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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

James Catnach, Ballad-monger, Part 1

(* I was digging around for information on James "Jemmy" Catnach yesterday and found a very handy summary of his life in the Newcastle Courant (23 May 1879). Rather than try to create a new biography, as the main source of information is the same as the book summarised here, I thought I'd reprint the whole piece—I'm a faster typist than researcher! I've added a few paragraphs to the original to make reading easier and a few minor notes for clarity.)

Within recent date, Mr Chas. Hindley, of Rose Hill, Brighton, has published "The Life and Times of James Catnach (late of the Seven Dials, London), Ballad-monger, &c., illustrated with 230 woodcuts, of which 42 are by Thomas Bewick. Reeves and Turner, London." Catnach literature being coincident with illustrated nursery stories, lampoons, the fraternity of last-dying-speech-and-confession oddities—as well as being closely allied to Alnwick and the district—we propose to summarise the leading features of Mr Hindley's book, which, combined with ancient and modern illustrations, is interesting and instructive throughout. We may further add that the work is dedicated to Mr George Skelly and Mr G. H. Thomson, of Alnwick, as a slight acknowledgment of many favours granted and assistance rendered in its production. Mr Mark Smith, Mr Thos. Robertson, and others, are named as giving invaluable information.

John Catnach, the father of James, was born at Burnt Island, Fifeshire, in 1769, and married Mary Hutchinson, of Dundee. The family afterwards removed to Edinburgh, then returned to Berwick-upon-Tweed, and began in a small way as a printer. In 1790, the business was removed to Alnwick, and during their abode there, seven children were born to the pair, the whole being duly registered in St. Michael's Church. The shop occupied by John Catnach adjoined the Half Moon, in Narrowgate Street, where he was favoured with an average support, and his printed specimens testified to his abilities and taste. He entertained great regard for the traditions and customs which for centuries had been closely associated with the Border country. Being naturally of a free-and-easy disposition, like many of his kinsmen in the locality, John was not long ere he became on familiar terms with his neighbours, and enamoured with the social glass. He was diligent in business, but was not of a saving turn. His ideas were considerably in advance of his means, and as profits increased, so he became more tenaciously wedded to extravagance and dissipation.

In 1807, John Catnach entered into partnership with William Davison, a chemist and druggist, from Newcastle. This union did not exceed two years, but the brief connection enabled Mr Davison to acquire valuable information into the Caxtonian art; and although reared to prescribing medicines, he had a fine relish for books, was of a speculating mind, and morally and socially the opposite of his partner. In conjunction, the pair employed Thomas Bewick, Clennell and other artists, who imparted the first impulse to wood engraving. About the end of 1809, Catnach removed to Newcastle, where he carried on printing for a short time, but change of scene and companions did not improve the man. From one bad extreme to another he rapidly drifted, business was neglected, debts accumulated, despair seized upon him, he became bankrupt, and was sent to gaol.

Clandestinely, before the climax, John contrived to grasp a small quantity of type and his wooden press, &c., which, with his wife and daughters, he despatched to London. His London life was equally disastrous. he made a start with his stock-in-trade, was constantly on the move, in dread of being distrained for rent; half starved, and in a sorry plight. In August, 1813, he had scarcely got his plant into working order when he fell and injured his leg, was seized with rheumatic fever, and died at St. George's Hospital on the 4th December, 1813.

Mr Mark Smith, a native of Alnwick, visited and aided the Catnachs in their distress, and with one of the daughters attended the hospital with the intention of following the remains of Catnach to the grave, but when they arrived they were informed that an accident had befallen the horse belonging to the hearse, and the funeral was postponed till the following day. Mr Smith was then unable to attend, and despite all subsequent inquiries, no discovery was ever made as to the burial place of the elder Catnach. There was, however, strong presumptive evidence, that the hospital authorities had taken a fancy to their patient as a "subject" for dissection. Thus one of the first embellishers of the books was destined to aid science in another sphere, and perhaps confer blessings on future generations.

