by 1600 as the typical short lines of the ballad stanza became the norm. [20] Moreover, ballads became ever more affordable since their retail price remained steady at one penny per song from the 1590s to the 1690s, despite the inflation of the period. To maintain this level of accessibility, however, it was vital for producers to keep production costs down. At first, this challenge was met by a marked decline in standards of production, an increase in piracy and an avoidance of licence and registration fees, which put the trade at risk of company and government sanctions. In 1612, the governing body of the Stationers’ Company, the Court of Assistants, complained at the poor quality of paper and print being used and expressed concern at the growing numbers of ‘leud ballades, offensive bothe to God, the church and the state, and to the corruptinge of youthe’.[21]

Determined to constrain overall production, to improve quality, and to better police their content, the company’s Assistants decided to award the (highly profitable) rights to print ballads to just five printers. In return, the privileged printers were not only to ensure that paper quality was improved (a minimum price of  two shillings and eight pence per 500 sheet ream was set) and that titles were well printed, but they were also to take responsibility for ensuring ballads were inoffensive in content, were licenced and appropriately entered in the registers. One of these five printers, Edward Allde, published editions of six of the 120 titles in our database. Though the restriction of ballad printing to just five printers was in force for less than ten years (from 1612 to 1621), and was probably often flouted, this policy may, inadvertently, have served to encourage the streamlining of the ballad trade and its product. The restrictions may account, for example, for the immediate trade-wide adoption of new design features, such as the ‘second part to the same tune’, or the use of roman print for titles, and the creation of a slew of new woodcut images, many of which seem to date from about this time.

Meanwhile, faced with these unwelcome changes, which had effectively handed power over the ballad trade to printers, the numbers of booksellers involved in producing ballads reduced. Those who remained became increasingly specialised. Largely cut off from investing directly in titles, they focused on expanding their distribution systems. They took advantage of newly improved postal and carriage services and directly employed singers and hawkers to sell their printed ballads anywhere that people gathered, at fairs and markets, the Royal and New Exchanges, on busy streets, and even in Westminster Hall. So novel was this phenomenon that, in the 1610s and 1620s, playwrights, such as Jonson, Shakespeare, Beaumont, and Fletcher, began to include ‘ballad singers’, such as Autolycus and Nightingale, who performed and sold sheets as characters in their plays. [22] Ultimately, this period of honing, standardising, specialising, and expanding prepared the trade to benefit from the momentous opportunities that arose after the formation of the Ballad Partnership in 1624.

III. The Symcock Controversy and the formation of the Ballad Partnership

In 1618, James I issued letters patent giving the holder rights to all items printed on one side of a sheet. The patent was acquired by two entrepreneurs, Roger Wood (or Ward) and Thomas Symcock, neither of whom were members of the Stationers’ Company.[23] The company immediately challenged this threat to their monopoly in court and began by complaining that the wording of the patent was too broad to be legally enforceable. Protracted legal proceedings ensued. In a bid to strengthen their case, in 1620, the holders obtained a re-written patent, which specifically listed all the printed genres it encompassed, including broadside ballads. The Stationers’ determination to resist grew. In 1621, Thomas Pavier, by then an important figure on the company’s governing body, coordinated a three-pronged attack on the problem.

Pavier’s plan was assisted when a large group of disgruntled journeymen printers petitioned the company’s Court of Assistants. The printers’ petition argued that the company’s policy of restricting ballad printing to five rich master printers had been hugely detrimental to poor printers, who relied on ballad printing to help them during periods of under-employment. This well-timed intervention highlighted two problems: first, that desperately poor printers might (and did) succumb to the temptation of working for Symcock and, second, that Symcock could use the same argument to show that the company’s monopoly was detrimental to poorer members of the printing trade. The Court of Assistants swiftly revoked the restrictions on ballad printing, a change that effectively restored the leadership of the trade into the hands of the booksellers who now specialised in ballad publishing.

One obstacle having been cleared out of the way, Pavier’s second step was to organise a second petition against the patent for presentation to parliament. The signatories to this petition were printers and booksellers who specialised in cheap print, including Thomas Langley (Pavier’s former apprentice) and all those who would later become Pavier’s Ballad Partners. The petition argued:

That the Peti∣tioners … haue euer had the free vse of printing these things, from the first times the same were imprinted … And if the benefit thereof be taken from the petitioners, it will not onely be a great hinderance vnto them who haue beene brought vp in this Art, and maintained themselues and their seuerall families thereby, But also to all other his Maiesties louing subiects that haue occasion to vse any of the things mentioned in the said Letters Patents.[24]

Parliament’s response was expressly to forbid Symcock and Wood from acting on their patent until they had investigated the validity of the Stationers’ claims that it contravened existing rights and contracts. This stalled the patentees for three years.

