This article, Thieves’ Literature, attacking The Wild Boys of London, appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette on April 5, 1870. To back up his views the overzealous author invents a few horrific stories about innocents turned murderous by penny dreadful inflammation of the brain.
Some time ago the unlovely chronicles of the police-court recorded a case of particularly significant character. The theft of a pair of boots disclosed the existence of a robber band composed of five little boys, acting under the orders of a captain whose years of iniquity were not quite fourteen. Every member of the band bore an heroic name. There was a Blueskin of nine, a Jack Sheppard of twelve, a Jonathan Wild of eleven, a Dick Turpin of the same formidable age, and a Sixteen-String Jack, whose years were fewer by three than the garter-strings of his great predecessor. The depredations of the confederacy were not of a serious character. Sometimes Wild would sneak away with a pair of boots; Turpin sometimes would ravish a piece of beef from the butcher’s open stall; but exploits more daring than these were not charged against either. Nevertheless, the robbers made it clear at the police-court where they were arraigned to answer for their crimes that they had done their best to attain to a heroic ideal, and, conscious of that merit, were enraged when the magistrate showed a disposition to treat them like mere pilferers. He would have sentenced them to a few weeks’ imprisonment, but they spurned the degrading mercy, shouting, “Give us three years! We want three years! We’ve a right to three years!”
Few who read that little story in the newspapers -- five or six years hence -- could have put it aside without some reflection upon the things which it might signify. What it suggested was, first, that here was an exact repetition of the criminal heroics which inflamed the ‘prentice youth of thirty years ago, when Mr. Ainsworth’s “Jack Sheppard” was first published and played; next, that his romance was not at all likely to have produced, after so long an interval, another brood of gallows-birds; and yet, since that band of foolish boys was obviously inspired by the names which greatly illustrate the literature of crime, that there must have been some revival of letters in the slums of London. That this was really the case we have since had abundant reason to know. Over and over again boys of various grades in life, from the lowest to that which is “quite respectable,” have been arrested for committing crimes the provocation to which has been found in their pockets, in the shape of some spicy bit of gallows literature. Only the other day a lad of decent parentage and fair breeding commenced a career in housebreaking under the inspiration of a work called “The Art of Burglary;” and when a dullard of twenty was lately hanged for killing a child who had never offended him, the murderer said he had been wrought up to that deed by the recollection of certain picture of assassination in the Illustrated Police News. The Illustrated Police News is a hideous production, but a very little inquiry shows that there are many publications infinitely more pernicious. The sensational novelists who have arisen in our day to move the heart with murder, to inflame it with arson, to tickle it with intrigue, are not quite the luxuries which Mr. Mudie probably supposes them to be. The tastes they cultivate are not confined to the educated and the rich; they flower in the garret of the seamstress, and they are shared by the grocer’s young man as well as by the guardsman. And as the demand is, so is the supply. Miss Braddon is mistaken, Ouida is in error, if she supposes that those dear delightful naughty heroines with glorious hair, the heroes who charm us with the downright honest proportions of a leg, are hers alone, and that nobody else knows how to combine them in pretty provoking complications of intrigue. Both these ladies have many rivals in a lower rank of life who are as daring, as clever in their way, and, what is more, who seem to be as popular as themselves.
But it is not this department of popular literature which concerns us at present, though, according to our views of life, it is an infinitely more important one than that which is composed of “novels now ready at all the libraries.” They are read by people who are in some degree informed, and are very much under the restraints of social order; besides, they do hear a voice now and then protesting against the loose and dissipated trash which flows from the most successful novelists of the day, whereas those other compositions are read by tens of thousands of ignorant men and women whom no critic condescends to put right. But even these stories are less pernicious than a still lower order of fictions -- the romances written for and exclusively read by boys and girls of the lower classes.
The titles of these publications are of themselves so significant that it may be as well to set down a few of them. Among a filthy heap of “penny numbers” now before us we find
Claude Duval the Dashing Highwayman.
Wild Will, or the Pirate of the Thames.
Rose Mortimer, or the Ballet-Girl’s Revenge; being the Account of a Virtuous Heroine in Humble Life, the Mystery of her Birth, her Struggles for Bread, her Firmness in Temptation, &c.
Red Ralph, or the Daughters of Night.
The Wild Boys of London.
The Wild Boys of Paris, or the Mysteries of the Vaults of Death.
The Work Girls of London.
The Dashing Girls of London.
Black Rollo the Pirate King, or the Dark Woman of the Deep.
Black Bess, or the Knight of the Road.
The Boy Detective, or the Crimes of London.
Red Wolf the Pirate.
The Dance of Death, or the Hangman’s Plot.
The Boy King of the Smugglers.
The Shadowless Rider, or the League of the Cross of Blood, or the Mysteries of the King’s Highway.
The True History of John Ketch.
