You are here: Archive Home > Bab Ballads

Alphabetical Index by Title
Alphabetical Index by First Line
Chronological Index
Collections of The Bab Ballads in Text format
Recordings of The Bab Ballads

W. S. Gilbert wrote a large number of "ballads" for the magazine Fun using his pen-name "Bab." These Bab Ballads became famous on their own, as well as being a source for plots and songs for the G&S operas.

The paper Fun was launched in 1861. Gilbert wrote a "funny article" and sent it to the paper, along with a drawing on wood. The editors thought that it was so good that Gilbert was requested to "write articles and supply drawings for as long as he can hold a pen in his hand."Although Gilbert believed that he had nothing more to say, under the pressure of deadlines he found that even when he had nothing to say, he could say it in a column of verse or prose.

For ten years Gilbert wrote articles and poems for Fun, of which he was also the drama critic. The pay was poor — £1 a column, either prose or verse. The cashier measured each contribution with a piece of string and all contributors were paid on the same scale.

Gilbert's poems, The Bab Ballads, greatly increased the popularity of Fun and justified its title. Gilbert thought little of them. Most of them, he said, were "composed hastily, and under the discomforting necessity of having to turn out a quantity of lively verse on a certain day of each week."

Though the ballads are essentially English, nothing like them has ever been produced in the English language. They contain both satire and nonsense, and a great deal of utter absurdity. The ballads were very well received, and were read aloud at private dinner-parties, public banquets, and even the House of Lords.

But you can't really appreciate them unless you read them. Try them and you will see that they are unique, and represent a masterful use of English verse. Their use as object lessons when studying poetry would certainly make that subject more palatable than it was when I studied it in school many years ago!


Over the years since they were first published in Fun and other magazines, numerous collections of the Bab Ballads have been published in book form. We have available here four of these collections as ASCII (text) files. These books were scanned by David Price.



An audiobook of Jim Broadbent reading a number of the Bab Ballads under the direction of Mike Leigh was released in February of 2000. Jim Broadbent is better known for his portrayal of Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy. It is published by Faber/Penguin Audiobooks, runs for approximately two hours (on two cassettes), and retails for about £8.99. The Radio Times said of this recording: "Many of the attitudes seem fusty now but, as in Gilbert's best lyrics, the listener is ambushed by vocabulary and surprised by rhymes."

Ken Malucelli has set four of the Bab Ballads: “The Yarn of the 'Nancy Bell' “, “The Perils of Invisibility”, “To Phoebe” and “Gentle Alice Brown” for tenor and chamber orchestra. Visit his website and click on "Secular Solo & Duet."

Our thanks to David Stone and Judy Nathanson for supplying many of the ballads from which I produced the electronic versions, and to Judy Nathanson for providing the information on which the indexes are based.

— Jim Farron

Archive Home  |  W. S. Gilbert

Page udated 5 October, 2011