Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Author of Black Bess

In 1923 the following request was asked of the readers of Notes & Queries

EDWARD VILES. - Information respecting Edward Viles, part author with the late Dr. F. J. Funivall, of ‘Rogues and Vagabonds in Shakespeare’s Time,’ would be of interest to readers as well as to

A. J. W. Barnes, S.W. 13.

The book referred to was the only book to date discovered bearing Edward Viles (1841-1891) name as author, “The Fraternitye of Vacabondes the groundworke of conny-catching,” published by N. Trubner & Co. for the Early English Text Society in 1869. In 1907 the book was reprinted by Chatto & Windus in the Shakespeare Library series under the title “The Rogues and Vagabonds of Shakespeare’s Youth: Audelay’s ‘Fraternitye of Vacabondes’ and Harman’s ‘Caveat.’”

Edward Viles, unless there were two gentlemen of that name, was an ardent Shakespearean scholar as was shown by his letter headed ‘Shakespeariana’ published in Notes & Queries [5th Series II p. 484] on December 19, 1874. Today he is most remembered for an anonymous penny dreadful; “Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road, a Tale of the Good Old Times,” published by Edward Harrison on August 8, 1863, when Viles was a youthful twenty-one years of age. This is not as improbable as it seems, many penny dreadful writers were learned in the history of felon literature.

To quote Frank Jay, Black Bess “ran to no less than 254 numbers and 2,028 pages, each number being illustrated. Allowing one number per week, it must have taken nearly five years to complete, a truly marvelous bit of work. The preface to the bound volume is dated 1868, but is it obvious the numbers were issued before that date.”

The heroes of Black Bess all share the good and bad qualities of the amiable criminal, and it would be hard for any reader to resist the highwaymen’s charm. Dick Turpin’s gang consists of Claude Duval, Tom King and Sixteen-string Jack. The four bound novels follow the well-known story of Dick Turpin, his Ride to York, his capture and his execution by hanging, where he voluntarily leaped off the platform to his death. Duval and the rest of the improbable characters are brought in to help alleviate the boredom of a 2028 page work. The author can involve Sixteen String Jack, or Tom King, or Duval or Turpin’s Maud in separate adventures and scrapes and help sustain the mad length of the serial. Captain Hawk is introduced in Book IV, page 1757, while all the characters are still alive. From this point on characters are decimated like flies, Maud is wounded in the breast and is buried in France, Duval is shot in a failed attempt to rescue Sixteen-String Jack, Turpin shoots Tom King, Black Bess is cruelly rode to her death, and Turpin is hung at Tyburn.

I thought till the last minute that the author may have spared Turpin, after all, the same (attributed) author, “Blueskin: a Romance of the Last Century,” (1866) ended with Jack Sheppard heading happily to France and freedom. Black Bess ends with Captain Hawk standing “at the opening of one of the strangest and most vicissitudinous (sic) careers that ever fell to the lot of man.” Captain Hawk is the hero of “The Black Highwayman, being the Second Series of Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road” begun in 1868 (Frank Jay says 1866-68, running to 86 Nos., 688 pages.) The copy I examined was a re-issue by Harrison in 172 weekly numbers at 688 pages, very different from Jay’s recollection. No title page, no date but a color cover and beautiful color plates.

The last work attributed to Viles was “Gentleman Clifford and his White Mare Brilliant; or, the Ladies’ Highwayman,” from 1864. If all these anonymously published works are from the pen of Edward Viles he must have been a remarkably prolific author to have been carrying on four serials weekly during 1863-1868! Montague Summers said that Viles main weakness was to appear in life as what he was not -- an author. That could be a comment on his wretched writing or it could mean he claimed authorship to works he had no connection with. He was rumored to have commissioned hacks to complete works that he then took the credit for.

Viles was not the only author credited with “Black Bess,” so was the celebrated author of “Minnigrey.” Andrew de Ternant wrote a letter to Notes & Queries [12 S. X. April 29, 1922, p. 333] claiming that “Thomas Catling (many years editor of Lloyd’s Weekly News) informed me in April 1890, that John Frederick Smith was the real author of ‘Black Bess,’ which was published in penny numbers. Mr. Catling said Smith’s remuneration was £3 10s. per week during the publication of the serial story. Smith often said he outlined his ‘Black Bess’ long before the publication of Harrison Ainsworth’s novel [Rookwood] on the same subject, and even thought of submitting his own version to the more popular novelist.”

