Flash Ballads

Place's ballad collection has been noted for the extensive use of flash language or cant verse, a kind of street slang that has origins in sixteenth-century thieves cant, but which evolved to become a well-known sub-culture demonstrating a showy display of insider knowledge by the nineteenth century when it appeared in relatively mainstream works such as Pierce Egan's Life in London and in the historical novels of William Harrison Ainsworth. Though by no means universal in this collection, several ballads make use of this fascinating vocabulary, namely:

A Kiddy Boy From Broad St Giles

Brick Dust Nan

Drunk the Other Night

Jack Chance

Sandman Joe

Teddy Blink and Bandy Jack

The Frolicsome Spark

The Jolly Butcher

The Rolling Kiddy O

Tom the Drover Or the Brindled Bull

To The Hundreds of Drury I Write

With My Popps in My Pocket

Ye Scamps, Ye Pads, Ye Divers

Young Morgan

Place provides definitions for much of the cant lexicon, and I have provided others, as necessary. There are a number of useful dictionaries of flash terms. I have depended heavily on the online Green's Dictionary of Slang. A more contemporary source can be found in Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, which was later edited and amended by Pierce Egan whose work Life in London breathed new life to flash vocabulary in the 1820s.

The scholarly authority on flash language is Julie Coleman's A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries 4 vols (Oxford University Press, 2008-10). Much of the critical conversation around flash language has focused on the "authenticity" of various sources. Broadly speaking we can observe that at various historical junctures this language was made use of by people who were recognized as criminals, and there exists a number of sources that authenticate this including most notably the confessions of James Hardy Vaux, a relatively well-born gentleman, who was transported to the penal colonies in Australia three times, and whose memoirs were published by John Murray in 1819 along side a "Dictionary of Criminal Slang". Another attestation to the use of slang can be found in The Confessions, &c. Of Thomas Mount, Who was executed at Little-Rest, in the State of Rhode-Island, on Fri­day, the 27th day of May, 1791, for Burglary. Mount was born in East Jersey in around 1764 and moved around America. His confession provides testimony to the fact that flash language had currency in the US as well as in London.This work was published in Portsmouth in New Hampshire in around 1791, as part of a last request made by Thomas Mount. It provides details of the language used by criminals, and (like Vaux) provides a dictionary of more common terms, as well as providing lyrics to songs that made use of cant -- several of which are the same of those remembered by Place.

The editor of Mount's Confession, William Smith, wrote in a preface: 

"Some years ago there was in England a company of foot-pads and highway-men, connected to­gether under certain laws and regulations, having a language (and books printed in that language) pe­culiar to themselves, called the Flash Company,—a similar gang of plunderers has infested the United-States ever since the late war; and almost all the persons who have been hanged of late in North-America, have belonged to this company. Of this company are the two convicts Thomas Mount and James Williams, now lying in Newport gaol under sentence of death, for burglary. Both of these are noted villains, as well by legal evidence as their own confession; and were there no others, these were sufficient to contaminate all the unwary youth up­on the continent, and to deprive the good people of these States of one of the highest blessings of heaven, that of sitting quietly under their vine and under their fig-tree and none to make them afraid."

There is good evidence, then, to suggest that flash language was genuinely used by thieves throughout the English speaking world. However, not all of the flash ballads remembered by Place can be traced to this source. The idea of a criminal cant so appealed to authors that several of the ballads Place remembered can be attributed to more elevated social classes. The song "To The Hundred of Drury I write," for example, first appeared in print in a newspaper on the occasion of Jack Sheppard's execution in 1724. The song "Ye Scamps, Ye Pads, Ye Divers" was written for a Covent Garden pantomime in 1781. "Brick Dust Nan" was written by George Alexander Steevens as a parody of a poem by Nicholas Rowe. Whether it makes sense to think of these different sources in terms of their "authenticity" is a different question, as clearly part of the appeal of flash language was its performative nature and its explicit engagement in showy artificiality and bravado. And the evidence supplied by Place allows us to say with some certainty that this artifice appealed to the gentlemen who dined in the elegant surroundings of the Crown and Anchor tavern (where they sang Sandman Joe), as much as it did to the criminal underworld with which cant language is most often associated.