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The British Library Roxburghe Ballad Collection

Roxburghe Volumes

The Roxburghe collection of c. 1,500 ballads resides at the British Library and consists of 4 volumes in 5 album books (volume 3 is divided into two separate books or “parts,” though the numbering between the two books is consecutive, and EBBA thus treats the two books as one volume). Hence the citation for a Roxburghe ballad in the second album book of volume three on pp. 542-543 would be cited 3.542-543. As with the Pepys Collection, the individual Roxburghe ballads were trimmed to fit into the album books (see Images and Ballad Sheet Sizes). Unlike the album books used by other collectors, the first three volumes of the Roxburghe album books have an ornamental border on each page within which (frequently, but not always) the trimmed ballad is pasted. Interestingly, the album paper and border ornament changes in volume 3 on p. 275, but there is a return to the first kind of ornamental album paper on p. 852 (up until p. 916). The last three pages of Volume 3 and all of Volume 4 have no album page ornament.

The Roxburghe ballads are not gathered together under categories (though one could see most of them easily fitting into the categories used by Pepys for his ballad collection). Instead, volume 1 is arranged roughly alphabetically by title. The other volumes are more haphazardly arranged, with the exception that around p. 275 in volume 3 (when different album paper with different border ornament begins, with the watermark “W. C. 1796”), we see a new arrangement of the ballads: roughly alphabetically by first lines (this arrangement is maintained until p. 805, near the end of the volume—the last ballad in the volume appears on p. 918).


Robert Harley

Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford

The Roxburghe collection has a complicated and extended collecting history. The core of the Roxburghe collection consists of ballads published in English from 1567-c. 1790; however, most were published in the seventeenth century. The collection was initially assembled for Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, by John Bagford and Harley's principal librarian, Humfrey Wanley (Samuel Pepys also employed Bagford, who was a bookseller, to help gather ballads for his collection). It should be noted that Bagford assembled his own collection of ballads separate from the ones he helped compile for Harley and Pepys. The Harleian collection was originally bound in three volumes, but at its dispersal, James West, President of the Royal Society, purchased the collection and made additions, as did Thomas Pearson at the West sale in 1773. Pearson also rebound the three volumes into two volumes with printed indexes. At Pearson’s sale in 1778, the collection was purchased by John Ker, 3rd Duke of Roxburghe (1704-1804), after whom the collection is now named. Roxburghe added a third volume of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ballads. At the Roxburghe sale in 1812, the collection was then bought by Benjamin Heywood Bright, who added a fourth, slim volume of 85 mostly seventeenth-century ballads. The entire collection was purchased by the British Museum (now the British Library) in 1845.

Printed Editions

There is one mostly complete modern edition of the Roxburghe ballads, consisting of 9 volumes in 8, edited by William Chappell (vols. 1-3) and Joseph Woodfall Ebsworth (vols. 4-8), published Hertford: Stephen Austin & Sons, 1869-1901; reprinted New York: AMS Press, 1966. Chappell arranged his three volumes sequentially (covering volume 1 and volume 2, up to p. 100, of the original album volumes). That is, Chappell followed the order of the ballads in the originals. But Ebsworth broke with that ordering system, instead idiosyncratically picking ballads from across the collection and gathering them by theme (he also included, after individual ballads, in small print, editions from other sources which he considered related to the ballads). However, Ebsworth only included seven of the forty-four garlands from the Roxburghe collection, which he derided as “long-winded narrative rhymed-poems,” guilty not only for their extensive length but for not having a printed tune title; these he did not consider proper ballads. For similar, if perversely inverted reasons, he included only thirty-four of the seventy-eight “slip songs,” which are narrow single-column songs printed on small slips of paper that came to displace the more unwieldy broadsides over the course of the eighteenth century (8.738-739; see also pp. 179-188).

There are two other selected modern editions of the Roxburghe collection: Charles Hindley’s two volume The Roxburghe Ballads (1873-74) and John Payne Collier’s A Book of Roxburghe Ballads (1847).

None of these printed editions states their rules of transcription, none imitates the formatting and ornament of the originals (though Chappell and Ebsworth intersperse their volumes with re-drawings of the ballad woodcuts—amazingly, in the later volumes, actually drawn by Ebsworth), none offers access to thick cataloguing, and none makes accessible the oral features of the ballads, that is, recordings of their tunes. And, of course, the advantages of sophisticated search functions, such as are made available in EBBA, are also absent.