Curiosities of Street Literature, a Critical Edition


Curiosities of Street Literature, Charles Hindley Sr., L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Victorian literature and culture, street ballads, broadsides, printing history, Reeves and Turner


Curiosities of Street Literature, compiled and edited by Charles Hindley, Sr. and published by Reeves and Turner in 1871, is a curiosity in every sense of the word. The volume contains over 200 Victorian broadsides (primarily ballads) reprinted from the cheap Seven Dials versions that flooded the streets of Great Britain before the advent of steam printing. Sold for a penny (or less) by “patterers” who sang the ballads to popular tunes to attract their typically working-class customers, these pieces of ephemera were never meant to be saved or remediated in book format. Street ballads appeared quickly and disappeared quickly, leaving little permanent record of their bibliographic existence. Hindley, however, found the broadsides both charming, in their grotesque crudity, and revelatory of the life and values of readers at the very bottom of Britain’s literary marketplace. So he collected his favorites, re-set the sheets using woodcuts and typeface as similar as possible to the originals, and had them printed, bound, and sold as a curiosity, a novelty item, in an enumerated print run of 250.

The copy of Curiosities held by the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library is unique in that it does not comprise one of this edition—it is lacking the numbered frontispiece identifying these volumes. Equally curious, it is printed single-sided (recto only) on blue French ledger paper. These oddities are discussed in this Critical Edition of Hindley’s Curiosities, created by the undergraduate students enrolled in ENGL 340 (Introduction to Book History) in Fall 2022 at BYU. Also examined are the life and career of Hindley, the publishing firm (Reeves and Turner) responsible for seeing the volume into print, the woodcuts and typography used throughout, and several of the “cocks” and “catchpennies” selected by Hindley. These quirky little texts, the equivalent of today’s click-bait stories and “fake news” blurbs, recount many of the events that engrossed Victorian print consumers of the Catnach era: murders, political scandals, the goings-on of the royal family, public disputes, tales too strange to be true, and all manner of transgressions, whether large or small. Though street literature like Curiosities has long been ignored by scholars, our study of the content and material bibliography of this book reminds readers that even the lowest of literary genres can tell us a great deal about the lives of people who lived and worked long ago but who were entertained by the same kinds of popular news stories that continue to entertain us today.

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English 340