Hannah More and Cheap Repository Tracts

Hannah More was one of the most prolific and successful writers of the religious moral story. In 1795 she began producing a series of inexpensive pamphlets, which she called Cheap Repository Tracts, as a more suitable alternative to the popular chapbooks and street ballads that were easily and inexpensively available to working-class children. In her plan for the Repository she wrote, “The object of this institution is the circulation of Religious and Useful Knowledge, as an antidote to the poison continually flowing thro’ the channel of vulgar and licentious publications. These, by their cheapness, as well as by their being, unhappily, congenial to a depraved taste, obtain a mischievous popularity among the lower ranks.”

On the religious advantages of the present inhabitants of Great Britain.

On the Religious Advantages of the Present Inhabitants of Great Britain, by Henry Thornton (London: J. Marshall and R. White; Bath: S. Hazard, 1795)

The Repository produced three Tracts per month—a moral tale, a ballad (in broadside form), and a suitable Sunday reading—at prices ranging from a half-penny to three-halfpence. More wrote about half of the 114 Tracts herself (under the pseudonym “Z”); the others were written by More’s sisters and various members of the “Clapham Sect,” a group of Church of England Evangelicals. In order to make her Tracts appealing, More based their design on chapbooks and broadsides, using the same format, cheap paper, rough printing, and crude woodcuts. The Tracts were enormously successful—by the end of the first year 2,000,000 of the tracts had been printed and sold.

The carpenter, or, the danger of evil company

The Carpenter; Or, the Danger or Evil Company, by Hannah More (London: J. Marshall and R. White; Bath: S. Hazard, 1795)

This is one of the Cheap Repository’s ballads, published as a broadside (a single sheet of inexpensive paper that is printed on one side only), and signed with More’s pseudonym, “Z.” In this ballad the pious and hardworking carpenter is led astray by a cooper who spends his evenings drinking and singing bawdy songs in the ale house. The carpenter soon acquires a taste for alcohol and begins spending all of his time at the ale house, eventually causing the near-starvation of his wife and child. He comes to his senses only when presented with his dying child, who is “Oppress'd with famine sore,” and through hard work and prayer he is able to rebuild his life. More leaves the reader with a sobering, yet catchy, message:

The Drunkard Murders Child and Wife,
Nor matters it a pin,
Whether he stabs them with his knife,
Or starves them by his gin.