Monday, February 27, 2012

Henry Llewellyn Williams: a Literary Pirate

by John Adcock

The first time I came across the name Henry Llewellyn Williams was eight years ago, in December, while reading old letters in bound volumes of the New York Times Literary Supplement for 1904. Williams was a frequent contributor and wrote florid letters on Sherlock Holmes, Edward Lloyd, Bracebridge Hemyng, Paul Féval and Sweeney Todd. He had a keen interest in cheap literature, and more, he hinted at personal first-hand knowledge of the doings of publishers and authors of nineteenth century Fleet Street.

Because of his gossipy, gregarious style of writing I had doubts about the veracity of Williams stories. In a letter written from Pearl River, New York, for instance, Williams passed on an intriguing story about Edward Lloyd and his running trade in timely novelization of popular stage melodrama:

“Lloyd was a stout, ruddy, round-headed Englishman, a Panks (*character from Dickens’s Little Dorrit), full of activity, and his work mapped out clearly in his solid head. He would interrupt the chat to speak through tubes to the author, printer, and publishing office from his chair, as in “How is Paul and the Press Gang going?” and communicate instructions from the reply: “Tell Mr. Scribe to keep Paul Pressgang four numbers ahead,” or, “Scribe, just wind up Pressgang in two issues and get on with The Dumb Boy of Manchester -- the play is a hit at the Adelphi”

This story seemed a bit fishy at the time, but -- on 25 Mar 2004 Bill Blackbeard posted the following on the Bloods & Dimes website:

“For the record, my shelves hold a bound volume of a French sensational lit mag yclept Causes Celebres de Tous les Peuples. Dated 1849 and apparently a complete run in 452 pp., the London Journal-sized pub features short (10-25 pp.) accounts of actual notorious crimes and criminals, all illustrated by effective and generally restrained illos, maps, diagrams of crime scenes, etc. On pages 149-156, one of the books shorter accounts is unpretentiously titled “Pierre Miquelon et Barnabe Cabard.” These two gentlemen apparently have a taste for good human flesh, and since Cabard is a barber by profession, he does in salubrious customers by cutting their throats in the barber’s chair.”

Bill B.’s find solved a mystery that had plagued penny dreadful researchers and aficionados for over a century -- to wit, the original source of the London Sweeney Todd legend (Todd’s name first appeared in James Malcolm Rymer’s String of Pearls; or, the Sailor’s Gift). On 23 June 2006 I found a corroboration of Bill Blackbeard’s post in a New York Times book supplement letter (17 Sept 1904) by Henry Llewellyn Williams, followed by another mention, in a different letter (on Ghost Stories16, April 1904, “founded on a Paris legend”) by the same author. Williams wrote on Sweeney Todd under the title “The Publisher Lloyd”:

“As has here been pointed out, the story is based on a Parisian medieval legend that a barber supplied the “meat” for a neighboring pie-man.”

So perhaps there was some reliability in the many seemingly tall-tales told by Williams after all. I stashed my photocopies in a box and forgot about Williams until recently, when I found an article that knocked my socks off. I was to find  that Henry Llewellyn Williams, using a variety of pseudonyms (Henry L. Boone, Mat Mizzen and surely others), was one of the most astoundingly prolific transatlantic hack-writers of his time, perhaps of all time, and had been consigned to the graveyard of cheap literature. Williams was the author of city mysteries, dime novels, yellowbacks, westerns, and sea stories. The aforesaid article appeared in the New York Dramatic Mirror in May 1883 under the title A QUEER BUSINESS EXPOSED, and its subject was Henry Llewellyn Williams. It began:

“Among the advertisements in the amusement columns of the New York Herald on Sunday, May 13, was the following:

FEDORA. -- AN ENGLISH (ACTING) TRANS-lation of this French play will be furnished at a moderate price. Address L. W., 176 Herald offices.

As Fanny Davenport purchased the play of Fedora in Paris some time since from the author, Victorien Sardou, for a good round sum, and as no other legitimate sale of an English translation, to be used on American territory, could be made, THE MIRROR was convinced that “L. W.’s” offer to sell a copy of the drama savored of piracy, if not downright fraud, and its emissaries were given instructions to sift the matter to the bottom. Some detective work was therefore arranged. On scented note-paper, and in a feminine hand, the following letter, signed by a purely fictitious name, and dated from an address obtained for the purpose, was mailed to the Herald Advertiser.”

It was a long letter, signed by “Mary L. Brotherton,” and hinted that she had “thousands of dollars” and would be prepared to pay “a very liberal price for the translated play.” A meeting was arranged, and, one month later, an intrepid reporter arrived at the door of “a respectable-looking four story house” at 103 Henry Street in Brooklyn, “about two blocks off Fulton Street and not far from Fulton Ferry.”