James Catnach, the hero of our theme, was born at Alnwick on the 18th of August, 1792. He received a very indifferent education with Mr Goldie, was irregular in attendance, which materially blunted his intellect for the higher walks of literature. Mr Hindley states that James, in early life, contemplated devoting his time to rural pursuits; that, as a youth, he rusticated as a shepherd; that for days and nights together he roamed across the Northumberland moors and mountains, jotting down rhymes in a common-place book, and was charmed with pastoral scenes and sentimental reflections.
"The mouse who only trusts to one small hole,
Can never be a mouse of any soul,"
and doubtless thus thought James Catnach, for in the 22nd year of his age we find that he had inherited his father's limited assortments of type, wood-cuts, and the two-pull wooden press, and commenced business in a small back room at No. 2, Monmouth Court, Seven Dials.

The place was of the most ricketty description, and situated in the midst of filthy and pestiferous nuisances. Every pull of the press threatened destruction to the premises. The floor above was strengthened with beams, but at each vibration of the bar handle an old four-post bedstead rocked to and fro like a cradle. Of course, Jemmy was not too fastidious as to the beauty of his typography. He turned a deaf ear to the cry of shortness of sorts. In a sheet of 14in. by 8in. [inches], several founts of type were used in the same line—Roman, italic, antique, caps or small caps, anything to fill up. Crab and oyster shells were used to place quads or extras, whilst his cases were home-made and of the roughest kind. The wood-engravings were on a par with the other material, and altogether Jemmy's productions were ingenious specimens of typographical cobbling. Dickens, Douglas Jerrold, &c., have descanted upon Catnach's rendezvous, but we must content with quoting one extract from Chas. Knight's "London," as bearing more particularly on Catnach:—

"Seven Dials! the region of song and poetry—first effusions, and dying speeches. It was here that the late eminent Mr Catnach developed the resources of his genius and trade. It was Catnach who first availed himself of greater mechanical skill and a larger capital than had previously been employed in that department of the trade, to substitute for execrable tea paper blotched with lamp-black and oil, tolerably white paper and real printer's ink. It was Catnach who first conceived and carried into effect the idea of publishing collections of songs by the yard, and giving to purchasers, for the small price of one penny (in former days the cost of a single ballad), strings of poetry on every imaginable subject. Catnach was no ordinary man. He patronised original talents in many a bard of St. Giles's, and is understood to have accumulated the largest store of broadsides, last dying speeches, ballads, and other stock-in-trade of the flying-stationers, upon record."

Mr Hindley states that—

"A large part of the trade which James Catnach commenced in London in 1813-14, had for years previous to this been done in Scotland, as well as several parts of the North of England. Books of small histories, ballad poetry, and legends of remarkable places which were frequented by ghosts, fairies, hobgoblins, and the like, were printed in Caledonia long before the time of Robert Burns. In one his letters the poet says: 'But it was through the kindness of one of his early schoolmistresses that he first became acquainted with this particular kind of literature,' and there can be little doubt that he penned, when under the impulse of imagination, what Scott has styled his 'inimitable tale of Tam O'Shanter.'"

Catnach's mother and sisters were now entirely dependent upon him for support, and he threw all his energy and perseverance into the scale, determined that nothing should frustrate his success; and the result was, that in a few years he laid the foundations of a peculiar yet lucrative business.

James Catnach's manhood and characteristics were adapted to the times. Politics, party strife, squibs, lampoons, scramblings for place and power, seditions, conspiracies, riots, the Battle of Waterloo, trial of Queen Caroline, murders, virulent personalities, fabulous duels, cock-fighting, bull-baiting, fistiana, ghosts, daring feats of genteel highwaymen, smuggling, "cooked" assassinations, executions by the dozen, were the rule. Hence Catnach and his poets were never short of themes and "Sorrowful Lamentations," of which the following is a sample:—
"All you that have got feeling hearts, I pray you now attend
To these few lines, so sad and true, a solemn silence lend;
It is of a cruel murder, to you I will unfold—
The bare recital of the tale must make your blood run cold."
Sixty years ago the lowest price of daily newspapers was 7½d. [pence], whilst weeklies ranged up to a shilling. If Catnach cannot be claimed as an advocate for cheap newspapers, he undoubtedly comprehended the principal and adoption of liberty of the press. Jemmy was his own editor. He had poets and correspondents in all parts of the kingdom, so that when great fatalities occurred, alarming fires, births of monstrosities amongst bipeds or quadrupeds, collisions at sea or upsetting of mail coaches, families prostrated with small-pox or raging fevers, down to "a cow jumping over the moon," his penny awfuls were invariably decorated with sketches "taken on the spot, by special artists," who had miraculously escaped destruction "by the skin of their teeth."

