Poet's Box


The Poet's Box Collection

A collection of over 3000 broadsides sold from “The Poet’s Box” in Glasgow.

About The Poet's Box

Broadsides are single sheets, printed on one side on poorer quality paper. Most cost around a penny or a halfpenny and provided reading material for people for whom newspapers were too expensive. They could be poems, songs, occasionally sheet music, recitations and ‘lectures’ or advertisements and were sold by hawkers, pedlars and street criers.

The Mitchell Library’s collection of broadsides known as the ‘Poet’s Box’ takes its name from the shop which sold these items.

About the collection

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Typically, the text of each broadside in this collection is prefaced with the following: “Copies of this highly popular song can only be had in the Poet’s Box, 80, London Street, Glasgow. All kinds of music supplied to order on moderate terms.” Another address sometimes given is ‘The Poet’s Box’, No. 6 St Andrew’s Lane, Glasgow. The Poet’s Box operated from 1849 to 1911.

Matthew Leitch was the proprietor at 6 St. Andrew’s Lane, a narrow street on the south side of Gallowgate, from 1850 to 1858. His son William Munsie Leitch took over from 1859 to 1865, moved from St. Andrew’s Lane and carried on business from various addresses in London Street (London Road) until 1911.

Many of the broadsides are dated and some carry advertisements, not just for printed items but also for commodities such as shoe blacking and ‘soap for lovers’. There were other Poet’s Boxes in Dundee, Edinburgh and, like the one in Glasgow, these sold love songs, sea shanties, parodies and dialogues. It is probable that they earned the title of “poet” by offering to provide verses on order for any occasion – Valentine’s Day, weddings, birthdays and Glasgow University rectorial election campaigns.

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Jockie to the Fair 26 July 1851

There was also a ‘Poet’s Box’ in Belfast from 1846 to 1856 at the address of the printer James Moore, and one in Paisley in the early 1850s owned by William Anderson. It is unclear what the connection between the different ‘Poet’s Boxes’ were. They almost certainly sold each other’s sheets. It is known that John Sanderson in Edinburgh often wrote to the Leitches in Glasgow for songs and that later his brother Charles obtained copies of songs from the Dundee ‘Poet’s Box.’ References to Ireland and Irish themes are common in this collection of broadsides, reflecting the mass immigration from Ireland during the years of industrialisation. However, towards the end of the 19th century the broadside was rapidly declining in public favour.

Microfilmed copies of the originals are available in the library, and these include the date of printing. Although a few items have been encapsulated, most of these original broadsides are extremely fragile and can only be viewed at the discretion of the librarian.

Finding Aid

Poet's Box Collection Finding Aid (partial) (PDF, 1.2MB)

Further reading

McNaughton, Adam (1990) A Century of Saltmarket Literature, 1790 – 1890 from Six Centuries of the Provincial Booktrade in Britain”

Shepard, Leslie (1973) The History of Street Literature.

Jennie Renton, Adam McNaughtan, Textualities, 1997.

Bodleian Library. Broadside Ballads Online presents a digital collection of English printed ballad-sheets from between the 16th and 20th centuries, linked to other resources for the study of the English ballad tradition. Includes some Glasgow Poet’s Box.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Includes Glasgow Poet’s Box.

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