The Bolingbroke Collection

Written and researched by Alan Helsdon

Castle Meadow.  The leading riders are at the site of the Ballad-Seller on the right.  The tramlines were laid c1899.  Copyright The Frith Collection

In Norwich Heritage Library in the Forum, there is a collection of 702 Ballads on 308 cards made by Leonard George Bolingbroke, solicitor and antiquarian of Thorpe Hamlet, Norwich.  He bought the remaining stock of the last Ballad Seller in Norwich whose pitch was on Castle Meadow, below the Castle, opposite the end of Davey Place.  We believe this Ballad Seller to be Sam Swann (see information further down). In an index of the material typed in 1930 it states that Bolingbroke had said, ‘His Ballads were pinned on long sheets of linen fastenend to poles, which he leaned against the boundary railings of the Castle Gardens’. 

The Collection reference is C 821.04OS, (BBS), and is in 5 cardboard cases:

Case 1        1 –   75                  75 cards               162 titles

Case 2      76 – 147                 72 cards               159 titles                321 aggregate

Case 3    148 – 228                 81 cards               182 titles                503 aggregate

Case 4    229 – 307                 79 cards               199 titles                702 aggregate

Case 5    Indexes from 1923 and 1930. 

There should also be printed copies of all the indexes included here, but they have not always been produced when the cases have been asked for.

Alan has created several useful indexes which are an ideal tool to download for anyone wishing to visit Norwich Heritage Library in the Forum and see this physical collection. As an aside, Alan has used 19 sets of words from this unique local source on his 2 CDR’s (RVW in Norfolk 1 & 2 – MTCD 253 & 255) to provide lyrics for songs RVW noted without words. Visit Alan’s website here.

By clicking on the Indexes below, there is a downloadable pdf:

Alphabetical index of the first lines of the Ballads and Songs in the Bolingbroke Collection

Index of the first lines of the Ballads and Songs in the Bolingbroke Collection in Card order

Alphabetical Titles of the Ballads and Songs in the Bolingbroke Collection. This list contains the Roud Numbers of songs if they have one.

Sheet Details and Card Titles from the Ballads and Songs in the Bolingbroke Collection

Numerical list of H P Such’s Series numbers. H P Such was a Printers and a major source of Ballad sheets based at the Southbank in London. It is his ‘in-house’ index of sheets.

Bolingbroke history

Leonard George Bolingbroke was born in Norwich in 1859, worked there as a solicitor for over 40 years, and died there in 1927. From ‘A History of Strangers’ Hall’

By the 1890s Strangers’ Hall stood empty, neglected and derelict. In 1899, local solicitor Leonard Bolingbroke bought the building, saving it from demolition.  He was a keen collector and furnished the house with his own antiques.  In May 1900, he opened it to the public as a folk museum – one of the first of its kind in Britain.  In 1922, he presented the museum and contents to the City of Norwich.

Sam Swann

Alan writes: ‘I have tried to discover who the Ballad seller was and my best guess is Sam Swan(n), baptised in Norwich in 1803, although his parents were married in Aylsham the previous year.  He was blind from birth and described in 1851 as a ‘song-seller’ while lodging at the White Swan in Cowgate, Norwich.  He is recorded as being married from 1838 to the 1861 census, but at the census on April 2nd 1871 he was a widower and lodging at the Queen Victoria in Docking.  It is not known why he was there, but in Mustrad Article 118 Roly Brown, quoting a ballad-seller says,

‘As for Rush, another famous – notorious – murderer, I went down to Norwich expressly to work the execution [James Rush was hung at Norwich Castle on April 21st 1849 for the notorious Stanfield Hall murders].  I worked my way down there with ‘a sorrowful lamentation’ of his own composing, which I’d got written by a blind man expressly for the occasion…’

So Sam may have gone to Docking on business.  Helena Aldis of the Docking Heritage Group told me, ‘The Hare Inn [another Inn at Docking] was also the courtroom and various trials and inquests were held there.  Sometimes shipwreck inquests were held there (we are 4 miles from Brancaster)’. says that the Hare Hotel‘s cellars have been used as a gaol.

Remembering that his parents were married in Aylsham, so Sam was probably born there, on at least 14 occasions between 1879 and 1885 Sam entered and left the Aylsham Workhouse, for periods of between 11 and 213 days.  He spent approximately 753 days out of 6 years in the Workhouse – about one third of the time. On Monday May 14th 1883 he was admitted before Breakfast and was discharged just afterwards!  He died in 1885 and was buried in the Workhouse cemetery.

Of Sam’s stock, we believe Sam stopped ballad selling at Castle Meadow in Norwich in 1855 but it is possible that he held on to his stock for the next 30 years. Further research may discover if Sam was in Docking in 1871 in order to sell ballads or it of course may be that there was an intermediate owner of his stock before Leonard Bolingbroke acquired the collection.

What we do know is that Leonard Bolingbroke was very interested in local history from a young age and he was 25 years old when Sam Swann died so their lives did overlap’.

Still much research is to be done with questions raised as new information is gleaned, but it’s a fascinating collection which is worth promoting for the indexes alone and as more is gleaned, we will update this page.

Ballads, Sellers and Printers

In the notes to the CD A World Without Horses featuring Walter Pardon, MTCD 514, Mike Yates writes: ‘We know that these song texts were spread by way of small printed sheets, known as broadsides, and we know from Walter that Uncle Billy’s parents had broadsides in their home when Billy was a young man.  . . . ‘

In his notes to the Topic CD The Bonny Labouring Boy Paul Marsh says that Harry Cox’s mother Sarah ‘used to buy penny song sheets on her trips into Norwich when a young woman’.  She was born in 1850 and Leonard Bolingbroke suggests that the Castle Meadow ballad seller gave up at about the same time, so there would seem to have been more than one ballad seller in business in Norwich in the second half of the C19.

Ewan MacColl writes, in ‘The Second Interview: Part III’, p115, Harry ‘was singing this song and there is a verse in it where he says, “then I was apprehended and sent to Warwick Goal”:  ‘W-a-r-w-i-c-k, the town and G-o-a-l, jail.  But . . . he’d obviously read it!  He wouldn’t pronounce Warwick as ‘War-wick’ . . . and he wouldn’t pronounce ‘goal’ if he knew it meant ‘Gaol’. . . . I said, “Harry, where did you learn that song?”  He said, “Oh, I learnt that from one of them ha’penny broadsides my mother used to buy at the market on Saturday morning in Norwich”. When Harry sang ‘Worcester City’ to Mervyn Plunkett in 1958 he sang ‘In wor-ces-ter city in fair wor-ces-ter-shire’ too.

You can read more about Ballads, Balled Sellers and Printers in the Mustrad Articles 118, 139, 201, written by Roly Brown at  On the CD Put a Bit of Powder on it, Father, MTCD 305-6, you can read about a visit by a seller to Knapton recalled by Walter Pardon.  These CD Notes are also reproduced in Article 52 at Mustrad.