He was not over particular whether the information received from his myrmidons was true or false at the commencement of his career, new or old; vamped up old materials, cribbed from ancient sources, and everything published was accompanied with poetical effusions by way of moral, inference, or sequel. None of his issues specified dates, and the localities were kept obscure.

As time wore on, Jemmy discovered he had a reputation to maintain, and a fortune to make, therefore it was necessary to keep the truth in his eye as closely as circumstances would permit. when trade was slack, and there was nothing which the cadgers could collar with safety, or hawkers sell at a profit, they would inquire of Catnach "if there was anything good or new in the murder line, by which they could turn an honest penny," for nothing paid so well as "a stunning good 'un." It would not do to be continually inventing fictitious murders, robberies, seductions, &c., for fear of "getting the house a bad name." Songs, "three yards for a penny," were always safe; but when doubtful stories were promulgated, Jemmy directed his patterers to work new districts far distant from where the direful deeds were supposed to originate.

There was no credit given by Catnach—"Pay to-day and trust to-morrow," "Down on the nail," were his watchwords. No returns of dead stock were permitted, Jemmy observing that "If they do not sell to-day, they will be quite as good and fresh to-morrow." During four summer months, some men would clear 7s [shillings] a day, but on an average 25s weekly. The authenticity of the issues was guaranteed by the hallowed beliefs of their forefathers, that "anything which appeared in print was sure to be true."

In the British Museum there is a collection of upwards of 4,000 ballads printed by Catnach in two folio volumes. Mistakes were occasionally made by Jemmy in hanging a man or woman too many, but this error was of small moment to the flying stationers. No parties dealing with Catnach ever handled anything but copper money, which was indeed filthy lucre. From dread of infection, and before the coins could be exchanged for notes or silver, it was necessary to boil them in strong decotions of soda and vinegar. Despite every care Jemmy took to avoid imposition, he received from the cadgers as many bad pennies as paved his back kitchen, which he embedded in plaster of Paris, fearing they might be stolen and again returned as genuine to his locker.

James Catnach and Mark Smith were bound apprentices to John Catnach on the same day, but owing to the removal of John to Newcastle, Smith concluded his term with Mr Walker of Paternoster Row, London. When the Catnachs arrived in the Metropolis, Mark Smith visited and frequently assisted them, and was an invaluable friend in their extremities. Messrs George Skelly, G. H. Thompson, James Horsley, Mark Smith, and Thomas Robertson, are now nearly all who remain of Jemmy Catnach's old associates. Mr Smith has been for upwards of half a century a bookseller in Alnwick, whilst Mr Robertson has for a similar period been an extensive cabinet maker at the same place. When these choice spirits were in London, they and others oft times assembled at Catnach's domicile, and Thomas Robertson, being possessed of an excellent voice, used to sing various tunes, whilst Catnach compiled poetic effusions. Numerous ballads were thus produced, and the words condensed or extended in order to "make them fit the tune." In case there was a hitch in the metre, Jemmy would say—"Sing that over again, Tom," and then the lines were dovetailed to the music, and declared suitable to the ear and the national taste. Mr Robertson still lives to recite with gusto these stories of his youthful days.

In 1826 there was a fierce Parliamentary contest for Northumberland between four candidates—Liddell, M. Bell. Beaumont, and Howick—when Mark Smith, expecting to be overpowered with work as a printer, James Catnach volunteered his services to assist during the busy time, in gratitude for the many favours received whilst Smith was in London. Catnach resided with Smith, worked early and late, wrote squibs, addresses, &c., which when collected, formed four volumes. It was at this period Catnach erected a tombstone at Alnwick, bearing the following inscription:—

Printer, died August 27th,
1794, Aged 5 years and 7 months.
London, 1813, Aged 44.
MARY, his wife, died Jany.
24th, 1826, Aged 60 years.
Also John, Margaret, and
Jane Catnach, Lie here."

Inasmuch as space compels us to postpone further notice of James Catnach from Mr Hindley's truly interesting work, we will conclude with a specimen in extenso of what may be anticipated in our next. The extract relates to one of Catnach's staff, well-known at the Seven Dials as "Tragedy Bill."

