A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
48: Popular literature in the 18th century
All classes throughout Devon had access to a wide range of popular literature, much of which has disappeared without trace. Perhaps the type with the most lurid appeal is gallows literature. Some 25 examples of execution broadsheets for 18th century Exeter have been traced (Maxted 1983b) many of them produced by Elizabeth Brice, a producer of particularly shoddy pieces of printing. In 1783 she published an account of no less than seven malefactors executed at Heavitree on 29 August.
Printers claimed to go to a great deal of effort to obtain authentic accounts. In April 1752 Andrew Brice explained in Brice's weekly journal why he had been unable to satisfy the public in providing them with details of the execution of William Jennings. He had received a message directed to his printing office in Northgate Street from the condemned man with the words "I beg to see you this afternoon, as soon after dinner as you can". He accordingly went to the prison where he found the prisoner together with the chaplain and the warder. Jennings informed him that he had been recommended to him as the proper printer of what he had drawn up, to be published after he had been dispatched. The chaplain urged the prisoner not to be hasty and to avoid maliciousness. Jennings was agitated that the whole truth might not be told but said that he would send for Brice on the following day. The next day Brice was handed the confession but as soon as he had put it in his pocket the warder burst out violently "Mr. Brice, I'd have you take care what you do. I'd not be in your coat for 500l. And I'll acquaint Mr. (mentioning a name) this minute ..." Brice replied "Why, I pray? What concern has he in this case? Besides, do you take me for a fool or madman, that I know not what I have to do in my own affairs?". As the prisoner looked apprehensive, Brice gave in to a request from the warder "Pray, Mr. Brice, let me have the paper, and you shall have it again tomorrow morning."
On his way home Brice met with one of the chief officers who offered him the opportunity to ride in the coach with the prisoner to the place of execution. He arrived at the gaol and was present while the chaplain ministered to the prisoner, assuming that the confession would be handed over at the foot of the gallows. The crush of the crowd prevented him from boarding the coach but he managed to reach the gallows in time. Just as the wretched prisoner was about to ascend the ladder Brice forced his way through the crowd and asked for the paper "Ah! Sir", said the condemned man "I am very sorry I have given you so much trouble but Mr. ... has got it, and you must apply to him for having it."
Brice was displeased, the more so when he discovered that the gentleman referred to had never received the paper and his subsequent tirade in his newspaper casts interesting sidelights on the role of the printer in producing this form of literature. When ministers visited condemned prisoners and urged them to make a full confession this was regarded as part of their penance. But for Brice it was not enough that it be made "clandestinely or in hugger-mugger, but in order to its being dispers'd abroad in print". Although the chaplain put the condemned into a proper frame of mind to make his confession, it was normally left to the printer or one of his agents to take it down in writing or, if the prisoner chose to write it himself the minister would give it to the printer. At times Brice was able to persuade the prisoner when the chaplain could not, and one of the main arguments he used was "that it being to be published [sic], it was probably the best amends or restitution, he could in his circumstances make to an injured and offended world in general, and it might be so drawn up as to tend to the correction and edification, as well as information, of numbers, even at a distance." The public, thought Brice, had a right to expect a confession, something more important to him than his "righteous gain".
Whether sincerely or not Brice saw the production of these broadsheets as a public duty and was quick to attack those whom he saw as capitalising on the execution. As a footnote to The confessions or declarations of John Price executed in 1737 he wrote: "As people are impatient at waiting long for such papers as this present, and others are usually published by other hands under the false pretence of being dying speeches, I am persuaded to publish this half sheet as ´tis; which shall be follow'd with the speeches, &c. at the execution with all speed possible." Indeed for a time Brice gave up the unequal struggle of competing with these unscrupulous rivals. He claimed: "We should be asham'd of appearing as t'were in common, and in that respect as on a level with the sorry grubs who now scandalously swarm here; such wretched ones are they for authors, however either of them may be qualified as a worthy printer's journeyman!" Brice avers that the most illiterate criminal would be ashamed to have "such nonsense and false English charged upon him even when he is going to the gallows". "The bulk of populace, incapable of making due distinction, buy them as the real last dying words of malefactors, at their very execution-place, even before they are turn'd off the ladder." He abhors such practices and after a stirring crescendo announces to the reader of his paper: "The world is therefore requested, in justice, to take notice, that of the three several grubaean papers, which will probably issue from as many presses tomorrow here, and the same day be cry'd perhaps fifty miles remote, Andrew Brice has nothing of his writings in either one" unless, he adds derisively, "a modest young spack, according to his wonted knack of plagiarism, slaps in some embellishing sentences or so, borrow'd from my former publications.
