Percy Muir begins opens his chapter entitled "Catnatchery, Chapbooks and Children's Books" by informing the reader that it will "touch the lowest ebb reached by the floods of ink that poured forth" in the nineteenth century — "the work of the industrious crew of low-class jobbing printers operating in Seven Dials who were among the first to cash in on the new reading public" (12). According to Muir,

James Catnach, the best known among them, began operations in 1813 and although he died in 1842 his business was carried on by his sister and her successors, of whom the last, W. S. Fortey, died in 1890. Their main business was the production of broadsheets and song-sheets costing a penny or less for sale by street-vendors with a speciality in the 'last dying confessions' of murderers and other sensations. But they had regular lines in penny ABC's and stories and rhymes for children. Although Catnach supplied hawkers outside London a similar trade was carried on in Leeds by Andrews and Bassal, in Preston by Harkness, Pratt in Birmingham, and others. [12]

The improbably named Catnach and his fellow jobbing printers used "mean and old" type-faces and wood-blocks "worn to a degree of indecipherability that hid their almost complete irrelevance to the text they were supposed to illustrate." They made their money by appealing to the reading public's appetite for celebrity and sensation. For example,

in 1823, when James Weare was murdered at Elstree the Catnach 'Full, True and Particular Account' had to be set up in eight formes on four different presses and, working day and night for a week, 250,000 copies were pulled off and sold . . . . Other excellent lines were the births, marriages and deaths of royalty, divorce cases — known as 'crim. con.'[for "criminal conversation," i.e. adultery or "an act of sexual intercourse between the spouse and a third party" Montgomery Law] — and seamy life-stories of whorehouse-keepers, thieves and villains of all kinds. There were also regular lines in coarse ballads, fairy stories and pious exhortations. [12]

Related Material


Muir, Percy. Victorian Illustrated Books. New York: Prager, 1971.

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Last modified 24 October 2004