Saturday, September 25, 2010

Literature of Vice

The following hitherto unknown article is refreshingly absent any hysteria on the subject, unlike most contemporary writing about the penny dreadful, and on top of that, inquires into the prices paid to authors, points of sale, distribution, binding, and advertising practices in the trade. In 1867 Reynolds’s Miscellany was coming to an end, replaced by boys’ story papers like The Boys of England and the Young Englishman; Judy; or, the London Serio-comic Journal was about to introduce the ne’er-do-well “Ally Sloper” to the penny public; and Alfred Coates Spring-heeled Jack; or, the Terror of London (1863) was in its 4th year of circulation.

The Literature of Vice, from The Bookseller 28 Feb 1867, Page 121.

Early visitors to the City, by rail or omnibus, will probably have noticed the newspaper stall at the corner of Princes Street, exactly opposite the official residence of the Right Hon. the Lord Mayor. Intent on business rather than pleasure, such visitors purchase a copy of the Standard, the Telegraph, or the Star, and walk rapidly away. But if they take the trouble to examine the stock of the al fresco newsvendor a little more closely, they will discover various specimens of a style of literature, new, perhaps, to them, but familiar enough to the boys and girls of the middle and lower classes. Actuated by a laudable desire to become acquainted with the sort of reading which, from its being openly sold under the shadow of the mansion House, we may fairly presume, enjoys a high degree of popularity, we lately made a selection of this literature. And this is what we bought:-

1. The Boy Pirate; or, Life on the Ocean.

2. Spring-heeled Jack; or, the Terror of London.

3. The Skeleton Crew; or, Wild-fire Ned.

4. The Crimson Corsair; or, the Queen of the Pirates.

5. The Boy Sailor; or, Life on Board a Man-of-War.

6. Roving Jack, the Pirate Hunter.

7. Tyburn Dick, the Boy King of the Highwaymen.

8. Admiral Tom, the King of the Boy Buccaneers.

9. Morgan the Mail Robber; or, the Bandits of the Bush.

10. Tom Turpin; or, Life on the Road.

11. Black Bess; or, the Knight of the Road.

12. The Sepoy’s Daughter.

13. The Dance of Death; or, the Hangman’s Plot.

14. The Sailor Crusoe.

15. Crusoe Jack, King of the Thousand Islands.

16. Sixteen-string Jack, the Daring Highwayman.

17. The Boy Soldier; or, Garibaldi’s Young Captain.

18. The Boy Jockey; or, the Career of Tom Galloway.

19. The Poor Boys of London; or, Driven to Crime.

20. Hownslow Heath, and the Moonlight Riders.

21. Dare Devil Dick, the Boy King of the Smugglers.

22. Red Ralph, the Highwayman; or, Daughter of Night.

23. Wild Will; or, the Pirates of the Thames.

24. The Boys of England; a Weekly Magazine.

25. Rose Mortimer; or, the Ballet Girl’s Revenge.

26. The Dark Woman.

27. The Work Girls of London.

28. Edith Heron.

29. Ellen Percy; or, the Memoirs of an Actress.

30. The Three Trappers; and 19 other Indian tales, comprised in what is called the “Library of Fiction.”

31. Penny Readings for Winter Evenings.

From the stories themselves we learn that they are all issued in weekly numbers, at a half-penny or a penny each number. They almost uniformly consist of eight pages of large octavo, printed in double columns, in minion or brevier type, on paper quite equal to that of the ordinary penny newspapers. They are all illustrated with wood engravings; and of the woodcuts themselves we may observe, that some of them are little, if at all inferior, in drawing or engraving, to those commonly seen in the London Journal or the Leisure Hour. Indeed, in the matter of drawing, they are many of them really capital. A slight examination of the woodcuts enables us to trace the same pencil through several publications, and we come to the conclusion that at least three clever and versatile draughtsmen are engaged almost exclusively in providing pictures for this kind of periodical literature. As a rule, the illustrations are boldly extravagant in design, and broadly engraved in black and white, without the employment of much shadow. In one or two cases the engravings are simply execrable; but we learn that these belong to the least successful of all penny numbers.