This statement reveals incidentally how much of this ephemeral material must be lost. Brice indicates that there were at that time three presses in Exeter beside his own but no other active printer is recorded from the evidence of surviving imprints in the early 1750s. Possible candidates are Joseph Drew and one of the Farleys, perhaps Mark, known to have been active in the late 1740s, and Thomas Brice, Andrew's "pushing nephew", who was printing later in the 1750s.
Brice's vituperation did not kill all of these dubious practices. Even as late as 1866, when one might have expected better communications to have made people more aware of current events, a broadsheet embellished with a crude woodcut appeared entitled Execution of Mrs. Winsor at Exeter, for the barbarous murder of Mary Jane Harris's child. A rough and ready job had been done on the woodcut which seems to have depicted a gallows for a mass execution. The central section had been excised and an amorphous blob on the end of a line did duty for the Torquay baby farmer who was to be hanged. Some hastily concocted verses described inter alia that:
Those children belong to some poor girl
That had been lead astray
Mrs. Winsor would take them to nurse
As long as they would pay.
She would murder them - yes, strangle them
For this paltry gain,
By putting them between beds
Or pressing the jugular vein.
And it goes on to relate that "when culprit and hangman stood side by side a fearful yell rose from the assembled crowd, and the excitement only ceased when the culprit, who struggled but little, ceased to exist." The printer should have been less hasty. According to Cossins (p.40-1) she was respited twice and eventually sentenced to penal servitude for life. The grave was dug, the gallows were erected and Calcraft the hangman came down to Exeter twice but Winsor was never hanged.
Another incident merited a stop-press alteration. When sixteen year old Rebecca Downing was burned at Heavitree on 29 July 1782 for poisoning her master Richard Jarvis, this unusual form of punishment fell outside the repertoire of stock descriptions which the hack writer could draw on in advance, so seven lines were inserted after the event by the printer Elizabeth Brice to give all the gruesome details of the wretched girl's final moments in The life, character, confession, and dying behaviour of Rebecca Downing.
That these broadsheets were often produced in advance is confirmed by an incident when two Tiverton men were hanged in Exeter on 24 August 1827. A blind fiddler, armed with a stock of sheets, fancied he heard the bolts being drawn and began calling out the last dying speech. He was soon alerted to his mistake when the boy who lead him about gave him a nudge, saying "They b'eant off 't!" (Cossins, 39-40).
A strange case is presented by a broadsheet bearing the imprint "J.Catnach, printer, 2 & 3, Monmouth-court, 7 Dials" which relates The life, trial and execution of Mary White. Mary White, aged 19, was executed at Exeter for the murder of her master and mistress, although protesting her innocence. Smith, one of her admirers, who was a spectator, stung with guilt and horror, rushed through the crowd, exclaiming "I am the murderer!" and delivered himself into the hands of justice. The details in the broadsheet are circumstantial. The execution is helpfully dated "Saturday last", the murdered couple kept the "large inn at Exeter", White is an appropriate name for injured innocence and Smith is sufficiently anonymous. Unfortunately for Catnach, Cossins gives a full list of executions in Exeter from 1795 to 1877 and there is none named White. In fact it is a prime example of Catnach's catchpenny items.
