CAHS Snapshots of Local History: William Clift

A print of popular ballads.

With contributions from Cirencester Archaeological & Historical Society, members & friends

William Clift, printer and stationer in Cirencester

In the first half of the nineteenth century, broadside ballads were an important source of entertainment for the public. These sheets of cheap paper, printed on a single side with songs, were produced in their hundreds of thousands and hawked by the ballad singers who travelled between the markets and fairs.

Many were published by printers in London or the other big cities and distributed to local stationers who sold them to the ballad singers as well as to the public. Sometimes the stationer in a country town would also be a printer, as was the case with William Clift of Cirencester.

If you had been at Cirencester’s Mop Fair two hundred years ago you would have heard a ballad singer’s voice, straining above the noise of the crowd, chanting one of the latest ballads. You might not hear all of the song, as he would want you to buy a broadside to find out how the song ended.

If enough people bought his wares, he might push northward through the crowd to William Clift’s printing office between the old Ram Inn and the Swan, where the FatFace shop stands today.  Keyworth’s engraving of 1852 shows the scene.  He would shortly emerge again, with a sheaf of broadsides, fresh from the press, and recommence his bawling.

Clift had taken over the printing office in 1825 from Ann, the widow of John Pierce, who died in 1811. Part of the deal seems to have involved William Clift, then 38 years old, marrying the widow’s daughter, Mary Maria Pierce, who was of a similar age. His business thrived and he proved an annoyance to other printers in the town by advertising that his prices were 30% less than theirs. He also developed a new business in the printing and selling of broadside ballads.

The laws of copyright were virtually non-existent in the early nineteenth century and Clift copied the songs that he printed from broadsides produced by others. The songs recorded the popular themes of the day – the loves, lives, and struggles of soldiers and sailors, ploughmen and dairy maids, as well as tales of murders, monsters, and disasters. They sold in large numbers, and would be taken home and studied carefully.

If the purchaser couldn’t read, they would get a friend or family member to read it to them, until they had learned the song. They would be stuck up in kitchens, barns, or milking parlours. Public houses pasted them onto their walls for the enjoyment of their customers and layers of them have been discovered under the wallpaper when decorating old pubs.

How the market would have looked.

Many of the broadsides had illustrations, printed using rough woodcuts. These were expensive and were used repeatedly, and often irrelevantly. Broadside printers knew that a ballad with an illustration sold better than one without. Like other broadside printers, Clift did not always check his product carefully and misspellings are frequently found.

Clift’s career as a printer in Cirencester lasted 23 years. Mary died in 1847 and William followed her in 1848, shortly after putting his business up for sale. They are buried in the Pierce family vault in the Lady Chapel of St John the Baptist Church, a short distance from his former works.

Broadsides were never intended to last, and of the millions printed, only a few thousand remain in collections made by those who cared enough to save them. About 100 of Clift’s broadsides have survived and most are in the Madden Collection, in the Cambridge University Library.

A more conveniently located collection is that in the Cricklade Museum, which holds a small number of broadsides including 10 sheets printed by William Clift. These were formerly the property of a Cricklade man, William Stephens. They had been sewn together into a booklet which appears to have been well used, since the broadsides are now very tattered.

No examples of Clift’s broadsides can currently be seen in Cirencester, but could some still lurk behind your wallpaper or in an attic?

Martin Graebe

Cricklade Museum opens for the 2023 season on 18 March. https://www.cricklademuseum.co.uk/

Support Cirencester’s principal heritage societies and their event programmes: Archaeological & Historical Society (www.cirenhistory.org.uk) and Civic Society (www.ccsoc.org.uk), which runs a programme of Town Walks in the season plus pre-booked for small groups. See the Society’s website or phone William Cooper on 01285 88 55 90.

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