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The country chapman

Monday 6 April, 2020, by Karen Griffiths

Alongside the itinerant pedlars trudging the roads of the Westmorland Dales carrying their heavy packs of goods, were travelling ‘chapmen’. The chapman was a specialised sort of pedlar who sold cheap reading material in the form of folded booklets called chapbooks.

Image shows an old drawing of a seventeenth or eighteenth century man handing selling paper with writing on it
Woodcut of a chapman selling his wares, unknown date. Reproduced by McGill Library digital chapbook collection

The name comes from the Old English céapmann meaning dealer or seller. The tradition arose in the sixteenth century as soon as printed books became affordable, and the sale of chapbooks was at its height in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the mid-eighteenth century male literacy rates were up to around 60% and these inexpensive books were aimed at working people and their children.

Chapbooks were sold in their millions though few survive because they were printed onto rough cheap paper and most would have ended up wrapping things like bread or even as ‘bum fodder’!

Each chapbook was made from a single sheet of paper folded into 8, 12, 16 or 24 pages. They had to be cut along the folds to be read. They usually had a crude woodcut illustration on their paper wrapper cover, not always relevant to the actual contents. They contained poems; songs; history; news and often very funny stories. It’s clear they were intended to be read or sung out loud to an audience – a family group or appreciative friends at the local inn.

The National Library of Scotland has a collection of over 3000 chapbooks, which are digitised and available to read online. Some are directly related to the role of the chapman such as this 1817 edition of a rather bawdy account of the travels of ‘John Cheap the Chapman’. It illustrates the suspicion with which all itinerant pedlars were treated by rural communities and their sometimes hand-to-mouth existence, sleeping in pig sties and hay stacks and eating a meagre helping of food left by the farm collie.

Cover of ‘The History of John Cheap the Chapman’ (1817). National Library of Scotland Licence: CC BY 4.0

The woodcut on the cover of the 1817 edition shows a travelling pedlar with a horse but it’s much more likely that the chapmen on the roads of Westmorland would have been on foot with their load of chapbooks in a pack or deep open-mouthed satchel a bit like this woodcut from another Scottish chapbook.

Images shows an old drawing of a peddler carrying a kettle and a saucepan while being followed by his dog
Scottish pedlar or chapman, unknown date. From ‘Chapbooks: the poor person’s reading material‘ by Dr Anette Hagan

We know that we had chapmen in Westmorland because one appears as a bankrupt in the Newcastle Courant in 1726.

James Petty, late of Kirkby Stephen would probably have gone bankrupt in debt to the publishers of his stock of chapbooks. Printers supplied chapbooks on credit to chapmen who then sold door to door and at markets and fairs, eventually returning to pay for the stock sold. James would have hoped to sell his books for around a penny each with a markup of around three hundred percent.

To begin with, London was the main location publishing chapbooks, but the growth of regional publishers eventually meant that chapmen didn’t have to travel quite such huge circuits. The books were priced for sale to literate working people and were important as a way of spreading popular culture especially through rural areas.

Once a chapman had sold a decent amount of stock he might then buy other items like pins and ribbons on his way back to the printer and sell them along the way to avoid carrying too much money at any one time. In the chapbook poem ‘The travelling Chapman’ we see our Scottish pedlar unsuccessfully offering ladies ‘Cambrics and muslin for hoods’

The McGill University Library in Canada also has a fine collection of digitised chapbooks. Alongside the online collection they have published a series of well-researched essays about the history of chapmen and chapbooks which are well worth reading if you want to know more.

“In 1696-97, an Act requiring the mandatory licencing of pedlars, hawkers, and chapmen was passed. Technically, a pedlar travelled on foot, whereas a hawker sold his goods “from horseback or from a horse and cart” (Stoker 115). Although these terms are often used interchangeably to refer to chapmen, the licence cost £4 a head “for both man and beast,” (Spufford 116) which meant that hawkers were actually charged more. According to Spufford, any pedlar, hawker, or chapman caught operating outside a market or fair without a licence could be fined £12. In the first year alone, over 2550 chapmen were licenced, however, the number of those who evaded the tax was likely much higher. Susan Pedersen estimates that, by 1700, “there were about 10,000 such pedlars throughout England” (Pedersen 98).” From ‘Distribution’ Mcgill Library chapbook collection essays [date accessed 6/4/2020]

The ‘poor man’s’ chapbook was the broadside. These were illustrated printed sheets for the semi-literate mostly containing ballads or blood thirsty stories such as this account of the dreadful deeds and eventual execution of the notorious murderer Barney McGuire. He’d already been jailed on a hulk ship for highway robbery and murder at Appleby Fair but escaped and after a spree of break-ins and robbery ended up murdering a Kendal shopkeeper and was pursued by the son and caught near Stafford.

During the nineteenth century, both broadsides and chapbooks were slowly replaced by better-quality printed newspapers, ‘penny dreadfuls’ and periodicals. People became a little ashamed of the rough chapbook as their literacy improved so chapmen eventually had to retire or turn their hand to selling other goods. There are no chapmen recorded in the Westmorland Dales’ censuses from 1841.

< Previous ‘A Way Through’ blog post Pedlars and Packmen in Westmorland

Next ‘A Way Through’ blog post Turnpike roads: Kendal to Shap >

Picture of Karen Griffiths

Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


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