Blakey and his friend, the publisher

editorial image

James Catnach (1792-1841) was a publisher of street literature. He was famous, or infamous, for publishing amongst other things the ‘last speeches and confessions’ of condemned prisoners.

Catnach was slightly older than Robert Blakey, but they were both teenage boys in Alnwick in the 1810s.

Blakey said: “I was in the habit of seeing him frequently in his father’s shop, in Alnwick, from which he migrated with his family to London about the year 1810.

“Some years after I visited young Catnach, and whenever I had an opportunity of dropping in upon him in his place of business, in the Seven Dials, he was always very glad to see me.

“In his ballad business he realised a good competency, and bought a house and some land in the county of Kent, where he went to reside, and left his business to his sister and her husband.

“A little after Catnach’s death I called on her, and she was in great grief on account of her brother having burned, a short time before his death, the whole of his very curious collection of letters and manuscripts connected with his forty years’ transactions in the publishing line.

“What his motive was for this destruction his sister could not imagine; for he always appeared to set a high value upon this collection. His sister said he had been offered a large sum for it; and I have no doubt but many of the more curious of modern literati would have considered it a great prize.

“As the publisher and printer of these English songs he sent out of his establishment, he was known over the whole world where the English language is known.”

This is a valuable account, though incorrect in some of the details. One is that Catnach’s country retreat was not in Kent, but in Middlesex.

The other takes a little more explaining. James Catnach’s father was John Catnach, a successful printer and publisher until he took to drink. He brought out a number of well illustrated books, some of them engraved by the Bewicks and Luke Clennell, at moderate prices at a time when the cost of books put them largely out of reach of ordinary people.

While in business in Alnwick, he took on his son James as an apprentice, then went into partnership with an apothecary called William Davison. The partnership ended in 1808, after which Catnach went first to Newcastle, then to London.

James's indentures being now null and void, he returned to Alnwick and worked for a printer called Joseph Graham in Fenkle Street.

Blakey moved to Alnwick in 1809. He and his grandmother, Mrs Laws, lived in two rooms at the back of the Angel Inn in Fenkle Street, which was owned by Mrs Laws’s daughter and son-in-law.

So the shop where he saw James Catnach was actually Joseph Graham's, not his father's. James moved to London in 1814, following his father’s death, so they knew each other in Alnwick for between three and four years.

James was now the breadwinner for his mother and sisters. He started off with an old wooden press that had been his father’s.

Wikipedia says: “His main-stay was small histories, ballad poetry, broadsides, catch-pennies, and penny awfuls. And the customers who were connected with the catchpenny trade and who frequented his place of business were, in the main, vagrants, miscreants and the underclasses of society.”

His ballads and broadsides were sold for a penny, the vendor being given a discount for quantity.

One of his most profitable productions was The Full, True, and Particular Account of the Murder of Weare by Thurtell and his Companions, which took place on October 24, 1823, in Gill’s Hill Lane, near Elstree, Hertfordshire. Only One Penny.

He had four presses going night and day for a week. They were all hand-operated and known as ‘two-pull squeezers’. The output was 200 to 300 copies an hour. He produced 250,000 copies in all, and made a profit of £500 on it.

Bundles of broadsheets were not only sold to vendors, but sent twice a day to the main towns and cities.

He was less successful with the trial. Public interest was so great that he not only had his own four presses going, but subcontracted work to two other printers, working two presses each.

By this means he printed 500,000 copies of the trial proceedings in eight days. But it was a mistake. He supplied the paper, but instead of sending the copies to him, they sold them themselves and didn’t pay him.

The execution, however, gave him another opportunity. He published a versified account of The Life, Confession and Execution of John Thurtell. There was money to be made by at least the appearance of piety. Here are the first two verses:

“Come, all good Christians, praise the Lord, and trust to Him in hope.

"God, in his mercy, John Thurtell sent, to hang from Hertford gallows rope.

“Poor Weare’s murder the Lord disclosed; Be Glory to his name:

"And Thurtell, Hunt, and Probert, too, were brought to grief and shame.”

Catnach also published children’s booklets, printed on a single sheet of paper, folded and cut. Some of these cost as little as a farthing, but the one in our illustration is coloured, albeit crudely, so would have cost more, perhaps as much as a penny.

This particular booklet was printed by Ryle and Co, who were actually his sister Anne and her husband, who took over the business when he retired.

A final example of his work, in yet another genre, is A Hint to Husbands & Wives, 1832. It takes the form of a short sketch about a husband and wife called Charles and Sally.

Charles asks for his holiday clothes and half-a-crown for a Free and Easy, being certain Sally has it to spare, since he brings home 20/- a week, compared with other men’s 15/-.

Sally protests she has only sixpence left and offers to account for what she spends. She does so, and so convincingly that Charles makes a handsome retraction and decides to stay at home.

Here is Sally’s budget: Eight quartern loaves, 4/8; 9lb of meat, being 1lb per day and 3lb for Sunday, 4/6; Potatoes, greens and pot-herbs, at least, 1/7½; Tea and sugar, 2/3; Candles, 6d; Soap, starch and blue, 8d; Wood and firing, 2d; Herrings ('which you will have on a Sunday morning'), 2d; Your (Charles’) tobacco, 9½d; Two half-pints of beer ('which is all I allow myself'), say, 2d; Rent, 3/-; Firing, 1/6.

Although Sally’s figures add up to 20/-, she has not included anything for clothes and shoes for herself, Charles and their five children from their modest £52 a year.

Robert Blakey was a keen collector of ‘penny ballads and histories’ from childhood, and left a large volume of them when he died. In his last scholarly work, The History of Political Literature, he used popular ballads as illustrations, including Jacobite songs from the 18th century and patriotic ballads published during the Napoleonic wars.