As to the medium through which this class of publications reaches the public, we find that nearly all the wholesale “penny number trade” is confined to some three or four houses, and that the retailers in London are among the poorest and least reputable of the class. “You will find,” said a bookseller, of whom we made inquiry, “that the blood-and-murder stories are generally sold at the lollipop and toy-shops, and that respectable newsvendors don’t deal in them.” But, upon being further pressed, he owned to selling at least six of the publications numbered in our list, and to the regular supply of one mischievous periodical.

A penny number is considered to pay if its sale is about five thousand weekly; but many in the above list sell four, five, or six times that number. Assuming ten thousand to be their average sale, we have in the publications here mentioned -- and which are, perhaps, two-thirds of the whole -- a weekly issue of over a quarter of a million: about the average sale, in all, of the London Journal, and less by several thousand than Bow Bells. The principal sale of penny numbers is in London, though Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and other manufacturing towns, take large quantities; and would take still larger, but for the rivalry of their own local trash.

With respect to the method adopted for obtaining sufficient publicity to ensure a sale of even five thousand weekly, the following is stated to be the usual course in the “penny number trade.” Given the story, the type, and the paper, the problem to be solved is how to sell the printed sheets. Advertising in the usual way is never adopted; it is too expensive. Instead of the regular advertisements in the newspapers, the proprietors of the penny numbers employ a machinery of their own, and peculiar, we believe, to publications of this particular class. With the first number of a new story, they issue the second, the two together placed loosely in a brightly coloured wrapper, and sold at the price of one; or, the more enterprising tradesman actually give away the first number, enclosed within the folds of a periodical of large circulation, as the London Journal, the London Herald, Cassell’s Family Paper, Reynolds’s Miscellany, &c.

This process of gratuitous distribution is often adopted without the consent or even knowledge of the proprietors of the several periodicals so employed.

This is the way the matter is surreptitiously managed: the smaller newsvendors obtain their weekly supply of periodicals from the wholesale dealers; and as this latter class is small in number, the regulation of the penny periodical trade is practically in the hands of some half-dozen middlemen. These, for a small pecuniary acknowledgement, allow the sheets of a popular magazine to be “billed” or interleaved with the new story, which thus reaches the regular subscribers and readers of the established publications; and hence a fairly remunerative sale for the former may be calculated on. But as this is a costly operation, involving the printing and gratuitous distribution of (say) a hundred thousand sheets, besides the wages of the men and boys engaged in “billing” the periodicals, the more general plan is to announce the issue of a new story by means of showy posting bills and handbills, which are exhibited outside the doors of the newsvendors, or given to their customers, with half-ounces of tobacco, sheets of note paper, &c.

In addition, the principal number-sellers are supplied with copies on sale or return, and men regularly drive all over the town in little one-horse carts to see that the “number-traders” are properly attended to. Then, again, the wrapper of one story is made the vehicle of advertisement for another; and thus, if the story be sufficiently exciting, a large sale is presently secured. Nor does the first issue complete the circulation of the most successful of these stories. In some instances -- notably that of “Black Bess” and “The Sailor Crusoe” -- re-issue takes place regularly at about six months’ interval.