Pavier’s third step led to a transformation in the organisation and future of the ballad trade. In 1624, with the case still unresolved, Pavier put it to the Court of Assistants that if Parliament decided to allow the patentees to print items over which no rights could be proved, then the titles of popular old songs for which most rights had lapsed would be particularly vulnerable. He proposed setting up a formal partnership, in direct competition with Symcock’s patent, made up of well-established, reputable stationers, with sufficient resources to pay for the rights to popular old songs and (importantly) to keep them in print. The Court of Assistants agreed.

Pavier’s carefully selected group of partners brought vital investment, skills, and opportunism to his new initiative: John Grismond was a wealthy printer and type-founder, with extensive business interests; the three Wright brothers, Cuthbert, John I, and Edward, from a well-to-do landed Northamptonshire family, were successful booksellers with shops located around the Old Bailey and Smithfield; finally, bookseller Henry Gosson was well-connected and knowledgeable about the ballad trade, and had a shop on London Bridge. This group pulled together a catalogue of popular old songs over which rights seemed to have lapsed, printed them for the benefit of the partnership, and put them back into circulation. On 6 November 1624, the Court of Assistants issued a new order:

whereas divers Balletts have been heretofore disorderly printed without entrance or allowance [, i]t is now ordered that an entrance be made particularly of the Balletts that are now printed unto Mr P[a]vier and his partnors [,] he paying XXs to the house [as a registration fee] … Provided that if any others have any title to the said balletts by Entrance or otherwise this order of the Entrance shall not prejudice them.[25]

Meanwhile, the Stationers’ Company’s case against the patent dragged on. Discouraged, Roger Wood withdrew his claims, but Symcock refused to be defeated. On 20 August 1628, he obtained a third patent issued solely in his name and acted upon it immediately, arranging for numerous old and new songs to be produced that were ‘Printed by the Assigns of Thomas Symcock’. [26] Under threat of severe punishments, the company banned all stationers from working with him, but Symcock was determined to benefit from his investment at last. He offered disaffected journeymen printers inflated wages and deliberately undercut market rates by selling reams of printed ballads cheaply to bargain-hunting booksellers.

The brilliance of Pavier’s defensive plan now came to fruition. Symcock showed a blatant disregard for any stationer’s registered rights. For example, compare the marked similarity in design and layout of Henry Gosson’s (for the Ballad Partners) and Symcock’s edition of An Excellent Ballad, intituled, The Constancy of Susanna. Symcock’s ‘disorderly’ printing damaged his standing in the courts and, in 1629, prompted the Bishop of London to ban his printing activities (rendering them both unlicenced and pirated) until the case was decided. [27] Pavier had died in 1625, but an equally entrepreneurial printer, Miles Flesher, took up the baton and organised a new petition to contest and protest Symcock’s claims and actions. The legal wrangling – and Symcock’s illegal printing – dragged on until 20 October 1631, at which point the patent was finally revoked.

Though initially formed as a defensive measure against Symcock, Pavier’s innovative Ballad Partnership proved to be a huge and long-lasting success. Despite its multiple iterations over the course of the century, which saw changes in personnel, in registration practices, in contractual arrangements, and in imprint styles (most of which were imposed by shifting trade regulations: see Section V), the Ballad Partnership was sustained by Pavier’s business model, which was, as Gerald Johnson writes, ‘to put his money into assured sellers, even though he had to pay a premium for the copyrights’.[28] In December 1624, the partnership registered its rights to the 128 old titles it had printed. Thereafter, the partners regularly bought up rights to the best-selling titles circulating in the market, either singly or in small numbers from living publishers (which provided their speculative producers with much-needed injections of cash) or – as in the case of John Trundle (d.1629) and Francis Grove (d.1662) – by acquiring a speculative ballad publisher’s whole catalogue from his heirs.[29] 

Given its focus on best-sellers, the 100-Ballads database effectively tracks the history of the Partnership from its inception in 1624, through six phases of its history until 1711, when William Onley left the printing trade. But, as the next section shows, the Ballad Partners - though important, and well known to modern scholars - would have had nothing to buy, were it not for the efforts of the speculative producers who took risks on new songs.[30]

