the Self-proclaimed “King of the Penny Dreadfuls”
by Michael Holmes
There is an excellent biography of this colourful character given in the introduction to the catalogue collection of his books published by the British Library. Incidentally Ono's collection was bequeathed to the British Museum when he died, but remained un-catalogued for over 20 years until Louis James used it while researching his book FICTION FOR THE WORKING MAN in the late 50s early 1960s.
For those unfamiliar with Ono I give the following thumbnail sketch: Barry Ono’s real name was Frederick Valentine Harrison (1876 - 1941) and as he explains in the article below he began collecting as a London schoolboy when penny dreadfuls were still in their heyday. He became a music hall performer in the years prior to WWI and, for reasons unknown, adopted the stage name Barry Ono. He had a relative success as a stage performer with his act ‘The Old Music Hall in Twelve Minutes’ in which he'd imitate various stars of the past, their songs and monologues. He also composed songs himself and I recently discovered an old song book of his in the British Library. In the front cover margin is printed a note which very tellingly illustrates Ono's love of self-publicity, exaggerated patriotism, and the influence of Victorian boys literature:
‘Barry Ono wrote, composed and sang ‘Give Three Cheers for Belgium, what have they done to the Kaiser?’ within three hours of news in London papers of the German invasion of Belgium, thus claiming to be the First Artiste in the world to SING a song of the War, and the first Author to WRITE one.
Ono seems to have always dabbled in book-dealing and when times were lean with his stage career he was able to earn a living as a bookseller. In fact he made quite a success of it and had several shops around London. He seems to have retired from the stage at the end of the 20’s and went on to make a fairly good living as a book dealer. Ono was not shy about blowing his own trumpet as you can see, and an echo of this charming braggadocio can be seen in his advertisements from the time where he describes his collection as “… bigger than all the museums of the world combined, and bigger than any other collection.”
It certainly was a vast collection from several accounts, and between the years 1933 and 1936 the little ‘Collector's Miscellany,’ a monthly pamphlet for collectors of old boys books, published an ongoing list of the Ono library. He was prolific in producing articles for the above publication, and would also write for overseas equivalents like ‘Dime Novel Round-Up.’ These would usually be lively and warm-hearted in their praise for the old books, and true to form Ono would usually work in a want ad for anyone harbouring old penny numbers.
The year before the article below appeared Ono had taken part in a hobbies exhibition at the famous London department store, Selfridges. The famous picture of him seated amongst a stall covered in penny dreadfuls, was taken at this. His passionate half hour talks on the joys of collecting old bloods during the exhibition seems to have prompted the Pathe News to make a short on him and his books.
Ono was a collector first and a dealer second, or so it would seem to me. His door was always open to fellow collectors and to any interested members of the general public who wanted to view his books. One of the rarest bloods which he had - MAY TURPIN THE QUEEN OF THE ROAD (only a combined part 1 & 2 issued by the infamous Newsagents Publishing Company) -- is said to have come from an old collector called Charley Harris who found it for a few pennies in the Caledonian Road market. The late collector, Bill Lofts, himself a former collector of old boys books and author of several books on the subject, related the anecdote he had heard of how Charley had taken the old penny number to Barry Ono who had paid him £5 for it, a sizeable sum equivalent to a month's wages at the time. If he was anything he was not mean.
Barry Ono died on the 6th February 1941 in Barnstable. His name still lives on amongst the handful of collectors of bloods and dreadfuls, and it always adds an extra special poignancy to a volume when you see his old book-label pasted inside.
THE BAZAAR Feb 28, 1936
COLLECTING PENNY DREADFULS
THE LITERATURE OF THRILLS AND HORRORS
BY BARRY ONO
the well known variety star who has the world's largest collection of old boys’ ‘bloods’ and ‘penny dreadfuls.’ On the variety stage Mr. Ono was largely responsible for the revival of interest in Victorian popular songs. To the music hall profession he is known as ‘our unofficial K.C.,’ on account of his skilled advocacy of the profession’s case to the authorities on entertainment’s tax and other political problems.
“I could easily serve a six month sentence here with pleasure” said a man looking round my library. And what, ladies and gentlemen does that library contain - Hamlet, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, all the books with which people are in the habit of saying they could spend a lifetime on a desert Island? Not a bit of it. My library consists entirely of penny dreadfuls. Over a thousand of them.
We are apt to sniff at each other's pleasures. The man who likes old masters feels superior to the man who merely likes old port, and if our taste is for Bach, jazz fills us with righteous anger. This sniffiness however is not a law of nature. The large hearted few can enjoy both port and old masters, Bach and jazz at different times and in different places. It is to these I appeal on behalf of the penny dreadful
This picturesque byway in literature has its special interest and we lose something if we refuse to turn down it now and then even if the name on the signpost is ‘Cut Throat Alley.’
To begin with the people who enjoy penny dreadfuls, whether openly or secretly, are by no means only office boys or Smith Minors. Robert Louis Stevenson had a passion for them and I could reel off lists of doctors, clergy and hard-bitten scientists who have coveted my library.
One big mental specialist offered me a small fortune for ‘The Mysteries of Bedlam’ and ‘The Maniac of the Deep’ and any with lunacy in their titles.
A Mormon came all the way for Salt Lake City to persuade me to part with my copy of ‘Jessie The Mormon's Daughter’ and an Australian almost wept when I refused to sell him ‘Ned Kelly; or The Ironclad Australian Bushranger.’