Such bogus material (or 'cocks', as the running patterers of Henry Mayhew's day termed them) was not confined to execution broadsheets. The case of the cannibals of Clovelly can serve as an example. The history of John Gregg, and his family of robbers and murderers is preserved in an eight-page chapbook in the Pearse Chope collection at Bideford. It is anonymous and without imprint but can probably be assigned to the later eighteenth century. It reports how the Gregg family took up their abode in a cave near Clovelly on the north coast of Devon where they lived twenty-five years without visiting any town or city. During this time they robbed above one thousand persons, and ate the corpses of all those whom they robbed. They were eventually discovered and the king himself came with 400 men to hunt them out. Their cave was discovered containing "such a multitude of arms, legs, thighs, hands and feet, of men, women and children hung up in rows, like dry'd beef and a great many lying in pickle". John's charming family, consisting of his wife, eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grand-sons and fourteen grand-daughters begotten by incest were taken to Exeter and next day conducted under a strong guard to Plymouth where they were executed without trial.
It has been suggested by A.D.Hippisley Coxe in The cannibals of Clovelly: fact or fiction (Bideford, 1981) that this unlikely tale could have been concocted to keep local inhabitants away from caves used by smugglers, and the area around Bideford and Clovelly was indeed a hotbed of smuggling. Doubt must be cast on this when it is learned that the same tale appears in a number of chapbooks as The legend of Sawney Beane which places the scene of the action in Galloway. It is longer than the Clovelly version which is clearly derived from Sawney Beane, the printer having cut the text to fit the space available. In fact the tale of Sawney Beane is first recorded in 1734 in A general and true history of the lives and actions of the most famous highwaymen ... by Captain Charles Johnson, a pseudonym of Daniel Defoe who had visited north Devon in his Tour through the whole island of Great Britain where in 1714 he reported of the area that he "could not find any foreign commerce, except it be what we call smuggling". It must remain conjectural where the Clovelly version was produced. It may well be in the West of England as the compositor, taking care to change the names of places and persons, substitutes a journey of fifty miles from Exeter to Plymouth, where the execution took place - a hazardous undertaking with a band of hardened cannibals - for the two-mile stroll from Edinburgh to Leith which is mentioned in the original, betraying little familiarity with the geography of Scotland.
Such minor amendment of an existing chapbook could be made by the printer to fit his copy as he composed it, but the authorship of most ephemeral material is uncertain. Exeter must have had its Grub Street as well as London but much of the material must certainly have been written by the printer himself or, as Brice suggests, by his journeymen. The Brice family seem to have had a particular flair for this and actually signed some of their poetic endeavours.
A typical example is Thomas Brice's Address of thanks from the English virgins of sixteen to the Hon. Charles-James Fox, for his zeal to obtain an amendment of the Marriage-Act, to enable females to marry at sixteen and males at eighteen. Put into rhyme by their typographical amanuensis, Thomas Brice. (Exeter: T.Brice). It dates from 1781 when the reform of the marriage laws was under consideration and is consists of eight stanzas of rumty-tumty stuff decoratively laid out in two columns within a frame of printer's flowers. It begins:
Thou dear dearest Charles Fox,
Whose firm courage no shocks
Of grey-bearded prejudice awe;
Warmest thanks now receive
From all girls whose breasts heave
For marriage according to law
Its mildly risqué verses include references to the Earl of Hardwicke, who as Lord Chancellor drew up the Marriage Act of 1754:
What foul fiend could advise
A learn'd statesman so wise
As Hardwicke, that mirror of law,
To oppose nature's rules,
And condemn her best tools
To idle according to law?
And it ends on an ironic note:
Then the havoc of law
Royal George need not fear;
With subjects the land shall o'erflow
We'll promote generation
For the good of the nation,
And get soldiers according to law
The marriage acts continued to exercise the wits of Exeter for some time as indicated by an advertisement under the heading "matrimony" in the Exeter flying post in July 1784:
Several boarding school misses, who are Wards of Chancery, who never hope to be married according to the strict laws of the Court of Celibacy, and who are in the wishing age of husbandising, offer themselves for better for worse to any sprightly young fellows of genteel address and good family, who have no fortunes, and who are willing to take a trip to Scotland, to Ireland, to America, or, in short, to any part of the world. If no better offers, they are resolved to go off with the dancing-master, the writing-master, the music-master, the drawing-master, or even with a footman, in cases of necessity. Apply at No. 2, in Non-Preservative Grove, Anti-Virgin Terrace, in most parts of England. N.B. Bring the marriage act in your pocket, a wedding-ring, and a close cap or two.