Mr. Williams was not at home but his daughter sat the reporter to wait in a “comfortably furnished parlor, the walls of which were hung with theatrical and sporting prints.” Williams never showed and the reporter wheedled the following information from the unsuspecting daughter:

“He is to be found at 33 Rose Street -- DeWitt’s publishing house -- where they print plays: or you might find him at the Mercury office, as he writes for the Sunday Mercury.”

The reporter hurried to De Witt’s Rose Street establishment at “a short, crooked thoroughfare” known as “the Swamp,” and meeting with no success, also tried the Mercury offices, again to no avail. The scribe kept trying and finally Williams wrote and set up a meeting at DeWitt’s offices, which was kept:

“H. L. Williams is a stout, elderly gentleman, with bushy side-whiskers and moustache, and grey hair. He dresses severely in black. He has a restless furtive eye, which scarcely looked the reporter in the face.

Mr. Williams said that he worked for the Sunday Mercury and read stories and corrected manuscripts for them. He went on to say: “I can furnish you an original translation of Fedora inside of thirty days. My son, who does the work, is now in London, where he has resided for the past sixteen years, during which time he has copied all the prominent foreign successes that have appeared, both in London and Paris…my son has written a good many plays in the form of stories, as you can see by this list, which you may keep for reference. He made a serial of Fedora, which has appeared in the Sunday Mercury… then his stories are bound up in this style” -- showing several pamphlets the size of Lovell’s Library, which would sell for twenty-five or thirty cents.”

Terms were discussed: Williams was to receive a deposit of fifty dollars, on receipt of which he would order a translated manuscript of Fedora from his son in England, and a further fifty on delivery. After three months a further one hundred dollars would be paid “as a matter of honor and your sense of justice,” if the undercover reporter was satisfied the play was a success. The reporter departed, saying he would submit the terms to Mary L. Brotherton. The Mirror then gives details of Williams “list” of plays and other works:

The list given him by Williams is headed: ‘List of Works, original, adapted, translated by Henry Llewellyn Williams, Dramatist, Author, Theatrical, Musical and Literary Critic, Publishers’ and Theatre Managers’ Correspondent; Translator from the French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, etc., etc.’ Nearly fifty English and other foreign papers and magazines are referred to as containing articles by Williams fils. He claims connection with the following American publications:

Clipper, Atlas, Courier, Dispatch, Tribune, Sunday News, Boys of the World, St. Nicholas, Booksellers’ Guide, Sunday Times, Mercury, Daily Times, Home Journal, Fireside, Voice of the People, Porters’ Spirit (of the Times), Stage, Programme, Mail Bag, Evening Express, American Cruiser, Miniature Ledger, Peerless, Duganne’s Republican, etc., etc. The works are published in London, New York and Philadelphia, by Messrs. Routledge & Sons, Chatto & Windus (John Camden Hotten’s successors), E. Appleyard, Maxwells, S. French (T. H. Lacy’s successor), T. B. Peterson & Co., Dick & Fitzgerald, De Witt, O’Kane, Hilton, etc., etc.

There followed a long list of translated plays of which I only mention a few: Dumas, Dumas fils, Hugo -- Notre Dame, Les Miserables (fragmentary), Sue -- Mysteres de Paris, Juif Errant (two versions), Feuillet, Aimard -- Loi de Lynch, Trappeurs d’Arkansas, Gaborieu, Lecocq, Zola and Murger. Also included was a long list of dramas, comedies, operas and operettas, pantomimes, burlesques and farces.

In addition the list contains twenty biographical sketches, nine boy’s stories, twelve historical and five sea stories,  five highway and twenty-three love stories, among which is a Clipper prize story; about thirty-five Indian stories, such as Pawnee Pete, Six-Shooter Jim, Zoph Slaughter, Goliath of the Gold Mines, Seth Skrimmager, Feathered Snake, etc., etc.; Guides to New York After Dark, New York with the Curtain Up, London Easy Guide, London Religious Guide, London to Paris Guide, Industrial London, etc. Stories founded on the following plays: Black Crook, Africaine, Aida, Rip Van Winkle, Meritana (Don Cesar), Streets of London, After Dark, Shaughran, Caste, Proof, Two Orphans, Pink Dominos, The Serf, Ticket-of-Leave Man, Carmen, Corsican Brothers, Lady of Lyons, Long Strike, Madame Angot’s Daughter, Rose Michel, Sir Roger, Diana, etc.

The list concludes with the statement that “the result in print is 77,711 pages of manuscript since 1861, although during that time 977 places of amusement have been visited in the Old and New Worlds by the writer.”