IV. Who Produced the Hits? The Ballad Trade’s Two Business Models

By 1624, the ballad trade had not only become increasingly specialized and homogenized, but it was also reorganized into two complementary business models. This reorganization can be seen by looking at the fifty black-letter ballad producers named in the database who operated between 1624 and 1711. [31] Of these fifty names, just twenty acquired a share in the Ballad Partners’ catalogue of best-selling old songs. The remaining thirty publishers in the database were speculative producers of new ballad titles.[32] In addition to the profits they made through wholesale and retail sales, speculative producers could raise capital by selling on their best-selling titles to the Partners. See, for example, the account of Philip Brooksby’s sale of The Ballad of the Cloak (Song history).

Every member of the Ballad Partnership was sufficiently wealthy to join either the yeomanry or livery of the Stationers’ Company while a few became heavily involved in the company’s government. This brought them regular dividends, paid from the company’s English Stock. As Ballad Partners, they also invested in the Partnership’s catalogue of best-sellers and its effective distribution system, from which they could also expect guaranteed returns. However, most of those who joined the Ballad Partnership were not, or were no longer, engaged in the speculative trade in new ballads. Thomas Passinger offers a good case in point. Apprenticed to the ballad publisher Charles Tyus in 1657, Passinger acquired Tyus’s business by marrying his widow, Sarah after 1664.[33] In 1668, he became a liveryman of the company. Before joining the Partnership in 1680, Passinger (and his wife) had published numerous ballad titles, sometimes alone and sometimes in partnership with others. However, after joining the Ballad Partnership, Passinger ceased publishing speculative ballads. He filled his shop with expensive scientific and maritime books, bought more shares in the English Stock, and took on responsibilities for the company.[34] Not every partner abandoned any direct interest in the speculative ballad trade, however. William Gilbertson remained a prolific publisher of new ballad titles both before and after he joined the partnership in 1655, despite his large and lucrative holdings of English Stock shares.[35]

Few purely speculative ballad publishers, even the most prolific, such as Francis Grove and Philip Brooksby, were sufficiently wealthy to join the company’s livery.[36] Though their businesses thrived during their lifetimes, their wealth was based largely in their warehouse stocks, rather than in shares or property.[37] Speculative publishers often shared risks by collaborating over individual titles, while a few tried to follow the Ballad Partners’ model by creating formal partnerships that enabled them to share the costs of the warehousing and distribution of their new titles. For example, in response to London’s devastating fire of 1666, William Thackeray led a relatively short-lived but prolific publishing group with Thomas Passenger and William Whitwood (who produced editions of three of our best-sellers). This group produced perhaps a hundred song titles, though none reached the 100 Ballads database. By 1680, the group had broken up. Thackeray and Passinger seized the opportunity to join the highly lucrative Ballad Partnership, at the invitation of the elderly Francis Coles, while Whitwood abandoned ballad publishing and concentrated on his other interests.[38]

Another similar company of speculative publishers was formed in 1689.[39] It was made up of four well-established ballad producers: Philip Brooksby, Jonah Deacon, John Back, and Josiah Blare. The shops and warehouses owned by this group covered all the prime distribution positions: both ends of London Bridge and the key entrances to West Smithfield, on Pye Corner and in Guiltspur Street. For ten years, the Brooksby group collaborated in the publication and distribution of more than two hundred new song titles. Yet, although each member of the Brooksby group (including two of their widows) appears individually in the 100-ballads database not one of their collaboratively published new titles entered our top 120, in part because of the project’s time limits and its focus on black-letter ballads, which did not take account of changes in production practices taking place in the trade after 1695.

In 1695, in the wake of the final lapse of the old licencing act, the Stationers’ Company lost its printing monopoly. At the same time, ballads printed in black-letter had lost their appeal, and the ballad trade’s crucial homogeneities began to break down. The Brooksby group's productions were increasingly produced in white-letter formats or were sold in small song books. New music shops and increasing number of music engravers were producing single-sheet and multi-page musical scores for able musicians. Regional publishers too began to produce new musical material geared towards local tastes, Nevertheless, several of the Brooksby group’s titles were reprinted in the eighteenth century by John White, who was based in Newcastle. By 1709, both the Ballad Partnership’s and the Brooksby group’s old stock had come into the hands of just two booksellers. The first, Josiah Blare, was the only surviving member of the Brooksby group. The second, Deacon’s former apprentice, Charles Bates, had become a selling agent for printer, William Onley, the only surviving member of the seventeenth-century Ballad Partnership. Blare, at the Looking Glass on London Bridge, and Bates, based at the Sun and Bible in Pye Corner, joined forces to distribute and reprint the ballad titles of both publishing companies.[40]

