Samuel Pepys was an avid collector of broadside ballads, which were at the height of their popularity in the 1660s, when Pepys was writing his diary.
Printed a large, single sheet of paper (thus ‘broadside’), these cheap, everyday items usually consisted of a news item, rhyme or ballad. Some 10,000 broadside ballads have survived into the present day, with Pepys’ collection consisting of some 1,800 items.
Often they would include a woodcut illustration and a name of a popular tune to be set to the words. The ballads were written on several topics, and Pepys sorted his into different categories, such as ‘History, True and Fabulous’, ‘Love Pleasant’ and ‘Love Unfortunate’.The ballads tell us much of everyday life in the 17th century and often provided social commentary on events and fashions of the day.
Due to the size of the collection, the Pepys broadside ballads are a significant source of scholarship and we receive many scholarly enquiries about them.
One of the volumes of ballads can currently be viewed in the display cases of the Pepys Library. Please check the website for the public opening hours. Additionally, the whole ballad collection can be viewed online at the English Broadside Ballad Archive, a project run by the University of California. The images on this website have been digitised from a black and white electrostat of the originals.
By Catherine Sutherland
Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections
Day, G. (ed) : The Pepys Ballads. Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Cambridge: Brewer, 1987.
‘The Pepys Collection – UCSB English Broadside Ballad Archive’. Accessed 14 July 2014. http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/page/Pepys.