Intriguing as special collections materials are, cataloging may sound like a dull line of work until you discover that not infrequently it involves solving–or attempting to solve—mysteries. This was the case earlier this winter when we acquired a lurid eight-page pamphlet with an unknown publication date:
The life of Elizabeth Brownrigg, who was executed at Tyburn, for starving Mary Clifford to death, one of her apprentices. Upon which is founded the popular peice [sic] of “Mary Clifford,” performing at the City of London Theatre.
Brownrigg’s arrest, trial, and execution occurred in 1767 and the bookseller speculated that the pamphlet may have been printed about that time, as were other accounts of the crime. Typographically, however, this pamphlet looked like a nineteenth century publication. The imprint statement read simply “Printed and published by J.V. Quick, Bowling Green Lane, Clerkenwell” but the name “Quick” rang a bell. More than a dozen broadsides printed in the 1830s by J.V. Quick are part of the Harvard Law School Library’s extensive collection of crime broadsides. John Vandenburg Quick, a London printer of ballads, broadsides, and light poetry was in trade between 1823 and 1853.
The dates of Quick’s printing career helped to narrow the imprint date of the pamphlet, but a thirty year date range was still less than ideal.. The key to establishing an imprint date was the caption on the pamphlet’s hand-colored frontispiece: “An interesting scene from the popular drama of Mary Clifford, as performed at the City of London Theatre.”
A quick search revealed that the City of London Theatre opened in 1837, closed in 1868, and was destroyed by fire in 1871.
This information placed the date of the publication sometime between 1837 and 1853, better than 30 years, but still rather broad. When attempts to find information on when the play turned up nothing, a staff member from The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Theatre & Performance collection found the answer in a website of “early Victorian penny fiction” called Price One Penny (POP) which notes that the production “Mary Clifford, the foundling apprentice girl” premiered on February 11, 1839. (Apparently there were subsequent productions of the play at the Britannia Hoxton theatre in 1848, 1856 and 1871.)
Like Massachusetts’ own Lizzie Borden, whose 1893 trial continues to provide entertainment for audiences many years later, the gruesome story of Elizabeth Brownrigg and Mary Clifford entertained London audiences long after their deaths and it was thanks to this that the cataloging mystery was solved.