As the 100 Ballads database shows, the Ballad Partnership played a vitally important role in keeping ‘best-’ and ‘steady-selling’ popular songs in print and in popular memory over the course of the century. Moreover, the Partnership did not merely reprint songs. Especially in the later century, the words, images, length, and sometimes the titles of ballads were regularly improved and updated in response to the ever-changing tastes and expectations of the market. Nevertheless, it must be remembered, that it was the speculative publishers appearing in the database, such as Francis Grove, Thomas Lambert, Richard Burton and Philip Brooksby, who did all the work of spotting the hits, and suffering the economic fallout of the misses.

V. Changing Formats and the ‘Crossover’ Ballad

Although black-letter ballad sheets became increasingly standardised after the period of the five printers (from 1612 to 1621), their format and size nevertheless changed several times during the seventeenth century, generally becoming smaller, shorter, and cheaper to produce. Changes in size are hard to spot from digital images but one typical example will make the point: while Thomas Vere’s first edition of The Lamenting ladies last farewell was printed on a whole broadsheet (about an A3 size today), the last edition, published by the Ballad Partners, appeared on a half sheet (about an A4 size today). From the 1670s, producers began to favour a shorter, three-column ballad, and they therefore tended to drop the traditional ‘second part’. This took time to become standard practice, which can be seen, for example, in Brooksby and Burton’s to-ing and fro-ing over whether to include the ‘second part’ on the various editions of The Delights of the Bottle. Reasons for these changes are not hard to find. As noted above, in 1612 the Stationers’ Company insisted that ballads must be printed on good quality paper costing at least two shillings and eight pence a ream. In January 1689, when William Thackeray drew up a new Ballad Partnership contract with printers Alexander Milbourne and John Millet, the unprinted paper in the warehouse was valued at five shillings a ream.[41] Despite this marked rise in the cost of just one of the essential production materials, the retail price of a ballad had remained steady at a penny or less.

Many of the surviving single sheet songs of the seventeenth century were political in content, produced in periods of high tension in support of factional campaigns. Most of these political ballads looked very different from the black-letter ballads produced for the retail market. Invariably printed in roman fonts (called ‘white-letter’ by contemporaries) and in a wide variety of formats, they were often privately commissioned for a politically oriented and educated audience. Before the 1670s, white-letter political ballads were also distributed differently from retail ballads: they were sold or even given away to targeted groups and occasionally they were scattered in the streets.[42]

By the late 1670s, the market for political song was changing. On one hand, it was driven by the political and electoral turmoil of the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis. Opposing factions turned to song in their bid to woo popular support. On the other hand, the sudden dissolution of parliament early in 1679 meant that the licencing laws lapsed, opening the door to a flood of commercially produced but unlicensed political publications. The effect of these changes can be tracked in the database by comparing The Catholick Ballad:/ OR AN/ INVITATION/ TO/ POPERY and The Ballad of the Cloak. When the renowned gentlemen’s bookseller, Henry Brome, published Walter Pope’s hugely successful Catholick Ballad, he had the first edition printed on a whole sheet, using a black-letter font, to emphasize the song’s satirical message that only the ‘ballad-makers’ would believe or promote Catholic beliefs: a joke that would have been obvious to anyone visiting his shop.

But Brome’s typographical joke would have worked less well five years later. By 1679, the popular appetite for political song was so great that commercial producers began to feed it, not least the Tory-supporting publishers Nathaniel Thompson and James Dean, who specialised in the production of white-letter and music notation ballads. It was not long before black-letter retail publishers, especially Philip Brooksby, became interested in adapting some of the best political songs for the popular black-letter market. Oftentimes, such ‘crossovers’ required changes to some of the original words, in order to make the songs acceptable to the authorities. And in order to make the song acceptable to the black-letter ballad market, they invariably needed extra verses and images. Most of the nineteen ‘crossover’ ballads to be found in the database were big but short-lived hits, but The Ballad of the Cloak, one of Brooksby’s first ‘crossover’ titles, was bought up as a best-seller by the Ballad Partnership and was still being printed in eighteenth-century Newcastle.[43]

