Last year, I heard an interesting programme on BBC Radio 4. It was hosted by British folk singer Eliza Carthy who was on the hunt for a new piece of music to record. Her search lead her to Chetham’s Library in the heart of Manchester. In recent years, my interest in British folk music has increased and a visit to the library was added to my to-do list for my recent trip to the UK.
Established in 1653, Chetham’s is the oldest public reference library in the UK. Amidst its vast rows of shelves are the contents of two impressive collections of folk music broadsides from Manchester and surrounding environs. These are the Holt Collection and the Axon Collection which both feature an impressive array of paperwork spanning the nineteenth century.
The Holt Ballad Sheets are affixed to the pages of a huge book. The book contains over 400 broadsides and over 900 individual works.
The Axon Ballad Collection contains 132 sheets and a total of 280 ballads. These are all on separate sheets stored in file folders in another room of the library.
Scholars are welcome to visit the library to view these works but, an appointment needs to be booked a day in advance. During my stay with friends in Sheffield, I called to book a viewing on Wednesday, August 31.
On the day, my friend Simon and I headed over to Manchester to visit the library. We were greeted by Fergus Wilde who has been on staff at the library for the past twenty years. The first location that we visited was the room where the Holt Collection was housed (see photo above). As previously mentioned, these sheets were glued into a large leather-bound volume by their original owner. One can actually see that the sheets cover the original text in the book as it is faintly visible underneath each broadside.
Following this viewing, we headed to another more modern room where the Axon Collection was situated. In this case, each broadside had been affixed to separate white pages in an effort to keep them from suffering damage as they were handled.
The songs contained in these incredible collections reveal a unique insight into the world of nineteenth century life in Manchester and surrounding areas. They reveal tales of daily life, social concerns and humorous insights. It is a fascinating tour into the past as related through the words of the songwriters of the day.
It is a testament to the people who collected these works as well as Chetham’s Library that these documents from the past are made available for us to enjoy and study in the twenty-first century.
If you are interested in seeing some of these pieces of history, please check out the link to the scans of the Axon Ballads Collection listed below.
Here are some links of interest: