The Francis Place Ballad Project makes available a crucial resource for tracing the history of song. This is the collection of ballads assembled by Francis Place around 1819. The ballads were intended to form part of a larger project which traced the “improvement in the morals and manners of the working people.”
These were songs that Place remembered being sung about the streets of London when he was a boy, and which he still remembered forty years later. The ballads were recorded specifically because they were evidence of the debauched and depraved behaviors of late eighteenth- century London. These ballads are, Place claims, typical of the songs that were ubiquitous on the streets of London in his youth but which by 1819 had been silenced.
Some of the ballads are written out in full, some are half-remembered, some consist only of a notable line, but all have the qualifying distinction that they are in bad taste. “It will seem incredible that such songs should be allowed,” Place comments, “but it was so.” At stake, as Place's evidence before the Parliamentary Committee for Education of 1835 made clear, was the idea that working people did not need the interference of government to help the become more disciplined, they had recognized the benefits themselves of "improvement", and were already benefiting from it. Or, as E.P. Thompson famously argued (using Place's papers an a crucial primary source) the working class "was present at its own making."
What the ballad collection provides, at least at face value, is a very rare and wonderful set of songs that thanks to Place we know were in circulation in the late eighteenth century, that might, were it not for Place’s manuscript, be lost forever.
In fact, this is not entirely the case. There are a number of songs here that, as Place claims, seem to have disappeared entirely, songs such as “Then who would work and not go a thieving” and “The Girls of True Blue” have been hard to trace and may remain forever unknown. But others, such as “Jack Hall” and “Gee Ho Dobbin” continue to be sung, and have rich and robust performance histories. Still others are songs which Place records that were sung in London in the eighteenth century and can be substantiated by printed broadsides, but which are now unknown.
Place’s collection then, doesn’t necessarily represent a repertoire of song that would otherwise have died out, but what it does provide is a rich repository of songs that we know – because Place attests it – were actually performed and known in late eighteenth-century London. That is a tremendously useful thing for two reasons. Firstly, because we never quite know what we’re looking at when we look at broadside ballads. We have a sense that these are songs that may have been sung (if only by ballad sellers trying to sell the ballad sheet) but rarely do we have direct evidence that they in fact were. Place confirms that at least these ballads were indeed sung – and sung so memorably or so frequently that Place could still recall them forty years later.
The second reason the collection is useful is because scattered throughout his manuscript Place also gives us some clues about how and where the songs were sung. Consider for example Place’s comment above the song “Bowl Away”:
“This was the title (I believe) of a song which I remember was sung by two women at the end of Swan Yard opposite Somerset House in the Strand, every evening. They had two or three others also which were sung in rotation. There was always a considerable crowd of fools idlers and pickpockets to hear them. There were many such groups in different parts of London and in proportion to the vileness of the songs and the flash manner of singing them was the applause the singers received.”
For all the condescension, Place provides us with some rare and important details not only about the songs themselves, but about where they were sung, how they were sung, who they were sung by, who was in the audience, and what the audience’s reaction was. This is gloriously rich detail for imagining the songs’ performance contexts.
These ballads appear among the papers Francis Place collected and organized and which form part of the 96-volume set of papers which Place left to the British Museum, archiving the life of the working people in the early nineteenth century. In fact, though he didn’t see it in quite these terms, Place’s archives document the death of the skilled artisanal classes of late eighteenth-century London as they became displaced by the “working class”—a class identity born of the industrial revolution. His papers contain commonplace books, an autobiography, large amounts of newspaper cuttings relating to various political campaigns, "A Narrative of Political Events in England, 1830-1835," a history of the drama, collections relating to the repeal of laws against combinations of workmen, 1734-1826, collections relating to political societies, notes for a biography of Thomas Spence, Papers of the London Corresponding Society, and so on.