By the 1680s, the retail trade in white-letter notation ballads had expanded to include both political and non-political songs, many of them originating in the theatre or at court. Ballad producers, such as the Brooksby group, began to publish equal numbers of white-letter and black-letter songs. However, to avoid the complexities of non-retail production, the 100 Ballads project expressly excluded even best-selling ballads if they were solely printed in a ‘whiteletter’ format. Nevertheless, there are three exceptions to this rule in the database, all of them songs that were the original source for exceptionally popular tunes. For example, James Dean’s Tory song, THE/ Lord RUSSELS/ Last Farewel to the World Russell’s Farewell, is the origininator of the very popular 'Russell’s Farewell' tune. Another exception, The Loyal English Man’s Wish, is the earliest known source for the huge hit tune ‘Let Mary Live Long’ (the ballad was published in 1692, in white-letter with notation by the music printer, Thomas Moore).

VI. Regulation and the Ballad Trade

The expansion of the ballad trade sparked concern at every level of authority from the Privy Council to the local magistrate, and within the Stationers’ Company. Yet there were real challenges in controlling the outputs of a trade that hugely outnumbered book production. Authorities had two options: either to control the publication and content of ballads through pre-print licensing or to rely upon post-print policing of performances and sales.

Imprints provide the most eloquent testimony regarding the various ways in which governments tried to control the trade, and they also show how ballad producers responded to regulation.[44] Between 1586, when a decree was promulgated that codified licencing requirements, and 1632, when new regulations were passed, the details presented on ballad imprints were largely unregulated: for the most part, the name or initials of a publisher was deemed sufficient. Thus, as the newly formed Ballad Partnership began to reprint their old titles in 1624, it was perfectly acceptable for just one partner’s name to appear in the imprint on behalf of them all. This lax approach changed after 1632, as Charles I’s government became increasingly concerned about the effect of the press on popular opinion. Archbishop Laud’s High Commission demanded that every imprint, regardless of genre, should include information about all those responsible for a publication. We see the effect of these changes in the fulsome imprint on A Monstrous shape. OR A shapelesse Monster, which included the initials of the ballad’s author and printer, as well as the full name and address of the bookseller/publisher.

The next most obvious changes came under Cromwell’s Protectorate government, which adopted a version of Laud’s strict 1630s regulations, not only requiring every person responsible for a publication to be named on an imprint but also that every title should be licensed and entered in the registers. The most visible effect of these new regulations was how, from this point onwards, every member of the Ballad Partnership (newly under the leadership of Francis Coles from 1655) was named on imprints. For the first time, the Protectorate also required ballad producers to print an ‘imprimatur’ on each new ballad: that is, they were to obtain a hand-written permission, which the printer would then print on the work. After 1656, speculative publishers, such as Francis Grove, began to include an imprinted licence strapline, such as ‘Entred and Licenced according to order’, on every sheet: see, for example, Grove’s edition of John ARMSTRONG's Last Good-Night.

After the Restoration of 1660, a new act to control the abuses of printing (often referred to as the ‘licensing act’) was passed in 1662. Licensing was put in the hands of government-appointed Surveyors and Licensors of the Press (Sir Roger L’Estrange in 1662-1680 and 1684-1688; John Frazier in 1689-95). These state officials were assisted by a Beadle or ‘Messenger of the Press’, a Stationers’ Company appointee, who coordinated searches for illicit or unlicensed printing, and collected (or in the case of one notorious messenger, Robert Stephens, fabricated) evidence against suspected parties. The new act affirmed the requirement to include information about those responsible for a printed work alongside a printed licensing strapline on the first and (often) subsequent editions of a new ballad. Moreover, in the 1670s, new orders stipulated that imprimaturs should also include the name of the licensor. Consequently, as can be seen on many of the sheets in the database, Roger L’Estrange’s name or initials began to be printed on ballads that he had personally licensed.

Before 1685, the hard-pressed Roger L’Estrange was unable to enforce the requirement for every ballad publication to carry a printed licence. During James II’s reign, however, all licensing regulations were harshly applied. From November 1685 until December 1688, a licensing strapline naming L’Estrange’s new assistant, Robert Pocock, appeared on every single ballad that passed through the press. After the Revolution of 1688/9, the authorities were just as concerned to maintain control over the press. Ballad publishers were still required to obtain permission to print from a government licensor and to use straplines which usually stated, ‘Licenced according to order’. For the avoidance of doubt, titles issued by the Ballad Partners often included a strapline indicating that the title had previously been licenced and entered in the registers. After 1695, though government attempts to control the press continued, the licensing act was allowed to lapse. Straplines continued to appear on some ballad sheets, but their legal status is unclear.

