Cheeky Chapbooks in Special Collections

Melissa Wear “pockets an understanding of society” when she interviews Dr. Melanie Wood, Archives librarian, in our Robinson Library’s Special Collections

30th November 2015

In basic explanation, a chapbook is a small pamphlet telling tales, histories, ballads, rhymes and songs. The subjects ranged from Jamie Telpher, a Scottish piper, to a “lovesick Collier lass”. William Wordsworth describes the experience of a typically large family in We Are Seven. These were widely distributed in the eighteenth century by pedlars. In reality, a great amount of beauty can be weaned from chapbooks about the intrinsic qualities of ordinary eighteenth century living: how books were enjoyed, by those who created them, collected them, and read them.

Simply a few pages long, unbound, and joint with a simple running stitch, these issues give a much more authentic indication of the period. Instead of the English lesson culture of being told which literary giants you should admire, I get to hold the distressed paper that, with its local stories, teaches more about popular consumption. I feel the sense of pocketing my 1-penny purchase and heading down to the ship docks. There are a lot of stories about ships.

What makes the collection exciting is that Newcastle was the biggest centre of printing outside London. Of course, Newcastle’s collection of chapbooks is not as large as that of the V&A, the British library or the Bodleian, and the collection is not staffed heavily enough to allow for research on the material. Where it is strong is with a focus on place on place of printing. We boast a more intense collection of North East publications. We gain this upon our southern counterparts because, geographically, they have a higher concentration of special collection depositories.

“Newcastle was the biggest centre of printing outside London”

The specific focus of our meeting is the Joseph Crawhall and the Robert White material. White chapbooks are particularly rare across the country and, as nineteenth century publications, they are striking against their contemporaries. Originals were published mostly in the 1850s so the nineteenth century steered more in the direction of collectors who selected a series of pamphlets and bound them. The great variety of binding (of different leathers, textiles, papers, metalwork) reveals the personal taste of the collector. This is a direct influence of the hand-press era. Robert White has categorised some of his series as printed in Glasgow, Stirling, or Falkirk.

Joseph Crawhall’s chapbook is more notional. He uses more expensive paper than the typical recycled-tissue-like handmade pages. There are multiple illustrations. Eighteenth century printers used stock woodcuts to create prints that reappear in different tales, giving a charming disjointedness between the text and the images. These also wear with use. Instead, Crawhall designs his own prints to fit elegantly with the text. His images are crisp and modern but take on the style of 17th and 18th century woodcuts.  Some are even hand coloured. The result is humorous and fun imbues the illustrations and text.

“White chapbooks are particularly rare across the country”

I am left carefully cradling these fragile pages, stroking the tactile letterpress, and enjoying the wealth of free desks in the Special Collections reading room. I become absorbed in the Geordie dialect of “Canny Newcassel”, sympathising with a man who visited London and was shown the Thames by “a Cockney chap”. He responds to this “the pride o’ the Nation” with scepticism and then boldly confirms, “Wi’hus, muun, three hundred ships fail iva tide.” After some more stories of ships, I read my fortune using astrologer Thomas Doveran’s guide, “Love’s True Oracle” and learn that I will die by the water for love. I started to feel seasick in the basement and make an escape back to the twenty-first century.

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