Criminal Narratives: Textualising Crime

  • Heather Worthington
Part of the Crime Files Series book series (CF)


A broadside is an unfolded sheet of paper with printed matter on one side only—a proclamation, poster, handbill, or ballad-sheet. The form had been in existence since the sixteenth century, when the new printing technology made possible the production of almost instantaneous accounts of matters of public interest, functioning as an early form of journalism. The main function of ballads was to act as proto-newspapers, informing primarily the literate and illiterate lower classes of public events such as earthquakes, wars, murders, freaks of nature, and supernatural happenings. In the sixteenth century ballads concerned with criminality were the most popular, and in the nineteenth century criminal narratives had maintained, indeed increased, this popularity. Henry Mayhew, in his exhaustive exploration of the condition and earnings of the population of the metropolis London Labour and the London Poor (1851), estimated that ‘Street-sellers of Executions &c’ earned on average ‘9s. weekly’ each, making the sum ‘expended yearly, on executions, fires, deaths &c, in London £3, 276’. This sum is exceeded only by the sales of popular ballads intended for singing (£4680), and of books (£5733).1 Mayhew was writing in 1851 when literacy in the population had increased, and when a proliferation of cheap literature in periodical, book, and newspaper forms was widely available, but broadsides, particularly those concerned with the crime of murder and its punishment by execution, appeared to suffer no ill-effects from the competition.


Short Story Sovereign Power Disciplinary Power Criminal Individual Public Execution 
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Copyright information

© Heather Worthington 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Heather Worthington
    • 1
  1. 1.Cardiff UniversityUK

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