It is certain that not all ballad producers complied all the time with all the regulations. However, for most of the publishers of our best-sellers, obeying the rules not only kept them out of unnecessary trouble, but compliant imprints and straplines also offered some protection for the vulnerable men and women who sold the sheets, as they could instantly prove they were selling legitimate wares. Moreover, with other forms of evidence often scarce, understanding the history and operation of the pre- and post-print regulation of ballads comes in very useful for dating editions. White-letter and ‘crossover’ political songs were rarely licensed and were far more likely to cause offence to the authorities, leading to harsh penalties for their producers or purveyors: see, for example, THE Sale of Esau's Birth-right; OR, The New Buckingham Ballad and The Belgick Boar.

Angela McShane

[1] Much of what follows is drawn from Angela McShane, The Ballad Trade and its Politics in Seventeenth Century Britain (Woodbridge, forthcoming), especially Chapter 6.

[2] See, for example, M. A. Shaaber, 'The Meaning of The Imprint in Early Printed Books', The Library, (March 1944), Vol. S4-Xxiv, Issue 3-4, pp. 120–141.

[3] See Cyprian Blagden, The Stationers' Company: A History 1403-1959 (Stanford, 1977).

[4] Margaret Spufford, Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and Its Readership in Seventeenth-century England (Cambridge, 1985), p. 84.

[5] See G. M. Peerbooms, Nathaniel Thompson, Tory Printer, Ballad-Monger and Propagandist. Instituut Engels-Amerikaans, Katholieke Universiteit (Nijmegen, 1983), p. 86; McShane, Ballad Trade, ch. 6.

[6] Cyprian Blagden, ‘Notes on the ballad market in the second half of the 17th century.’, Studies in Bibliography, 6. (1953), pp. 161-80.

[7] For a discussion of ‘best’ and ‘steady-selling’ categories see Ian M. Green, Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2000), ch. 4.

[8] For registrations up to 1640 see Giles Bergel and Ian Gadd, Stationers’ Register Online, CREATe, University of Glasgow:

[9] Carole Rose Livingstone, British Broadside Ballads of the Sixteenth Century: A Catalogue of the extant sheets and an essay (New York and London, 1991).

[10] See for example: A briefe sonet declaring the lamentation of Beckles (c. 1586), EBBA 32522 and EBBA 37855; A worthy Mirrour, wherein you may Marke, / An excellent discourse of a breeding Larke (1569-1577) EBBA 32090 and EBBA 36305; Remember man both night and day, thou / must nedes die there is no nay. (c. 1556) EBBA 36297 & EBBA 32401. 

[11] Livingstone, British Broadside Ballads, pp. 36, 39, 45, 804-805.

[12] Livingstone, British Broadside Ballads, pp. 42-43.

[13] Jenni Hyde, ‘Popular Propaganda: John Heywood’s Wedding Ballad and Mary I’s Spanish Match’, Transactions of the RHS (2022), pp. 1–19.

[14] See Fritz Levy, ‘The decorum of news’, in News, newspapers and society in early modern Britain, ed. by Joad Raymond (London: Cass, 1999) and McShane, Ballad Trade, ch. 6.

[15] Livingstone, British Broadside Ballads, p. 34.

[16] Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser, ‘The Popularity of Playbooks Revisited’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 56.1 (2005), p. 17.

[17] Gerald D. Johnson, ‘Thomas Pavier, Publisher, 1600–1625,’ Library, 6th series, Vol. 14 (1992), p. 12.

[18] Evidence for these moves comes the Stationers’ Company apprenticeship records and registers alongside an examination of Pavier’s, Langley’s and Grove’s publication imprints. For Grove’s career see also McShane, Ballad Trade, chs. 5 & 6.

[19] See the useful discussion of format development in Patricia Fumerton, The Broadside Ballad in Early Modern England: Moving Media, Tactical Publics. (Philadelphia, 2020).

[20] That is, as opposed to the long lines of ‘rhyme royal’, Livingstone, British Broadside Ballads, p. 37

[21] William A. Jackson ed. Records of the Court of the Stationers' Company, 1602 to 1640. (London, 1957), p.53.