Moonlight Jack, or the King of the Road; the Original Highwayman, afterwards Common Jack Ketch of London.
A catalogue to which we might add many more, and they are sold by tens of thousands.
In appearance these publications are all alike, and their price is the same, a penny. Each number consists of eight large octavo pages, the first page of every number being headed with a wood engraving illustrative of the performance of some crime, or the indulgence of some vice.
It is difficult in a newspaper to show what these publications are really like, because there are certain limits of decency beyond which we are not permitted to range even for the most beneficent purposes. But when the evil is of such magnitude as the regular culture of crime among boys and girls, and when this culture is carried on through the instrumentality of a press which distributes its abominable sheets by thousands every week, we hope we may be excused if we are not over-squeamish in exposing it.
Let us take, then, the first sheet that comes to hand, No. 33 of the “Wild Boys of London,” (rather a favourite, we are told, with the youth who devour such literature), and describe what is in it. The engraving in this case represents “Margaret thwarting Stephen Grantham.” She is presenting a pistol at Stephen’s head, an expedient which (as we afterwards learn) saves her honour at the last desperate moment. Another young lady, who is discovered by the Brethren of the Iron League in a dark and loathsome dungeon, seems to have been much less fortunate. She, “poor girl !” had been lowered from an upper chamber into the vaults, couch and all, and now lay, a mere female form, among the whitened bones of other victims. Little of this episode is contained in the precious sheet before us, but we know that the villain is that same Stephen Grantham, and that he is chief of the dark-robed Companions of the Silver Dagger; and we infer that this particular thread of the story is intended for lads of sentiment and their little sisters. In a new chapter we are introduced to a totally different set of characters. The hero is one Sam, a brave and noble-hearted errand boy. His master, the saddler, has a nephew from the country-- another little boy, Tommy Soft. The saddler sends the two boys to the Polytechnic, for their amusement. On the way, Sam treats himself to a penny cigar. At the Polytechnic, or Polly Picnic as it is humorously called, this noble boy contrives to have Tommy Soft so dreadfully electrified that he runs away into the street, followed by his laughing companion. At the same moment, a young lady passes by; whereupon Tommy Soft cries, --
“That be the girl who took father’s big watch !” Sam looked, and saw a very fast young lady with a scarlet feather in her hat, Balmoral boots with very high heels and very light eyelet lace-holes, pink stockings, and the prettiest ankles he had ever seen. Sam, who was growing, and nearing the age of discrimination, looked at her. “She be mortal pretty,” said Tommy, feeling soft as he watched her tripping down the street. “She don’t look wicked, do she?” “None on ‘em does,” said Sam, “but the prettier they is the worse they are. But look here -- it’s no use calling a peeler. Let’s foller her, and see where she goes to; perhaps she may still have your father’s watch.” The pretty young lady, happening to throw a coquettish glance over the way, saw them. That she recognised Tommy was evident; she quickened her pace, and the pretty pink stockings moved at such a rate that all the languid swells and seedy sharpers turned round to look after her.
“The Balmorals and pinks,” we are told, went through Soho, and finally stopped at the door of a house down a wide stone court near Leicester-square --
Sam still followed, the lady looked at him over her shoulder; her bright face and sparkling eyes touched Tommy’s heart. Sam was not so impassionate; he had been a longer time in London, and had seen more Balmoral boots and pink stockings than Tommy had ever dreamed of. “Look here,” he said abruptly, “You’ve collared this cove’s watch.” The young lady gave Tommy a most bewitching smile. ‘I have it upstairs,” she said, ‘I found it on the pavement that evening after you left me. Will you come up for it?” She held out her hand to Tommy, and Tommy took it. They went into the passage and Sam followed them. They went upstairs; Sam had not gone beyond the first floor, when the lady said suddenly, “I say, Bill.” “What’s up?’ asked a gruff voice. “There’s a fellow coming upstairs for a ticker he says I took. Just chuck him out.” “Don’t be frightened,” she whispered to Tommy. “I am very fond of you and we’ll have tea together.” She led the unsuspecting Tommy into her room, and Bill, a big, flashily dressed fellow, went to meet Sam. “Now then,” he said, “what do you want?” “Tommy and the watch,” was Sam’s reply. Bill swore an oath, and raised his foot to administer a kick. “Don’t yer make no mistake,” said Sam, catching him by the leg. “That’s a luxury for you, and now I goes for a peeler.” And with a strong jerk, he sent Bill rolling downstairs, doubled him up on the mat, gave him a kick, hit him a hot ‘un on the nose, and then went for a policeman.
Accompanied by “an energetic executive,” Sam returns to the house, where they find young Soft (he seems to be about fourteen years old), “perfectly at home,” with the lady on his lap. She is given into custody by that brave exemplar Sam, who winds up the chapter with a magnificent attack on a cowardly boy named Pug.
