skip to content

The collection comprises some 3900 volumes of popular literature, of which around 2350 are chapbooks proper of the type sold cheaply by travelling hawkers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Around 300 were passed to the library in 1922 by the Fitzwilliam Museum which received them as part of the bequest of Spencer George Perceval (1839-1922). In 1928 nearly 900 further volumes were added from the bequest of the Cambridge mathematician and collector J.W.L. Glaisher (1848-1928). Many other donors added volumes in smaller numbers, with the result that items within the collection are often available in multiple copies and editions.

The volumes cover the years 1711-1908, with the majority from c. 1790-1840. They include works printed by many of the leading chapbook printers in London and the provincial centres, including John Marshall of 4 Aldermary Churchyard, London; W. Davison of Alnwick; Kendrew of Colliergate, York; Margaret Angus, John Marshall and William Fordyce, all of Newcastle; and James and Matthew Robertson of Glasgow. A small but significant number are foreign works, several printed by Pellerin of Epinal, which share the same subject matter as the English works, such as an 1840s Histoire admirable du juif errant and an 1820s Jacques le-vainqueur-des-geants.

Many are reprints of the same texts printed in different parts of the country, often in pirated editions. Some include handpainted woodcuts, while others, notably from Otley and Glasgow printers, include simple three- or four- coloured prints. The subject matter of these works is unashamedly populist, with works including fairy tales, nursery rhymes, histories and popular songs. Monitory but scandalous stories of contemporary criminals were popular but survive in smaller numbers, owing to their ephemeral nature; the collection includes such titles as A full and particular account of the execution of Jeremiah Brandreth, Isaac Ludlam and William Turner for high treason (1817), and The true and remarkable lives and adventures of David Clairey, under sentence of death in Newgate for setting fire to his house, and Catherine Hoyland, condemned to be burnt at a stake for Coining (1788).

Around 1500 of the books are aimed specifically at a juvenile audience, of which some 400 are chapbooks proper. The remainder are examples of early children's books, and include early editions of religious and moral works by Mrs Sherwood, Mrs Trimmer and Maria Edgeworth as well as educational works such as Sir Hornbook: A grammatico-allegorical ballad (1843) which was intended for children under seven. Many include examples of contemporary handwriting in the form of children's and parents' inscriptions.

  • Children's books: Recreative (c.29% of the volumes)
  • Children's books: Instructive (10%)
  • Religion and moral teaching (23%) 
  • Magic, etc. (1%) 
  • History, geography and travels (5%) 
  • Crime (1%) 
  • Songbooks, jestbooks and chapbooks proper (22%) 
  • Drama (1%) 
  • Miscellaneous (8%) 

The full subject classification is available here.

There is a separate card catalogue of around 1750 foreign chapbooks from various collections in the microfilm area in the Rare Books Room. For further information see Specialist Catalogues: Chapbooks.

References and further reading:

  • Neuberg, V. E. Chapbooks: A guide to reference material on English, Scottish and American chapbook literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries 2nd ed. London, 1971. B174.1
  • Pedersen, S., 'Hannah More Meets Simple Simon: Tracts, Chapbooks, and Popular Culture in Late Eighteenth-Century England', Journal of British Studies 25, 1986, 84-113. P559.c.41.13