Ballads of Refrom


This project is ongoing. Here are a few of my thoughts on what it’s all about.

The long and bitter struggles for democratic reforms in Britain have been described in numerous textbooks and novels, but never as well as by the popular songs of the day. Using material from popular broadside ballads printed during this era, as well as from oral sources, my objective is to recreate the moods and feelings of the British people from the Wilkes and Liberty movement through the passage of the second reform bill in 1865. These thoughts of the times are of particular relevance today when we observe the current valiant attempts at democratization by so many countries. We can also get an historical understanding of the disenfranchised being pushed to the limit as in the recent “occupy movements”. This project can illustrate how history repeats itself

The songs tell of reformists and revolutionaries such as John Wilkes, Lord George Gordon, Thomas Paine, Thomas Hardy, Major Cartwright, John Thelwall, Reverend John Horne Tooke, Napper Tandy, Thomas Muir, Wolfe Tone, Henry Hunt, William Cobbett, Daniel O'Connell, Feargus O'Conner, Richard Oastler, and Gladstone. Songs are included about movements such as the Society for Constitutional Information, The Corresponding Societies, The Naval Mutinies of 1797, The Luddites, Captain Swing, The Chartists, Abolitionists, Anti-corn Law League, and the early days of the Liberal Party. Another view is provided of the events of these turbulent times through songs about the American War of Independence, Gordon Riots, the French Revolution, Irish uprisings of 1798, Wars of the First and Second Coalition, Napoleonic War, Industrial Revolution, Luddites, The Peterloo Massacre, Captain Swing, Chartists, Abolition, Transportation, Unionization, and Passage of the Parliamentary Reform Bills.

This collection of over five hundred songs is the result of a twenty year search of published and unpublished sources, and an extensive review of the vast number of broadside ballads in the immense Madden Collection at Cambridge, the Oxford Bodleian Library collection of Ballads, and many other collections. The plan has been to select as many as 140 songs representing this important period of history and to describe the importance of each song. My original plan was to write a book containing all this material. So far I have assembled them into ten chapters and have written over 250 pages, but the results don’t yet seem to accomplish what I want to say.

At present, things are on hold, and I need to decide whether to give up, get back to writing, or do a CD with an accompanying booklet. In any case, I need to find some way to make the collection available for others to use. In the meantime I always enjoy talking to others about the project and welcome the suggestion of others.


Dick Holdstock