Among these papers there is a 6-volume sequence relating to “Morals, Manners and Grossness” which seeks to trace the improvements in society at large that Place has witnessed during his own lifetime. These include notes on drunkenness, poverty and its attendant vices (beggars and lotteries), notes on trials, crimes, prisons, Tyburn Fair, juvenile delinquency, education, modes of traveling, the fine arts, manufactures, and medicine. It’s within this sequence that the ballad collection is placed, and there’s clearly a political agenda here, one that Place repeated when called before a Parliamentary committee on Education in 1835: “I remember, when a boy of 10 years of age, being at a party of 20, entertained at a respectable tradesman’s, who kept a good house in the Strand, where songs were sung which cannot now be more than generally described from their nastiness, such as no meeting of journeymen in London would allow to be sung in the presence of their families.” His point, which he reiterated throughout much of his life was that if left without the interference of well-meaning law-makers, working men and women would naturally improve themselves. Indeed, they were already doing it, as he himself could attest, so legislation was unnecessary.
That songs should be considered a key index of this improvement is perhaps a little surprising, but it was a belief that Place held firmly and repeated over several decades, in his ballad collection, in his evidence before the Parliamentary Committee on Education, and indeed in his autobiography, in which he provided details of the singing that occurred at his father’s public house, the King’s Arms:
Some of these songs sung by respectable tradesmen who spent their evening in my fathers parlour, were very gross, yet I have known the parlour doors thrown wide open, that whoever was in the bar and the Tap room might hear every word. They were sung with considerable humour by men who were very much excited; every one within hearing was silently listening, and at the conclusion of the song expressed their delight by clapping their hands and rapping the tables. (Autobiography 58-9)
Place was well positioned to know the kinds of songs that could be heard sung about the streets in central London in the 1780s. His manuscript and testimony provide rare detail of the culture of song that could be heard in alehouses and taverns, and on the streets outside these places. There is good reason to be suspicious of Place’s motivations in recording the songs, and reasons to be suspicious, too, of the accuracy of his memory, but there is no reason that Place should make up these details, even if in so doing he deliberately emphasizes the more bawdy and scurrilous songs that he could remember.
The primary motivation in creating The Francis Place Ballad Project is to make this rare and wonderful manuscript more widely available. It will be helpful to anyone interested in the history of song in London, whether they are cultural historians or musicians. We have tried to give as much detail on individual songs as we’ve been able to find (although in a couple of cases there is too much information to be fully annotated), though without providing overly-determining readings of the songs, the interpretation of which is left up to the reader. Where appropriate, we have included information about more recent recordings of these songs, so you can hear them performed. The hope is that by making this resource widely available we can give the songs a new lease of life, and more recordings will become available. Please do get in touch if you have recorded one of these songs and we’ll update the site periodically to include new recordings. Similarly, if you uncover information about any of the songs that you think should be included in the site, let us know.
For consistency's sake we have standardized the use of footnotes, with Arabic numerals (1,2,3 etc.) referring to editorial notes; these are to be differentiated from Place's notes, which are rendered as Roman numerals (i, ii, iii etc.) regardless of the footnote style Place himself used.
We have retained Place's original spellings throughout, except in the case of the contractions "I'll" "we'll" "you'll" which Place frequently but inconsistently renders as "I'l" we'l" "you'l" etc. We have used double-L to avoid confusion.
It has been impossible to render many of Place's corrections and amendments accurately in typographic form, so many corrections have been accepted without attempting to reproduce Place's precise annotation style, which can be seen in the photography of the manuscript. We have, however, attempted to show crossings out, as these frequently reveal interesting insights into the process of remembering the songs.
inewman (at) nd.edu
Editor: Ian Newman
Managing editor: Trish Bredar
Site design: Elicia Dennis
Huge thanks to the British Library for allowing us to reproduce Place’s manuscript on this site. Thanks to the University of Notre Dame for providing funds to make this site possible.
 Select Committee on Education in England and Wales, June 1835, p. 69.