That ended the article. I found little information about the author except for a few references to his being born in 1842 (with no citation). Williams Sr. claimed his son first saw print in 1861, which would have made him nineteen at the time (if the birth date is correct), and forty-three at the time of the Mirror reporter’s sting in 1883. Much of the information can be verified; I found numerous writings in the Clipper bylined “Henry Llewellyn Williams” (although much later, in 1893), and Bob Brierly; or, the Ticket-of-Leave Man was published by Robert M. DeWitt in 1867, under the byline “Henry L. Williams Jr.” Most likely both father and son were hacks, perhaps in partnership, and both made frequent trips between London and New York.

Further back, in 1859, the Albany Evening Journal wrote of Williams Sr. “of Brooklyn, County of Kings, and formerly of Nassau Street and Ann Street, printer and publisher” applying for a discharge from debt. Nassau and Ann Street were in “the Swamp,” where DeWitt and most cheap publishers of the fifties and sixties had their offices. In 1846 Osgood Bradbury’s Belle of the Bowery was published by H. L. Williams and in 1868 we find a copy of White Phantom, a Romance, by Miss Braddon, published at 12 North William Street, NY, by H. L. Williams. Again -- a Maxwell connection.

John Maxwell (Miss Braddon’s husband) began by publishing The Welcome Guest which he had purchased from Henry Vizitelly. He was the proprietor of the London Halfpenny Journal which was issued by Ward & Lock from 158 Fleet Street. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s mother Fanny was the editor. The periodical commenced 1 July 1861 with a serial called The Black Band; or, The Mysteries of Midnight (pirated in America by Hilton & Co.), written by Miss Braddon under the pen-name ‘Lady Caroline Lascelles.’ Among the other contributor’s were Margaret Blount, WilliamStephens Hayward and Percy B. St. John. The story paper ran to 245 nos. before being incorporated with The London Herald and English Girl’s Journal on 10 Mar 1866.

The Athenaeum No. 3282 (20 Sept 1890) gives a further glimpse into the Williams/Maxwell connection under the heading AMERICAN PUBLISHERS AND BRITISH AUTHORS. Miss M. E. Braddon wrote a “card” to the Athenaeum accusing the New York Mercury of printing a story “founded on the melodrama of “The Secret witness” that she had not written under her name. W. Cauldwell of the Mercury responded that the “novelette was purchased by me several years ago, from Mr. Henry L. Williams, a well-known littérateur then, if not now, in the employ of your husband Mr. Maxwell…” He goes on to say that the “father of Mr. Williams, since dead, was in my employ as a reader at the time, and when he brought me the story I had every reason to think it had met your approbation.”

“You complain that upwards of fifty of your stories have been used on this side of the Atlantic without recompense to you. This may be true, for the so-called “Library” publishers here are as great pirates in the matter of the productions of English writers as are the cheap publication houses on your side of the ocean in regard to the works of American authors.”

Braddon fired back that Cauldwell “ignores his sin of commission in the shape of a flaming paragraph which announced ‘Tiger Head; or, the Ghost of the Avalanche,’ as a new and original story by M. E. Braddon: a statement hardly consistent with the knowledge that the manuscript had been sold to him by the adapter -- in more than one sense -- of the drama, and ostensibly as an adaptation.”

Braddon next criticized Williams style: “That a vamped-up story, in which a thin thread of dialogue -- from a drama written fifteen years ago, chiefly with a view to scenic display -- meanders through the wide expanse of Williams eloquence, should be preferred by the readers of the New York Mercury to a novel carefully thought out and carefully written for serial publication argues some eccentricity of taste on their part; while the resemblance in style between Mr. Williams work and mine is a point upon which I would invite the judgment of my American readers. I do not myself admit that resemblance.”

From this it can be gleaned that the voluminous letter writer to the New York Times in 1904 was Henry Llewellyn Williams Jr., and that his father had passed on between 1883 and 1890. Although Williams often burst into penny-a-liner hyperbole there was much of interest in these letters. A letter published 20 Aug 1904 is titled “Henry Llewellyn Williams’s Reminiscences of the Famous Old English House of Lloyd,” and seems to be based on Junior’s fathers’ recollections. “A relative, publishing in Boston and New York at the time, pictured his calls on the great popular publisher at Shoreditch…” It seems that Williams senior met with Lloyd in person in the fifties. Llewellyn Jr. writes of Lloyd’s woodcuts:

“As Lloyd’s News succeeded, and authors left him, his obsolete books became mere metal and piles of woodcuts. I say cuts, for some of the illustrations to his first books were like Tudor blocks, done with the woodcutter’s drawing knives, not gravers! Yet they were copied here with the text -- see DeWitt’s “Claude Duval,” which had a long sale until Munro killed it with a ten-cent edition. Frank Leslie made a bid for them, and DeWitt would have bought what he had not reprinted; but it was all the lot or none with Lloyd. The blocks have fed the engine furnace and the plates have been transmuted into the linotype for the Chronicle and the News.” (Most of Williams Times letters are available for reading at Google News Archives).

