logo Enthusiasms No 33
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

Thomas Willey (1795-1861)
Cheltenham Ballad Printer and Chartist

Thomas Willey was born at Bedminster, Somerset, in 1795.  There is no record of his baptism at St John's Church, Bedminster, which is not surprising, since he came from a staunchly Unitarian family.  The nearest Unitarian church was in Bristol's Brunswick Square, but its register of baptisms begins only in 1797.  Documentation is equally wanting on Willey's early life and education.  He must have served an apprenticeship to a printer, presumably in Bristol, where there was a flourishing ballad trade.

By the early 1830s he had set up on his own account in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.  One ballad sheet, The Tears and Prison Groans of the poor unfortunate Miss Dorothy Jennison, issued by James Catnach of 2 Monmouth Court, Seven Dials, London, was also 'Sold by Willy [sic], Cheltenham; and Taylor, Redcliffe Street, Bristol'.  It cannot be dated, since the case of Dorothy Jennison seems to be fictional, but it was listed in Catnach's catalogue of 1832.  The sheet shows a further possible connection between Bristol and Willey, who may have been a fellow apprentice of W Taylor (in business on his own account from 1826).

Willey's imprint (simply Cheltenham, or High Street, Cheltenham), appears on various typical ballads produced, one must assume, at the time of, or soon after, the events to which they refer.

They include The Agony Bill and The Loss of the Amphitrite (both 1833), several items on the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) and in the same year Total Destruction of Both Houses of Parliament, A New Song on the Approaching Election (1835), Sunday Trading Bill (1836), and two sheets welcoming the accession of Queen Victoria (1831).

W E Adams described Willey as 'our local Catnach ...  always ready with a "last dying speech" for every criminal who was executed at Gloucester' (Memoirs of a Social Atom, 2 vols, 1903; i, p.142) .  However, the statement has to be treated with some caution.  Adams, born in 1832, was not an eye-witness; and hangings were not very frequent in.  Gloucester, averaging fewer than one per year in the 1830s (see Bryan White, The Murderers of Gloucestershire, Gloucester, 1985, pp.3-4).  Of these, only one features on an extant sheet printed by Willey: An Affecting Copy of Verses Wri tten on the Body of Harriet Ttarver, Who was Executed April 9th, 1836, at Gloucester, for Poisoning her Husband in the town of Camden [Chipping Campden].  One other sheet deals with James Greenacre, hanged in London in 1837 for the murder of Hannah Brown.

In all, Willey issued some 150 sheets, bearing about 275 titles.  Of these twenty or so deal with political matters though, as a counterbalance, ten include patriotic songs like The British True Blue.  The great majority consist of straightforward entertainment in the shape of popular or traditional songs of the day and of the past, many with an Irish flavour, calculated no doubt to appeal to Cheltenham's Irish community.

No sheet can be dated after 1837, and one wonders whether Willey, successful in commerce, suffered the temptations of respectability.  In 1839 he printed a pamphlet entitled Socialism (Alias Infidelity) Defeated, and two years later voted Tory in the general election (Poll Book, Local Studies Department, Cheltenham Library.  I am indebted to Paul Buruess for this information).  Yet in 1842 he helped to raise money to bail the radical, G J Holyoake, when he was charged with blasphemy in Cheltenham; and five years later was chairing Chartist Land Plan gatherings in the town, where he was also elected scrutineer for shareholders' accounts.

For the Cheltenham Working Men's Association Willy printed an undated penny pamphlet, Cousin John and the Chartist.  A Political Dialogue; and in 1848 he issued an eight-page booklet with the twenty-six eight-line stanzas of A Song for the Times; Illustrative of Passing Events.  Liberty or Bondage! Or A Voice from the Oppressed.  A copy of this survives in the Home Office papers thanks to its having been sent to the local MP, G Cornwell Lewis, by an alarmed resident who commented that: 'They [sic] were found in the cottage of a labourer and I understand that they have been extensively circulated, which fact taken in conjunction with frequent meetings of Chartists from all quarters in this neighbourhood is making politicians of the agricultural labourers'.  (I am indebted to Owen Ashton for this reference).

Willey continued to work as a jobbing printer but with the decline of Chartism no more is heard of him.  His nephew and foreman, Thomas Hailing, was one of a small group of printers who joined W J Linton at Brantwood in the Lake District in the 1850s to publish the English Republic and the Northern Tribune.  Willey died of pneumonia on 17 October 1861, aged 66.  His daughter, Elizabeth, briefly took over the business, after which it passed to Thomas Hailing, whose descendants continued trading until 1956.

Roy Palmer - 27.10.02

Willey's ballad sheets are preserved in the Madden Collection at Cambridge University Library.  Catnach's catalogue has been published by Steve Roud and Paul Smith as A Catalogue of Songs and Song Books printed and published by James Catnach 1832, West Stockwith and Addiscombe, 1985.

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