ANTIQUES & COLLECTING: Scandal - Read All about It; Sally Hoban Looks at the Tales of Gossip and Grisly Murder Featured in Historical Scandal Sheets

Article excerpt

Byline: Sally Hoban

Before the tabloids took hold of Fleet Street, scandalous news was delivered to the public through "street literature" or "broadside ballads" as they were better known.

For more than 400 years, from the 16th century onwards, these publications (usually a single-sided printed sheet of folk music, ballads, handbills, proclamations, or advertisements) were sold for pennies.

They were a source of public entertainment and in the days before the mass media, provided an easy way for everyone to find out the gossip about was going on up and down the country.

Street literature has been a popular category of ephemera among collectors for many years and perhaps its most famous enthusiast was the London diarist, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703).

One of the most comprehensive contemporary collections of early broadsides and chapbooks (or cheap books), providing the kind of outrageous news seen today in our in 21st century tabloids, has just sold at Bonhams auctioneers in London.

The collection belonged to the late Leslie Shepard (1917-2004), collector, writer and editor.

He was perhaps best known for his devotion to early cinema and his book collection.

He had a somewhat colourful life, being a conscientious objector during the Second World War, and at one stage he spent six months in a scorpion-infested temple on the banks of the Ganges River.

The broadsides sold in this auction are a fantastic evocation of a lost world, one of dark London alleyways, vagabonds and freak shows.

Their subjects ranged from the sordid, including murders and hangings; to social etiquette - London manners and the latest fashions and dubious tales included the one about the pig-faced lady of Manchester Square, "her body and limbs are of the most perfect and beautiful shape, but her head and face resembles that of a pig."

All 89 lots in the collection were sold and as collectors fiercely competed for a slice of journalistic history, prices for items soared through the roof, often culminating in the final result achieving ten times what it was originally expected to reach.

Leslie Shepard's collection celebrated the golden age of street literature and nearly all of the items within it provide the source material for his books on the subject: The Broadside Ballad, a study in origins and meaning (1962); John Pitts, ballad printer of the Seven Dials, London, 1765-1844 (1969); and The History of Street Literature (1973).

Eight of the top ten prices achieved for items in the collection came from pieces that sold for more than pounds 1,000 each. …