This indicates a London origin since houses were not numbered in Exeter at that date, and it may have been copied from a spoof advertisement which had found its to the printer's shop.
Brice had previously tried his hand at putting into verse an extract from the London Gazette of 2 December 1780 in his Remonstrance of the American officers and doubtless a number of the anonymous pieces were his. particularly those with political content, such as The Dutch answer to the British manifesto, a quarter sheet of verse which probably appeared in 1781 and seems quite sympathetic to the Dutch. Whoever the authors, political comment was seldom far away in such poetical effusions and the authors must have assumed that their readers would have a fair degree of interest in, if not knowledge of, events in the world outside Devon.
More than one fifth of eighteenth century single sheet items produced in Devon are totally in verse, perhaps an indication that the broadsheets would be declaimed to an audience by the running patterer or chaunter, or read aloud by the subsequent purchaser. This verse includes much political literature, some of it highly controversial. In 1754, for example, Mark Farley was sentenced to one year's imprisonment for printing a seditious song on the anniversary of the Pretender's birthday (Jenkins 1806, 207). At times the verses form only part of the broadsheet and are followed by an explanation of the events which had inspired them. Several sheets on Rodney's naval campaigns in the early 1780s are examples of this. Rodney's complete victory over the French fleet, a half sheet printed by Thomas Brice in 1782, has sixteen four-line stanzas in two columns in the top half of the sheet in which Jove announces to the gods that he will assist Britannia to remain queen of the seas. The political jibes sit awkwardly with the Olympian imagery. In one stanza Jove declaims:
Take stout Hercules with you and charge him to scour
From wrong'd Britain its Augean filth;
Thro' Shelburne and Rockingham then I'll restore
To my island its glory and wealth
The lower half of the sheet proceeds to explain in some detail the allusions in the verses to Rodney's defeat of the French off Dominica on 12 April 1782 with details of the ships in the French and English fleets, often with the numbers of their guns given.
Other poetry appears to be more purely sentimental in tone. There are half a dozen slip songs recorded for the 1780s each with a crude woodcut heading the verses on the strip of paper. They include such plaintive offerings as The Maid's lamentation on the loss of her shepherd which appeared in 1782 with a woodcut of a shepherdess, and dating from about 1785 a fragment of a slip song probably entitled The lamenting shepherd. In 1790 the same theme of lost love was being elaborted in The Young Maid's complaint for the loss of her shepherd.
Yet even these songs often had the background of current events. The sorrowful lamentation of Miss Sarah West which appeared in 1782 has as its background the naval campaigns of Rodney. It is explained that she "lost her life with her sweetheart on board the formidable man of war commanded by the brave Rodney". A few years later the new penal settlement in Australia forms the background to Botany Bay, a new song, and has as its first line "My dear girl, I'm safe landed at Botany Bay". Other songs in the same format are more purely patriotic as instanced by Rodney triumphant and France humbled which appeared in 1782 with a woodcut of a sailing ship.
Popular sentimental literature could appear in prose too, as for example Beauty's admirer; or, the lover in Cupid's snare. The printer, probably Elizabeth Brice in about 1783 to judge by the apology for typographical style, explains: "The following is a copy of a letter sent by Mr. W... to Miss S... upon seeing her at the Theatre".
