Thursday 21 July 2016

Fashionable Amusements

One of our wonderful Manchester scrapbooks is always referred to as ‘Cambrics’ - a rather curious name which simply describes the original fabric which covered the scrapbook. Within the book is a rich assortment of what the donor refers to as ‘handbills’ which cover topics as diverse as theatrical performances, a set of rules for the Coffee House, notices and reports of political and trade meetings, and a small collection of very early bills advertising local circus performances.

The term circus comes from the Latin for circle and was first used by the Romans to describe the entertainments staged in their amphitheatres. Our modern usage dates from the eighteenth century, when the showmen Philip Astley and Charles Dibdin developed equestrian entertainments which were performed in circular spaces with the audience seated around the sides (Dibdin was actually the first to use the word ‘circus’ in his advertising). Animals were popular but demonstrations of equestrian skills or ‘trick riding’  were always at the centre of these shows.

Three of our circus bills advertise the performances of Philip Astley’s ‘troop’. The earliest is dated 5 March 1773 and announces:
‘Horsemanship. Mr Astley and pupils will exhibit their various feats, in a manner quite new and surprising, in a field opposite to Strangeways gardens, this afternoon, being Friday, exactly at three o’clock’. The images of the horses and riders have great charm, although the animals do tend to resemble rocking horses. One of the riders has a banner flying above his head which says ‘I’m only five years old’.
By December of 1787, Astley is describing his show as being ‘By his majesty’s royal letters patent. At the riding house in Tib-street…a grand display of various exercises, by Astley’s company of dancers, tumblers, vaulters, and musical performers, on several horses.’ The individual acts are all listed and include ‘a minuet by two horses’ the ‘Metamorphose of the Sack by Mr Lansdale’ and ‘several feats on horseback by a young lady, Miss Vangibles. Performances are peculiar to herself - first appearance in Manchester…’

Philip Astley (1742-1814) is usually credited with the invention of the first circus. He had joined the dragoons at the age of 17 and became famous for his prowess at riding and breaking in horses. In 1768 after leaving the army he set up his own riding school and he and his wife began performing various tricks  and equestrian feats, for which they charged spectators 6d or a shilling to watch. The business flourished and Astley toured his performers to fairs, markets, race meetings and pleasure gardens all over the country.

Horses moving around a circular space are much easier for equestrian performers, as centrifugal force helps them to balance. Over the years Astley developed covered rings and tiered seating and constructed temporary rings for use when travelling.

Other circus shows in Manchester were from Mr Jones in 1784, whose show was to be staged ‘at the riding school near the Infirmary’ and two bills for the New Circus in 1793. One features Mr Parker ‘on his young charger’ demonstrating for one night only the ‘various evolutions of the Broadsword’. The dramatic image depicts Mr Parker, dressed as a hussar, brandishing his sword on his rearing steed.
 The other New Circus poster shows Mr Smith who ‘leaps thro a balloon and lights on the saddle’ although he looks strangely immobile and appears to be weighed down by the huge feathers crowning his hat.
The poster for the Olympic Circus at the Minor Theatre is a later date, 1817, and offers the spectacle of ‘a Country Dance by Six Horses’ and also ‘Miss Bannister the intrepid female Equestrian’ who, in an encouraging example of female emancipation, is demonstrating the Six Divisions of the Broad Sword Exercise.
Circuses remained hugely popular over the next hundred years and Brenda Assail, in her book The Circus and Victorian Society, records that Lancashire had more circus performances in the nineteenth century than any other county and that in Manchester between 1847 and 1848 alone, the public enjoyed 120 performances.

We’ve recently had some very good news relating to Cambrics and our circus posters, as the library has received a grant from the Arts Council’s Designation Development Fund which will enable us to digitise our collection of single sheet material (broadsides, ballads and ephemera).

Wednesday 13 July 2016

The Ballad of Chetham's Library

We are delighted to announce we have recently been successful in our application to the Arts Council’s Designation Development Fund. The money we will receive means we can now digitise our incredibly popular collection of single sheet material comprising broadsides, ballads and ephemera.

The collection is a rarity amongst museum collections consisting largely of sixteenth to nineteenth century printed ephemera such as song sheets, posters, proclamations and trade cards. These materials were largely produced for a quick sale or distribution and not intended for long term survival. Stuck to walls or crammed into pockets, torn and lost, the surviving pieces are rare and yet many thousands of examples lie within our archive.

The collection we are now fortunate enough to make available online includes:

Halliwell-Phillips Collection: 3,100 items of printed ephemera including royal proclamations, broadsides, ballads, poems, sheet music, trade cards, bill headings and advertisements. The proclamations date from the reign of Charles I, but most of the items are from the end of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

The Cambrics Scrapbook: One of the most important collections of broadsides, broadsheets, and single-sheet pamphlets in the Library, most of which are unique. Its 254 broadsides range from light-hearted theatre posters and entertainment handbills to discussions of some of the most serious political issues facing England at the end of the eighteenth century. The earliest piece dates from 1739 and the latest 1848; over two-thirds of them, especially the more political broadsheets, come from the years 1789-1800, the turbulent decade of the French Revolution, when Manchester's populace was also stirred by the spirit of Republicanism.

The Holt Ballad sheets: Collection of street songs and ballads published in Manchester and the North West during the mid-nineteenth century, containing over 400 broadsides with around 940 individual songs, many being in local dialect or relating to specific local characters and events.

The Axon Ballad collection: The Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society's Axon Ballad collection. The collection consists of 132 sheets containing 280 ballads. This collection already has good digital surrogates online, and so we will focus on providing them with essential metadata through this project. 

The William Robert Hay Collection: Collection of 286 broadsides, ballads and poems, many of which are rare examples of provincial printing. Hay (1761-1839) was a clerical magistrate and stipendiary chairman of the Salford Quarter Sessions acting at Peterloo and the material is recognised as one of the most significant collections in the country relating to the build up and aftermath of the Peterloo massacre. As we approach the 200th anniversary in 2019, this collection takes on added significance; making it available digitally will make a significant impact on the continuing scholarship of early C19th radicalism and loyalism.

The rarity and fragility of these works, in addition to their use by people such as artist Jeremy Deller, singer Jen Reed and musician Eliza Carthy, has generated a fervent interest; interest that, due to the delicate nature of the pieces and the capacity of the Library staff, we have often been unable to meet.

Furthermore, the collection has already proved a rich source of knowledge, having been the subject of numerous academic publications on Baroque music and used for teaching classes within the Library at undergraduate and postgraduate level. However, these have all required scholars to be able to physically access the pieces. We have separately received over 50 academic research requests in just the last few years directly requesting digital surrogates of the collection.

The digitisation of these works, thanks to the generosity of the Arts Council, will now allow us to make the collection available to academics, students and the general public, worldwide.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Thursday Lates

We're open again this Thursday until 8.30... come along and enjoy wandering through the medieval buildings in the early evening light, see some books, relax in the Library. We'd love to see you there!