It sometimes happens, too, that a story which under one title failed to obtain a sufficient body of readers proves successful when re-named. It is no uncommon thing, therefore, for the Pirate’s Bride of one year to come out as the Buccaneer’s Daughter of another. As to the rate of remuneration received by the writers of these stories, we understand that two guineas for a sheet of eight pages is considered good payment, while in some few cases men are to be found who can provide enough writing to fill eight pages of close print, each number warranted to contain at least one murder, fire, shipwreck, or seduction, for fifteen shillings! On the other hand, two or three of the writers of these sensational stories are likewise their proprietors; and considerable sums are said to have been yearly netted from their sale in penny numbers. One curious fact in connexion with the publication of these tales remains to be mentioned. With very few of them is there ever issued a title-page, nor are the vendors of them often asked to bind the numbers at the completion of the tales. The conclusion is, therefore, that as the several portions of each tale are read, they are used as waste paper. This is not complimentary to the tales or to their writers; but whether such base ingratitude on the part of readers be poetically just, a slight examination of the literary claims of the tales themselves will enable us to determine.

Having read the several stories -- or, rather, such parts of them as are contained in the numbers purchased under the shadow of the mansion House -- we are enabled to arrive at a few general conclusions.

The majority of these publications are almost equal, in point of mere grammatical writing, ingenuity of plot, and variety of situation, to most of the three-volume novels issued by the Minerva Press publishers. But the motive of all the penny numbers is bad and immoral; not that vice and crime are openly advocated, but that the practice of vice is seldom shown to result in discomfort to the individual who indulges in it; and therefore a low, depraved, and careless habit of thought must be engendered in the minds of their readers. In very few of the tales is there any absolutely objectionable phraseology, if we accept an occasional oath or a little blasphemy, which we also occasionally find in “Griffith Gaunt” and the Saturday Review, and which is by no means absent from the most popular of the novels we get from Mudie’s.

In the matter of style, these authors follow the style of the French feuilleton, and break up their sentences into short paragraphs, and their conversations into mere phrases and exclamations. And when we come to consider the rate of remuneration received by the writers of “Tyburn Dick,” “The Dark Woman,” &c., we are not surprised to find that they spin out their pages by making “Yes!” “No!” “Indeed!” “Ah!” and similar words serve for perfect lines. All this, however, is as nothing compared to the influence which such writing has upon the minds of their youthful readers. The real mischief done by publications of this character is the familiarizing the mind of youth with crime and vice, and the absence in these tales of any counterbalancing weight of good. In all of them vice is made successful; and in the tales called “the Dark Woman,” “Edith Heron,” and “Ellen Percy,” vice and immorality are made to walk hand in hand through paths of flowers.

In these romances especially, it is the rich man who is always found to assail modest virtue, and put temptation in the way of gentle and unsophisticated girlhood. It is almost impossible to describe how artfully the pleasures of vice are insinuated, while its open exhibition is faintly reproved -- except always when the tempter is rich; in which case he is a monster -- as though temptation and immorality were only to be found in wealthy neighbourhoods, and lewd thoughts were the special and particular property of “noblemen” and “swells,” with rent-rolls of ten thousand a year. The worst is, that these dangerous stories are the best written, best printed, best illustrated, and cheapest of the whole set before us; for while “Tyburn Dick,” and “Admiral Tom,” and “Black Bess,” and the rest of the thieving and pirate crews, are sold in penny portions, a half-penny only is charged for the “Memoirs of an Actress,” and its seductive companions. Nevertheless, we doubt if anything could be found in them to warrant the interference of the Lord Mayor, even if he should deem it part of his duty to keep the neighbourhood of the Mansion House free from the pollution of printed filth.

We may dismiss the whole of the pirate, smuggler, thief, highwayman, and Crusoe class of penny numbers in a few sentences. They have a strange family likeness, and are all evidently constructed on the models furnished by “Jack Sheppard,” “Rookwood,” “Eugene Aram,” “Paul Clifford,” “Oliver Twist,” and “Colonel Jack,” though of course with infinite less art and literary skill than were employed by Ainsworth, Lord Lytton, Dickens and Daniel De Foe.