Among the most widespread items of printed literature were the almanacks which were produced annually with their calendrical, astrological and practical information. The Stationers' Company of London had a patent for these but it is not surprising that others made attempts to produce and distribute this very popular class of literature illegally. The south west was particularly active in such grant infringements and a number of Chancery lawsuits survive. The Exeter printer Joseph Bliss together with Tomas Bunce was defendant in a Chancery case in 1716 in which The wandering Jew's most wonderful prophecy is mentioned. In the following year another Chancery case concerned The antient lady revived and in 1718 Bliss is linked as a defendant with Edward Farley of Bristol in a case concerning The country gentleman's yearly director and Mrs Partridge's predictions. In 1719 Andrew Brice, of Exeter was also involved with a Bristol printer Henry Greep as a co-defendant against the Stationers' Company. The Company pursued two Devon hawkers, John Pearce of Barnstaple and John Browne of South Molton in 1719 in a case concerning Mrs Partridge's predictions. In 1726 Andrew Brice was again in trouble, this time with the King's Printer John Baskett. This was the last case for some years in a flurry of litigation which also involved the Plymouth printer William Kent, co-defender with Stephen Quintum in a 1716 Chancery case over England's new year's gift.
Whether religious tracts can be included under the term popular literature is open to discussion. Nevertheless they were distributed widely in the course of the 18th century, largely because of the activities of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, founded in 1698. The south west was prominent in the early years of the SPCK. Richard King of Exeter was one of the signatories on 19 April 1699 of a statement which included the preamble that "whereas the growth of vice and immorality is greatly owing to the gross ignorance of the principles of the Chritstian religion, wee whose names are underwritten do agree to meet together ... to consult ... how we may be able by due and lawful methods to promote Christian knowledge". Methods included the distribution of religious publications and the collecting of funds to promote work in the plantations overseas. A correspondent was soon established in Totnes, where Richard Burscough accepted the position on 20 January 1699. In the same year Burscough published A discourse of schism: addressed to those dissenters who conform'd before the toleration and have since withdrawn themselves from the communion of the Church of England. This was printed in London and sold by Charles Yeo bookseller in Exeter. In 1701 Burscough had to issue A vindication of a discourse of schim ... in answer to a letter lately published against it. This was printed by Samuel Farley in Exeter. Burscough was therefore keen to use the press himself to promote what he saw as the correct interpretation of christian doctrine.
In Pelynt Nicholas Kendall accepted the post of correspondent to the SPCK on 20 January 1699, while in Plymouth John Gilbert was their correspondent by 1700. Thomas Bray (1656-1730) the clergyman and philanthropist was a leading light in this movement. His works were widely distributed and he was instrumental in establishing some eighty parochial libraries in England and others in America. John Gilbert reported from Plymouth on 23 April 1700 that Dr Bray had left £5 to a library at Plymouth, the mayor had subscribed a further £5 and that more subscriptions were expected.
Richard King was appointed lay correspondent for Exeter in September 1700, on 17 October George Drake was appointed clerical correspondent for Exeter and on 9 December Dr John Osmond a physician was appointed as a lay correspondent. On 6 November 1700 Drake wrote from Exeter of the opposition from the Bishop to the work of societies in the diocese, an attitude that is reported from other correspondents in the region during these early years. In the same letter he requested a quantity of the works of Dr Bray for distribution. On 21 March 1701 Dr Osmund desired to receive "more of Dr Bray's packets which are mightily liked in those parts" and on 20 May the correspondents in Exeter expressed their willingness to proceed with parochial libraries. They regretted that there were no charity school in the city at that time. (Chope 1921).
