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From the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, newspapers were highly taxed and only available to the wealthy, and therefore a cheaper and more accessible method of spreading the news had to be devised. 

That’s where broadsides (or broadsheets) come in. These single page posters, only printed on one side, were pinned to walls, posts and doors, in areas where the population would congregate. They could also be made into leaflets, again only printed on one side, and folded or rolled, and passed between people.

Like the gossip magazines of today, these broadsides had a fairly down-market reputation, as they specialised in sensational stories – shipwrecks, trials and executions were especially popular. 

They were also used to broadcast important government announcements, information about court proceedings, and to circulate popular songs, which were often of a bawdy nature, to commemorate the big news of the day, such as a royal death or a murder.

Convict transportation proved a very popular subject for the broadsides – there were so many aspects to the stories, starting with the trials and sentences before moving on to tales of the convict's lives in the colony, and the tragic fate of lovers separated by oceans and, in many cases, lifetimes. One of the most dreadful things about being transported was the prospect of never seeing family and friends again – even without a life sentence, it was often impossible, for lack of money and other reasons, to get home again.

A typical broadside was that covering the trial of James Greenacre, who was found guilty at the Old Bailey of murdering his fiancée, Hannah Brown, and sentenced to hang in 1837. Sarah Gale was convicted of consorting, aiding and assisting Greenacre, and sentenced to transportation for life to New South Wales. The trial attracted enormous crowds; there was a ready market for broadsides about the notorious pair. 

We live in an age of instant news, but these broadsides were produced impressively quickly and sold on the streets during the trial.

As well as news, broadsides often contained songs about transportation, many of which are still sung today. Crimes, trials, sea voyages, separated lovers and life in the new colony were a rich source of inspiration to the broadside printers. 

Depiction on paper of a clown with title underneath copy of a letter address to a celebrated clown joey from a juvenile convict on board H.M.S bound for Botany Bay
Copy of a letter addressed to a celebrated clown, Joey, from a juvenile convict on board H.M.S. ... bound to Botany-bay
[London](no.2, Sandy's-row, Artillery-lane, Bishopsgate-without) : R. Marks, 1816 Sept. 30.
Marks, Lewis, fl. 1811-1823
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Digital ID: 
a1528332
Old lithograph title the awful confession of Greenacre to the Murder of Hannah Brown with drawing of a man and a woman wearing a bonnet
Broadside and lithographs of James Greenacre and Sarah Gale, ca. 1837, and an engraving of John Tucker the Mock Parson, 1811
1811, 1837
Digital ID: 
a671001
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Old clipping of a ballad titled Botany Bay printed sold by J. Pitts No.14 Great Andrew Street, Seven Dials
Botany Bay ballad
Seven Dials [London : s.n., 181-] (Printed and sold by J. Pitts)
Digital ID: 
a1528297
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This story has been developed with the support of the State Library of NSW Foundation.

We would like to acknowledge the generosity of Public Purpose Fund (The Law Society of NSW), Allens Arthur Robinson, Clayton Utz, Gilbert & Tobin Lawyers, Henry Davis York Lawyers, Freehills.