"No, my kind friends and relations, here you have, just printed and published, a full, true, and pertickler account of the life, trial, character, confession, behaviour, condemnation, and hexecution of that unfortunate malefactor, Richard Wilbyforce, who was hexecuted on Monday last—For the small charge of one ha'penny! and for the most horrible, dreadful, and wicked murder of Samuel—I mean Sarah Spriggins, a lady's maid, young, tender, and handsome. You have here every partickler, of that which he did, and that which he didn't. It's the most foul and horrid murder that ever graced the annals of British history. Here, my customers, you may read his hexecution on the fatal scaffold. You may also read how he met his wictim in a dark and lonesome wood, and what he did to her—For the small charge of a ha'penny! And you read how the ghost appeared to him and then to her parents. Then comes to capture of the willain; also the trial, sentence and hexecution, showing how the ghost was in the act of pulling his leg on one side, and the 'old gentleman' a pulling on the other, waiting for his wictim (good friends, fellow countrymen, and female women, excuse my tears) But has Shakspere says, 'murder most foul and unnatural,' but you'll find this more foul and unnatural than that or the t'other—for the small charge of a ha'penny! Yes, my customers, to which is added a copy of Serene and Beautiful werses, pious and immoral, as wot he wrote with his own blood and a skewer the night a'ter—I mean the night before his hexecution, addressed to young men and women of all sexes—I beg pardon, but I mean classes (my friends, it's nothing to laugh at), for I can tell you the werses has made three of the hard-heartedst things cry as never was—to wit, that is to say, namely—a overseer, a broker, and a policeman. Yes, my friends, I sold twenty thousand copies of them this here morning, and could a' sold twenty thousand more than that if I could of but kept from crying—only a ha'penny!—but—I'll read the werses:—
"Come all you blessed Christians dear,
__That's a tender, kind, and free,
While I a story do relate
__Of a dreadful tragedy
Which happen-ed in London town,
__And you shall all be told;
But when you hear the horrid deed
__'Twill make your blood run cold—
__________For the small charge of a ha'penny!

"'Twas in the merry month of May,
__When my true love I did meet;
She look all like an angel bright,
__So beautiful and sweet.
I told her I loved her much,
__And she could not say nay;
'Twas then I stung her tender heart,
__And led her all astray—
_______________________Only a ha'penny!

I brought her up to London town,
__To make her my dear wife,
But an evil spirit tempted me,
__And so I took her life;
I left the town all in the night,
__When her ghost in burning fire,
Saying, "Richard, I am still with you,
__Wherever you retire"—
_______________________Only a ha'penny!

And justice followed every step,
__Though often I did cry;
And the cruel judge and jury
__Condemned me for to die.
And in a cell, as cold as death,
__I always was afraid,
For Sarah she was with me,
__Although I killed her dead—
__________For the small charge of a ha'penny!

"My tender-hearted Christians,
Be warn-ed by what I say,
And never prove unkind or false
To any sweet la-dy.
Though some there be who wickedness
Oft leads 'em to go astray;
So pray attend to what you hear,
And a warning take, I pray—
_______All for the small charge of a ha'penny!"


Dave Morris said...

These pieces about Jemmy Catnach are winning out over Harry Hawkes's latest adventures for me this week. It's always fascinating to get a contemporary glimpse at another time, for both the similarities and differences.

Steve said...

Truth be told, David, I needed a weekend away from Bear Alley Books, as that's all I've been thinking about for weeks... hence the two AAARGH! articles over the weekend and time spent researching wherever the latter took me in relation to British comics.

Dave Morris said...

Steve - a change is as good as a rest, as they say, and I've certainly found these articles a big inspiration and a great creative re-charge to soak up with my morning cuppa :-)

Steve said...

You're right. I feel better for having taken a couple of day's break and have probably achieved more this week because of it. I thought the story of Jemmy Catnach was fascinating when I first heard about him (years ago in a book about these old broadsheet publishers) and it was fun putting together a few notes when I discovered his involvement in comics. Or "proto-comics" as they're not really comics -- a possible rule of thumb for a comic sans word balloons might be to take away all the text. If you can still follow the storyline, it's a comic. If you can't, it's just a series of illustrations.

Dave Morris said...

... which was also Alfred Hitchcock's litmus test to distinguish movies from television, apparently. He said audiences should still be able to follow a movie even without the soundtrack.

A bit of trivia: Random House's DFC comic was originally planned as a broadsheet. The idea was quickly dropped, and I think rightly as it'd be hard to take in the whole page at that size.