The comedy over, the tragedy goes on again; Stephen Grantham reappears, and his present position is thus described: --
He had been thwarted and defeated at every turn, mocked at, battled with and beaten, and in every way held at bay. He had loved the Lady Isabelle Hewitt, and then George Meredith had crossed his path. He had sought to wed the beautiful duchess, and then Ralph Montreal checked him; he had usurped the title, and held possession of the Wintermerle estate for so long that he had begun to feel quite secure, and then the boy, Arthur Grattan, rose like a phantom from the past to confront and overthrow him. He was chieftain of a league, all-powerful until there had sprung up another whose actions were all against his brethren, and now, like a rat, he was driven into a corner. But, like a rat, with venom in his fangs, he was prepared to fight; he would stake all now on the hazard of a throw, and if he lost, so much the worse for the world.
However, one satisfaction remains open to him. A bank is to break next day, and a Mr. Hewitt is to be ruined. “Good!” says Grantham, when he gets the information. “Isabelle will be a poor and portion less girl; I shall find her less obdurate then.” But his enjoyment of this reflection is but momentary. His enemy, Ralph Montreal, appears and challenges him on account of an abduction. Mr. Grantham refuses, alleging that the woman was “willing enough.” Then Ralph Montreal :--
“Coward! liar! scoundrel! dastard! rascal! See, I spit at you, kick, strike, and spurn you! And as I treat you now, so will I treat you the first time ever we meet in public!” Each word was accompanied by a blow or a kick, and as he finished, Ralph spat in Grantham’s face, and spurned him with his hand. A hoarse cry like the shriek of a hyena burst from Grantham’s lips, and he leaped upon his enemy. Ralph met him without flinching, struck him to the earth by dealing one heavy and well-directed blow, then said, “St. James’s Park, at midnight. Bring a second and what weapons you choose. Meet me or I will give you the treatment of a dog before the world.” “St. James’s Park, at midnight,” said Grantham, as he rose. “I shall be there.”
Ralph left the room, laughing at the demon he had roused, defying in his heart the revengeful devil breathing in the other’s fiery eye and husky voice.
Grantham now rings for a murderer. Savage Mike appears, and being told that Montreal is to be “cut to pieces -- hacked inch from inch,” unaccountably declines.
Grantham leaped to his feet; his eyes were blazing, and he raised his hand. “Slave!” he said, with hot ferocity, “have I fallen so low that you -- my hireling, the wretched felon I have paid to do my work -- shall now turn against me in rebellion? Dog! do this. Dare to disobey me, and I will have you torn to shreds, rent piecemeal, and your fragments scattered to the winds. Hound! dare to defy me for an instant, and that instant is your last.”
But Savage Mike holds out. For it seems that, “brute as he is, there is one sound spot beneath the blackness of his heart.” He fondly, passionately loves the lady he is not married to; and he is aware that Grantham has designs upon her, which designs are stated explicitly and in detail. “Now,” says the injured man, “do you understand why I defy you?” “Pshaw!” says Grantham; and proceeds to explain in the shortest and plainest words in the English language that the lady had struck his fancy, and that he is liberal in money matters. He goes straight to the point, in terms as undisguised as if he were talking of the purchase of a horse or the enjoyment of a favourite dish. The bare audacity with which such matters are discussed, the startling directness, the brief obscenity of language employed by even the virtuous heroine -- is one of the most remarkable things to be observed in these publications. Suggestion is an art contemned or unknown to their writers. Not only is there an absence of all effort to write in roundabout and doubtful phraseology, but in almost every case it appears as if the author had never heard of such a process -- had no more notion of it than a pig of the decency of pantaloons. Enough of “the Wild Boys of London,” we need not follow Mr. Grantham further in his pursuit of blood and beauty, nor have we space to show that the samples we have ventured to take from one of these romances might be matched from half a dozen. There is one story of its kind (we do not name it) which has been reprinted over and over again for nearly twenty years; by this time it must have had as many readers as any of Mr. Dickens stories; and it is one of the most abominable publications that ever came from the press. Nor is it by any means destitute of literary skill, as perhaps might be inferred from its long, constant enormous sale. This particular story is evidently written for a female public; it sports with adultery, and is meant to solace the labours of workwomen, idle wives, and factory girls. In its time it must have done enormous mischief. But this tale belongs to an old order of abominations which more or less is likely to continue forever; while these publications for little boys and girls -- these hideous romances of vice and crime designed to catch the halfpence of lads that run on errands or fag in workshops, and of girls scarce entered on their teens who unhappily fag in workshops too -- these are the products of quite a new kind of literary enterprise. What can be done to suppress them? The mischief they do must be enormous. They are never seen by decent people, but they circulate by thousands in the lower districts of London and other great cities. Surely they come under the ban of the law, and it cannot be difficult to discover what scoundrel profits originally by their dissemination. It is a really grave matter, and we strongly recommend it to Mr. Bruce’s attention.
*See also Wild Boys of London