Besides wanting to be shocked by execution broadsheets, informed by political tracts and almanacks, touched by slip songs and elevated by religious tracts, the public also wanted to be amused and the printers were able to supply them with a wide range of humorous material. To modern eyes the most amusing aspect appears to be the names of the characters. In The new mystery and art of gossiping printed in about 1783 by Thomas Brice, "in Goldsmiths'-Street; where travellers and shopkeepers may be supplied" we meet Mrs. Chitchat, Ruth Keepcounsel, Madam Prateapace, Peg Babtongue and Johnny Smellsmock. This was an eight-page half-sheet. In June 1782 Brice produced a half-sheet of mock-dramatic text printed in two columns on one side of the sheet entitled The duellists, a farce, performed at the Theatre real, in Heavitree, last Monday in which the dramatis personae are "Nicholas Notchcheek a barber, and James Jockeywell a groom, boxing, attended by Matthew Muffin and Barnaby Burncake, two bakers, and a crowd of devout worshippers of Saint Monday". Both items are peepshows into the daily life of the common sort in the gin-shop or in the street. The women in the chapbook are introduced as follows:
"These gossips, being neighbours, in summer sit at their door for a little gape-seed. One has a stocking to knit, another a clout to stitch; another stands with a child in its blankets at noon, the turd and piss running down her apron. Six such thrifty wives being assembled, they adjourn to the gin-shop and call for a quartern apiece."
Both items include quarrels or fights and the women have little to learn from the men in this: "Why, you brazen-face whore, you won't have the impudence to tell me so to my face" says one of these delighful creatures "Rot you, I'll maul you. Come out here." and soon they were flying at each other "tooth and nail: all the women got together by the ears; helter-skelter from one to another. The battle continued many hours."
This type of description is aimed at the common people who would be able to identify gleefully with many of the events described, not at the gentry or more respectable sort, who would find the coarse exchanges distasteful. Even the occasional use of dialect would appeal to the country folk as well as having an appearance of quaintness for the better sort, as in the case of the Exmoor scolding, in the propriety and decency of Exmoor language which ran into many editions, or the broadsheet A dialogue about the hairy man, which passed last Saturday between Goody Goosecap, Gaffer Coldpoll, and Farmer Slyfox, at Ide near Exeter published about 1785. This broadsheet starts as follows:
Goosecap. Lud... Clodpoll, be you alive? Why, es hired the Hairy Man had a eat ye up.
Clodpoll. No. (thank mercy) es ban't eat yet; tho' (vath!) es was vorc'd to run vor't.
Goosecap. Tell us a bit about et then.
Clodpoll. You must know, last yeaveling, just in the dimmet, es was coming home vrom Affington; and passing by the Quillets, es zot down to rest a bit. By and by there was a cnvounded shaking in the hadge. Es tjort upon the Hairy Man directly, and looking toward the bushes, there's zeed en; and a woundy monstrous gert valla a was. A cou'dn't be less than vourteen or vifteen voot high, wi' a beard a voot long. 'Tes no wonder hatha devour'd zo many cattle in the neabourhood; vor, by the little zeert I cou'd zet in en, I zeed plain enou' hes teeth was zo long as my vingers. Howsomdever, I thort thinks I to myzel, 'twon't do to stand zitting here; zo es ros'd up and vall'd a running as vast as es lie legs to ground. How es got home es can't tell; but I'll gi'e en my word, a shan't catch me out agen a'ter dark vor,one while."
The burlesque elections which took over the inoffensive village of Ide, just outside Exeter after the parliamentary elections catered for a wider public than the elections proper, and so lucrative was election time for the printers that they seized upon the custom as an excuse to provide a parallel set of broadsheets. Thus in one of the earliest surviving broadsheets the votes of the legal freemen of the antient borough of Ide were solicited in favour of Capt. Billy MacPhool and A----w Baboon, a French gambler. "The election will come on the first day of April o. s. ... The friends of the candidates are desired to assemble on the day of election near the Dunsford Turnpike ... Carts &c. will be provided by Aminadab Prigg and Orator Shitten-Tent to accommodate such of Messrs. MacPhool's and A----w Baboon's friends as cannot mount hobby-horses ... Dated at Mount Vanity, Monday March the 30th, 1761." There are parallels to these mock elections in other parts of the country. William Hone describes the Garrat elections near Wandsworth in Surrey, although these died out after 1796. In Exeter the Ide elections and their accompanying literature lasted from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century
It is clear from the above examples that Devon printers were cultivating a market among the labouring classes in the towns and countryside, taking advatage of a wider reading public than earlier in the century.
This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.