Nancy Dawson was a real personality; she was a celebrated horn-pipe dancer at Covent Garden Theatre in the 18th Century. According to Timms in The Romance of London, Nancy Dawson “set up the skittles” at a tavern in High Street, Marleybone, then married a publican from the Scottish borders. She then took up dancing and her appearance as a dancer in The Beggar’s Opera in 1759 was so popular that her fame spread all over London.
“Nancy died at Hampstead 27th of May 1767; and was buried behind the Foundling Hospital, in the ground belonging to St. George the Martyr, where is a tombstone to her memory, simply inscribed, “Here lies Nancy Dawson.”” [Timbs]
E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra, who supplied the ballad-broadside, says that judging “by the typography, the ballad sheet is British, of the 1800-1810 period.” This example is what is known as a “White letter” ballad in Roman type. The “Black-letter” ballad was common in the 16th and 17th centuries and feature headlines in Gothic type.
Catnatch and his successors, who were active after 1813, carried the names and addresses of the publishers at the bottom of the broadsides. J. Stevens Cox, F.S.A. issued a facsimile pamphlet called Broadside Ballads of the 18th and Early 19th Centuries in 1976. J. Pitts was at 14, Great St. Andrew Street, Seven Dials. Others were J. Jennings, 13 & 15, Water-lane, Fleet Street; T. Batchelar, Little Cheapside, Moorfields, London; T. Evans (Evans Printer), Long-lane, London, and J. Jennings, 13, Water-lane, London. Many of the sheets indicated no publishers.
One Dictionary of Slang issued in 1890 notes that “Nancy Dawson” was “a name for a molly, an effeminate youth, apathetic &c.” A variant was “Miss Nancy” and another ballad went:
I’ll tell you of a fellow who’s a very heavy swell,
Who fancies he’s the idol of each fashionable belle,
And they call him Nancy Dawson,
And isn’t he a caution!
Oh, Mr. Nancy Dawson, what a tricky man you are!
Oh, Nancy Dawson, can’t you do the la-di-dar?
The tune of “Nancy Dawson” was apparently that of “Here we go ‘round the Mulberry Bush.” All together now --