It may be urged that there is not a single atrocity in any one of these stories that has not been employed, over and over again, by the great masters of fiction; and that if murder and deceit, seduction and robbery, and all other kinds of sins against society and human nature, are described in the penny-number stories, they are equally to be found in the pages of Scott, Dumas, Cooper, or, even Charles Reade. But there is this difference in the two case -- that, whereas the writer of genius employs the agency of crime and vice to aid the elucidation of his plot, and to point the moral of his tale, the inferior artist in words makes crime and vice attractive without attempting, in the great majority of cases, to point any moral at all. It seems to us that no great objection could be urged against the pirate and thief stories, if their writers had only the ability and the honesty to tell the truth, and to show adventurous lads and romantic girls that “life” on “the road,” or in the “smuggler’s cave,” or in the “pirate’s lair,” or in the “exquisitely furnished boudoir in the pretty little cottage orneé,” or in any other of the conventional haunts of sin, always was, always is, and always must be, a life off fear and misery, squalor and disappointment, relieved only occasionally by gross animal indulgences, wild, unhealthy excitements, and the fallacious flickering of pleasure, dearly bought at the price of peace of mind and pain of body. The pen that could write such a penny number, and write it well, would seldom be without remunerative employment.

Among the modes adopted by some proprietors of penny numbers to keep up the interest of their readers, we may mention the fact, that they offer ponies, dogs, watches and chains, cricket-bats, and fencing-sticks, fishing-rods and pairs of rabbits, another boldly describes the war weapons, implements, and costumes of savage tribes, brought home by his veritable Crusoe, and offers them, together with “belts of wampum, ornamented with human teeth,” and the “famous knife of fate,” as prizes to be won by the readers of his startling adventures.

Of a more healthy character are the Indian tales comprised in the “Library of Fiction,” but we are told that their circulation in numbers is hardly enough to warrant their continuance.

The last number on our list is “Penny Readings for Winter Evenings,” consisting of verses of a comical and sentimental character, original and selected -- the original specimens being decidedly the least attractive. Of this periodical we may say -- as Charles Lamb said of one of Barry Cornwall’s epigrams -- “we have seen better werses, and worse.”


  1. This is a great article being contemporary with the times they were produced. I learned a lot from it so far just on one read-thru. Thanks for posting this, John. You always come up with amazing stuff. - Bob Beerbohm

  2. Of all the interesting articles you've dug up from old periodicals, this is the most fascinating yet. It gives a human dimension to the penny-dreadful business. You're familiar with the era: was two guineas reasonable pay?

    I see an interesting parallel to U.S. comics in their early days. While many people considered comics "filth" they weren't put in the same category as "real" filth, that is, pornography, which was banned outright. It sounds like the penny dreadfuls occupied a similar position in the literary pecking order. And they attracted the same criticisms as comics did almost a century later.

  3. I looked into that and 2 guineas was aprox. 2 pounds 2 shillings or: 42 shillings. A shilling was 12 pence (or pennies I think) so 126 pennies per week. A penny went a long way so I would say it was fairly good money especially since many writers had permanent day jobs as clerks and barristers, such as C. H. Ross, Vane Ireton St. John and Bracebridge Hemyng. Many also had drinking problems and claimed bankruptcy at least once sometimes more. Very few, if any, got rich from the number trade.

    About your second point -- many of the same people who wrote and drew for pd's were also contributors to the various comic journals which laid the ground for the comics of the 20th c., not that penny dreadfuls were comics, but the comic journals probably learned from many of the trade practices begun by the penny numbers trade.

  4. On 1 Feb 1868 The Bookseller noted:

    “Mr. C. H. Ross, described as a clerk, residing in Surrey Street, Strand, applied for his order of discharge from debts of £1008. The bankrupt stated that he was in receipt of a salary of £310 a year; he also earned about £120 a year as a writer for the periodical press, but he was in such delicate health that his medical man had forbidden him to further exercise his literary talents. Offered to set aside £50 a year. Ultimately the case went off, on an application for additional accounts.”

  5. Fantastic post, as usual. Thank you for discovering us new aspects of these humble, yet exquisite, pieces of early pop literature.