Chapter Three 2

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 3 – page 3


The Billy Barlow Broadsides


In Britain between the 16th and the 20th centuries, the song-sheets known as the broadside ballads were sold on the streets for a penny or a half-penny each. They were printed on one side with the words of a song, usually a note about the tune to be used, and sometimes an illustration printed from a woodcut. The picture often had little to do with the song that accompanied it, which makes for some rather startling observations when you study the broadsides that still exist in collections. Rarely was the author of the words credited. During the 19th century some broadsides were printed with two or more songs so that the seller could sell them separately or as one sheet. Many old and beautiful ballads and many interesting topical songs survived because of the broadsides. Some took on, or continued, a life of their own, slipping in and out of oral tradition.

The songs of the broadsides were variable, producing or preserving the very worst doggerel and the very best of songs. Most of the broadsides were discarded and lost. Disher says, without regret, that unknown numbers were pulped during the paper shortage caused by the First World War. A small number survived in private collections, either in their broadside form, or in more prestigious songbooks designed for the wealthy and produced by the same broadside printers. Some collectors of ballads, notably Professor Francis James Child, shunned the broadsides as worthless drivel. He said of collections of them,
” … veritable dunghills, in which only after a great deal of sickening grubbing, one finds a very moderate jewel.”

Child nonetheless includes in his collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, many broadside versions of traditional ballads. A few very lovely broadside ballads escaped his notice, among them Long A-growing.

The trees they do grow high and the leaves they do grow green
And many are he days my love since you and I have been
For it’s once I had a true love, but now he’s dead and gone
He’s a bonny lad but he’s long, long a-growing.

From Long A-growing. As taught to Joy by Hildebrand


Among the many British publishers of broadsides, James Catnach, in the area of London known as Seven Dials, stands out as one of the most interesting. He became a master of the lurid murder-ballad and other sordid or scandalous tales, stories that are now the domain of the tabloid press. He perfected the “goodnight ballad”. These were supposedly the last words — usually claimed to have been found on the floor of the cell — of a condemned man, written on the night before his execution. They gave an account of his life from his innocent childhood to his fall into a sinful life, ending either with a plea for forgiveness, or a defiant and unrepentant farewell. By careful planning, these broadsides could be printed and ready for sale from the very foot of the gallows tree on the day of the hanging.

And when I’m dead, going to my grave
A fine and flashy funeral let me have.
Get six bold highwaymen to carry me.
Give them broad swords, give them broad swords and sweet liberty.

Get six pretty maidens to carry my pall.
Give them white gloves, aye, and ribbons all.
And when I’m gone, you may tell the truth:
He was a bold young man, he was a bold young man, and a wicked youth.
From Newlyn Town as sung by Hildebrand.

James Catnach along with other British printers, many of them also with addresses in the Seven Dials, produced the Billy Barlow broadsides that now reside at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Many of them are the Billy Barlow song that begins:

When I was born says old Mother Goose,
“He is a fine boy but he’ll be of no use.”
My father he said that to church I should go,
And there had me christened Billy Barlow.
O dear lackaday O. &c.

The Catnach broadside of this Billy Barlow song has a picture of a Medieval jester at the top, probably just because the second verse is about Billy being labeled a fool when he goes to school, or maybe it’s just a random choice of woodcut. Tantalizing though, when Billy Barlow — or his direct ancestor — could so easily have spent some time as a court fool. There is no date on this, or any of the broadsides, and all that can be said about its age is that Catnach began his printing business in 1813 and continued it until 1838. This same version of Billy Barlow was printed by other printers, but the earliest of all except one of these could not have been printed before 1840. The one copy of this version, for which the date is completely unknown, is by a printer called J. Kiernan of Manchester.

Seven Dials printer T. Birt published three Billy Barlow songs between 1828 and 1829. They are:

  • Billy Barlow’s Wedding
  • Billy Barlow’s Wedding Miseries
  • Dicky Barlow – First Cousin to Billy Barlow.

They are all pretty awful, but their value lies in the fact that they indicate that Billy Barlow was already a well-known character before 1830. If Birt printed the “Mother Goose” version of Billy Barlow, it has been lost or is in hiding.

Catnach also printed Billy Barlow’s Wedding Miseries. He illustrated it, for no reason that can be ascertained by reading the text, with a woodcut of a man in a field beating(?) a donkey.

Billy Barlow’s Brother was in The Highland Songster, published by J. Pitts of Seven Dials, sometime between 1819 and 1844. It is unremarkable except that Billy was popular enough to be given a brother. Teddy Barlow vanished quickly, it seems.

The other Bodleian broadsides that are not of the “Mother Goose” type introduce Billy as an adult without mentioning his childhood. One, from an unknown printer, gives forty-five verses of actor Sam Cowell’s Billy Barlow. It begins:

Ladies and gentlemen how do you do!
I come here, you see, with one boot and one shoe;
Don’t know how it is but somehow ’tis so –
Now isn’t it hard upon Billy Barlow?
Oh , dear, raggedy, O!
Now isn’t it hard on poor Billy Barlow?

After the first eight verses there is a heading: Encore Verses. These are mostly topical, and were just some of the verses sung by Cowell at various times. Billy’s refrain is now, “Oh dear raggedy O!” The song shows the mark of a superior songsmith, although like all of Sam Cowell’s songs it depended on this actor’s extraordinary talent as a performer, and on contemporary knowledge of prominent people, as well as of poems and plays popular at the time. Few of anybody’s comic songs of the 19th century really work today. In the middle of this Billy Barlow song Billy describes a performance of the opera Sonnambula, which starred, at the time, the Irish-born Catherine Hayes. Cowell uses a pun and a simile of the types that colourfully pepper all of his songs:

….Catherine Hayes (sang) Sonnambula so well
That tears down my nose like great kidney beans fell.


Catherine Hayes is known to have shared the stage with tenor John Simms Reeves on occasion. He sang Billy Barlow as part of his popular repertoire, raising the possibility that Catherine Hayes may have met Billy Barlow. She may also have met him several times when he was played by Sam Cowell, George Coppin and other contemporary singers. She most likely didn’t sing the Billy Barlow song herself, more’s the pity.







A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)

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