I began my collection early. My mother, having listened to the warnings issued by schoolmasters and clergymen as to what happened to boys who read penny bloods, forbade me my favourite literature. But although I only had 2d pocket money a week I still managed to spend 10d on ‘dreadfuls.’
We lived off the Waterloo Road, and in those days there was a row of iron spike topped railings down the steps leading to the bridge. I had seen the old iron man with his barrow, and one day when I looked like going without my ‘Boys Standard’ and ‘Boys Leisure Hour’ I pulled up a loose rail and sold it to him for 2d. After that my stock of dreadfuls grew and the railings vanished spear by spear.
At the age of twelve I became a proprietor of the Boys' Lending Library. I bound my ‘Boys Standards’ and ‘Sweeney Todds’ up in brown paper volumes of twelve numbers. The entrance fee was sixpence and a penny per week per volume. Soon the queue outside our house grew so long that the police interfered and my career as librarian ended.
In 1903 I sold my whole collection for £4. If I could buy it back now for £250 it would be a bargain, My present collection has been built up since 1912. It consists of tales written between 1840 and 1900, the great age of the penny dreadful.
These old books were by no means the sordid rubbish which the puritanical considered them J.F. Smith, the historian, and Phiz (Hablot K. Browne) the Dickens illustrator, both worked on them.
Even the penny-a-line hacks, whose names are forgotten by all but collectors, were many of them competent writers who knew how to keep suspense alive from week to week and understood the construction of a plot as few authors today understand it.
Not all of them were proud of their excursions into the lurid. When Edward Lloyd, the publisher of those fascinating works, VARNEY THE VAMPYRE OR THE FEAST OF BLOOD and THE SECRETS OF THE SEWERS OF LONDON, became a rising literary light in the Reform Club, he commissioned Edward Viles, a fellow writer of dreadfuls and creator of the famous Black Bess saga, to go round all the coffee houses and buy up every number of his works that could be found lying about for patrons to read as they ate their fish and chips. Fortunately Viles did not succeed in buying and destroying all Lloyd's tales, for I have nearly 200 in my collection.
VALUABLE COPIES DESTROYED
Often people do not realise the value of such books, particularly when they happen to be stained or tattered as old boys' books tend to be.
The other day a man brought me in a small bundle some of which I had thought to be unobtainable. “Where did you get these?” I asked, “Oh, there were stacks of them in the house where I was caretaker, but after the old owner died his son told me to put them on the boiler fire. I just saved these because I thought they might interest you.” “Interest me,” I said, “why man you have burnt a fortune.”
The days of ‘Gentleman Jack’ ‘Turpin and Bess’ and ‘The She Tiger or the Female Fiend of Paris’ are so long past that when ‘Dracula’ was written people hailed it as a new sort of book. To those who knew the old dreadfuls it was very mild stuff.
In the great days of the thriller, light and shade were stronger and the colours were slapped on with a vigorous brush.
For instance a reputable publisher giving instructions to the engraver for woodcuts to illustrate Lloyd's stories told him that the eyes of the victims must protrude from their sockets and blood be shown spurting from the place where a head had been, while the head itself, likewise bespattered with gore, reposed on the ground in the forefront of the picture.
Often the titles, especially the second titles, of such books were masterpieces in themselves. It would be difficult to outdo “The Blighted Heart, or The old Priory Ruins” or “Deadwood Dick the Prince of the Road” or “The Black Rider of the Black Hills” or “Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
This last had a long history before it reached its familiar form. When it first appeared Todd was a mean, slinking figure. Then one day a man, now a personage in the wholesale book trade, picked up a copy for 6d on a stall and took it to Charles Fox, the publisher and editor of “The Boys Standard,” who to his surprise bought it for 30s.
Copyright laws were lax in those days, so Fox got one of his staff to recreated Todd in a new and more delightfully horrible image, making him heavy and coarse, with a bulldog face and adding for the first time the subtitle “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
Fox made a fortune out of Todd. George Sala to his great annoyance was often accused of being the author. Actually Todd was written by Thomas Peckett Prest, the notorious pirate of Dickens's works.
Publishers of the dreadful were always competing with each other in this way. For instance, when John Cassell wanted a new writer he offered J.F. Smith, author of “Stanfield Hall” and “Minnie Grey,” who was then busy on a serial for another publisher, double salary to come to his firm.
Smith accepted, and before leaving the office put all of his characters on a boat in the Hudson River and drowned them. The MS was sent down to the printer, and it was not until the public outcry that the publisher discovered what had happened. Being a resourceful man he called in Pierce Egan the younger, who restored the characters to life and continued their careers for some 50 instalments.
All sorts of people collect dreadfuls for all sorts of reasons. One old man I knew used to chuckle to think he possessed a copy of THE LONDON MISCELLANY containing THE MYSTERY IN SCARLET written by Malcolm J. Errym, and illustrated by Phiz for which Robert Louis Stevenson had spent a fortune in vainly advertising.
Some people seek escape in these simple narratives from the tortured psychology of the modern novel. To many middle-aged men the ‘dreadful’ is still the key to that boys world in which all heroes are perfect gentlemen and blood is still hot and bright.
THE SONS OF BRITANNIA, HANDSOME HARRY OF THE FIGHTING BELVEDERE, and CHING-CHING were in a class apart. For virility, characterisation, originality of plot and in many cases, sheer artistry of illustration we have nothing quite like them today. Can it be wondered they have become the cult of the highbrow?
Photos and an Interview with Barry Ono can be found HERE.
*Thanks to Joe Rainone for the Barry Ono photo. Big Three Penny Dreadfuls photo courtesy Michael Holmes.