One final note: I found the following Williams article on London’s cheap literature of the sixties titled THE BRADDON-MAXWELL BOOK-MAKING FACTORY, from The Writer, Vol. V. No.2, Boston, February 1891. There are a few mistakes, for instance, WilliamSawyer did not “start Funny Folks,” he was the editor, but all-in-all the article is full of interesting (and baffling) material on sensation fiction:

“They say Thackeray inaugurated the fair evil heroine, but Miss Braddon is generally credited with mothering the Girl With the Yellow Hair, whom “Ally Sloper” Ross and the flippant writers kept alive for thirty years. “Lady Audley’s” tresses drew Miss Braddon from hackwork, but the factory went on. Her confreres, however, also soared.”

The novelization of popular plays was carried on from the earliest days of the unstamped press by publishers of radical newspapers and the penny blood publishers. The bulk of Lloyd, Purkess and Vickers play-novels were probably written by the same authors as the bloods. Henry Llewellyn Williams wrote novelizations and translations for numerous publishers, among them; New York: Robert M. DeWitt (1865), Chicago: Dramatic Publishing Co. (1871), London: General Publishing Co. (1888), London: Dean & Son (1897), and Shurmer Sibthorp (1902).

MAY 1862 Advertisment

Following is a list of some of the writings of Henry Llewellyn Williams from COPAC’s catalogue (selected from some 300 plus titles), many of Williams books can be read online at Open Library, Internet Archive, Google Books and Project Gutenberg:

1863 “I am here!” The Duke’s Motto; or, the Little Parisian, translated from Paul Féval by H. L. Williams, NY: R. M. DEWitt, 96p. No. 18 of “De Witt’s Twenty-five Cent Novels”.

1868 Big Lige; or, the Red Cloud of the Soshones, thrilling tale of Scouts and Indians, by Henry L. Boone, NY: R. M. DeWitt.

1868 Old Eph, the Man-grizzly; or, the Veteran of the Scalping-route, by Henry L. Boone, NY: R. M. DeWitt.

(n.d.) Binnacle Jack; or, the Cavern of Death by Mat Mizzen, NY: R. M. DeWitt.

(n.d.) The Black Cruiser; or, the Scourge of the Seas, by Mat Mizzen, NY: R. M. DeWitt.

1874 The American War, Cartoons by Matt Morgan and other English artists, with illustrative notes by H. L. Williams, United States, London, Chatto & Windus.

1884 Adventures Among the Arabs, the boy of the Gatling Battery and the War Tiger of the Soudan, London: International Publishing Offices. 15 p. (British Library)

1884 All About Sarah “Barnum” Bernhardt, her loveys, her doveys, her capers, and her funniments, London: International Publishing Offices. 15 p. (British Library)

1884 The Adventurous Life and Daring Exploits in England and America, of captain Matthew Webb, the Swimming Champion of the World, his Boyhood, Rescues, Crossing the Channel, Natatorial Feats, and Terrible Death in the Whirlpool’s of Niagara,  compiled  from authentic sources by Henry Llewellyn Williams, London: E. Smith, 8 p.

1887 Buffalo Bill, the Hon. W. F. Cody, a full account of his life with the origin of his “Wild West” show, Henry Llewellyn Williams, London, Glasgow, New York: G. Routledge & Sons, 1887, 193 p.

1888 Bella; or, the Sculptor’s Model, translation by H. L. Williams from Alexandre Dumas, London: General Publishing Co., 1888 (publishers of Ned Kelly) 143 p.


  1. Hi John,
    H.L. Williams Sr. of Boston was a prolific publisher of J. H. Ingraham in book form (1845-46). He was also an editor associated with his brother's story newspapers Uncle Sam (1841-?) and The Yankee (1843-?). He moved to NYC sometime around 1850 and launched his own Yankee (1851-?) there. Looks like his son was a chip off the old block.
    Rich West

  2. There is a copy of a letter from H. L. Williams to Arnold D. Taylor, executor and brother of the dramatist Tom Taylor, written from 35 Newman Street, London on 17 Jan 1882 in the National Art Library archives, Blythe House THM/223/2/3/1/7.
    Written on the back of a 'List of works original, adapted and translated by Henry Llewellyn Williams, Dramatist, Author, Theatrical, Musical and Literary Critic; Publishers and Theatre Managers correspondent; Translator frorm the French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese etc.

    the letter claims that Tom Taylor had previously given Williams permission to publish his 'Ticket of Leave Man' and 'The Serf'. He asks permission to use Taylor's 'The Fool's revenge'as the basis of a penny book