[22] Angela McShane, ‘Political street-songs and singers in seventeenth-century England’, Renaissance Studies Special Issue: Street Singers in Renaissance Europe (2019), pp. 98-102.

[23] The following account is based on Jackson, Records of the Court of the Stationers' Company, xix-xxi and McShane, Ballad Trade, ch. 6 which draws on the case records. The original patentee was a Frenchman, who sold it on to Wood and Symcock.

[24] Stationers' Company, ‘To the right honourable the house of Commons assembled in Parliament’ [London: s.n., 1621] Ann Arbor: Text Creation Partnership, 2011: URL:

[25] Jackson, Records of the Court of the Stationers' Company, p. 171.

[26] See ‘An Abstract of his Maiestie Letters Patents, Graunted vnto Thomas Symcock’

[27] C 2/ChasI/S66/13 Stationers' Company v Symcock.

[28] Johnson, "Thomas Pavier, Publisher’, p. 45

[29] The acquisition of Trundle’s titles was recorded in the registers. Grove’s 1662 will (which left £200 to the poor and 20 shillings to his son) was successfully contested by his son who, we must surmise, sold his father’s titles to the partners: many of them were included in the large Ballad Partner’s entry made in 1675.

[30] Foundational histories of the Ballad Partnership include Cyprian Blagden, ‘Notes on the ballad market in the second half of the 17th century.’, Studies in Bibliography, 6. (1953), 161-80; R. S. Thomson, 'The Development of the Broadside Ballad Trade and its influence on the transmission of English Folksongs.' (Unpublished PhD Thesis: University of Cambridge, 1974) and Margaret Spufford, Small Books and Pleasant Histories. See also David Atkinson, The English Traditional Ballad: Theory, method, and practice. (Aldershot, 2002). These accounts largely ignore the significance of the speculative trade producers, leading both Bagford and Spufford to argue(wrongly) that, in the second half of the century, the popular music trade was in terminal decline.

[31] 88 ballad producers are named in the database, 38 operated before 1624 or were not part of the blackletter trade. Two partners are not named: Edward Brewster and Robert Bird acquired Pavier’s copy rights from his widow in 1626 and retained them until at least 1642 when they were assigned to John Wright II. Neither man was named on any ballad because it was not legally required for all Partnership members to be named on imprints before 1656 (see Section V).

[32] I am over-simplifying here in the interests of clarity, as speculative producers did occasionally trade older titles with each other (see, for example, Come turn to mee thou pretty little one published by John Hammond, EBBA 36409; Charles Tyus, EBBA 36496; Thackeray, Passinger and Whitwood EBBA 30446 and finally by the Ballad Partners) but the majority of their publications were new.

[33] Spufford, Small Books and Pleasant Histories, pp. 84-85 and passim.

[34] The contents of Passinger’s shop can be discerned through an analysis of his registrations, his printed adverts, and the books listed in Clavell’s annual Term Catalogues. His acquisitions of English Stock are recorded in the Stationers’ Company records. Passinger’s administrative career was cut short by James II, who ordered his removal (along with several other leading stationers) from the company’s livery and Court of Assistants by James II.

[35] Thackeray also continued to publish speculatively, at least until 1689. Vere, who became master in 1680 seems rarely to have published anything but was an able administrator for the company: see his interesting dealings over The Lamenting Lady’s Last Farewel to the World. Coles, who also became master, had given up independent publishing by 1656, after taking over the leadership of the partnership.

[36] Three speculative producers, William Whitwood, John Back, and Josiah Blare became sufficiently wealthy (possibly through inheritance) to pay the livery fee.

[37] Spufford, Small Books, pp. 85-89. Jonah Deacon (who joined the Brooksby group) was a purely speculative producer, with no shares in the English Stock.

[38] Several of the Thackeray, Whitwood and Passinger group’s titles were acquired by the Ballad Partnership after 1680.

[39] Blagden calls companies like this ‘congers’ but I have not so far come across the term being used by seventeenth-century contemporaries.

[40] McShane, Ballad Trade, ch. 4.

[41] See EBBA 32631-32633

[42] See McShane, Political Broadside Ballads in Seventeenth Century England: A Critical Bibliography (London, 2011), Introduction.

[43] See McShane, Ballad Trade, ch. 4.

[44] This account of ballad licencing draws upon McShane, Ballad Trade, ch. 6.

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