“A large portion of the first fifty numbers of ‘Black Bess’ was written amid “eighteenth century surroundings” in the old office of Lloyd’s Weekly News ( a century and a half previously occupied by Samuel Richardson) in Salisbury Square, E. C. In fact Mr. Catling showed me the very desk Smith used. John Frederick Smith was always on cordial terms with Edward Lloyd, and was allowed the use of his favourite corner of the room and paper in writing his novels for other publishers.”

This turns out to have been a malicious hoax by Andrew de Ternant, a notorious liar.

So why was “Black Bess” considered the work of Edward Viles by Montague Summers, Frank Jay, Barry Ono, E. S. Turner and every writer since? The earliest known reference was originated by Robert Louis Stevenson in a Scribner’s Magazine article titled “Popular Authors” for July 4, 1888. Earlier, in “A Gossip on Romance,” R. L. S. spoke of his boyhood pleasures in ‘bloods’; “Give me a highwayman and I was full to the brim; a Jacobite would do, but the highwayman was my favourite dish.” Stevenson had progressed from studying lurid woodcuts and exposed text in newsvendor’s windows to the real article, penny dreadfuls in penny parts:

“My fall was brought about by a truly romantic incident. Perhaps the reader knows Neidpath Castle, where it stands, bosomed in hills, on a green promontory; Tweed at its base running through all the gamut of a busy river, from the pouring shallow to the brown pool. In the days when I was thereabout, and that part of the earth was made a heaven to me by many things now lost, by boats, and bathing, and the fascination of streams, and the delights of comradeship, and those (surely the prettiest and simplest) of a boy and girl romance-in those days of Arcady there dwelt in the upper story of the castle one whom I believe to have been the gamekeeper on the estate. The rest of the place stood open to incursive urchins; and there, in a deserted chamber, we (Stevenson and his sister) found some half-a-dozen numbers of Black Bess, or the Knight of the Road, a work by EDWARD VILES.”

The pair took their booty away “and in the shade of a contiguous fir-wood, lying on blueberries, I made my first acquaintance with the art of Mr. Viles.”

Stevenson could not have found the name Edward Viles in those half-a-dozen anonymous numbers so where could he have come across the information so confidently put forth? “Treasure Island; or, the Mutiny of the Hispaniola,” with one woodcut by William Boucher, cartoonist on “Judy,” appeared in Volume 19 of James Henderson’s “Young Folks” from October 1, 1881, to January 28, 1882. He also contributed “The Black Arrow,” running from June to October, 1883, and “Kidnapped,” May to July, 1886.

Councilor J. Wilson Maclaren accompanied R. L. S. through his old haunts in Edinburgh. He remembers “McIndoo’s shooting-gallery, that foul-smelling underground tunnel, near the Royal Exchange. We had six shots each, and Stevenson missed the stone target twice. I was more successful; for I struck the bulls-eye and rang the bell five times, the secret being that most of my time as spent in McIndoo’s when a High Street Boy. The uncanny surroundings and the smell of the gunpowder must have stirred the adventurous memories of R. L. S.; for he confessed to me that, although ten years my senior, he still had a hankering to write for the ‘penny-bloods’ a type of literature such as The Boys of London and New York, to which I was contributing some pirate yarns at that time. Stories such as ‘Sweeney Tod,’ ‘The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,’ ‘Three-fingered Jack,’ ‘Dick Turpin,’ ‘David Haggart,’ ‘Jack Harkaway,’ and ‘Tom Wildrake’s Schooldays,’ were then very popular among youthful readers. The boys’ favourite hero in fiction at that time was ‘Cornelius Dabber’, the timber-legged character much addicted to drinking rum. When ‘Treasure Island’ was published in Young Folks, it seemed to me that the prototype of John Silver was my old friend and hero ‘Cornelius’ turned into a buccaneer.”

[Note; The Waterloo Directory shows two publishers of “The Boys of London and the Boys of New York,” (1877-1900) from James and Robert Jackson in Wigan, Lancashire and “Boys of London and New York,” (1879-1899) from Edwin J. Brett in London. It was a mixture of American stories printed from stereotypes from Canadian born Norman Munro’s “The Boys of New York” and original British stories.]

On 8 February 1924 Sir James Barrie told a story about Stevenson's love of penny dreadfuls during a speech on English Public Schools:

"Many years afterwards Robert Louis Stevenson, writing to me from Samoa of a visit he had lately paid to Sydney, described how he had gone into a booksellers' shop where they showed him all the newest and choicest books. But he said to them, "I want no thoughtful works today; show me 'Sixteen String Jack the Footpad,' or 'Black Bill the Buccaneer.'"

James Henderson recalled (“Bought Treasure Island for Three Dollars a Column” May 18, 1912, Winnipeg Free Press) that during the course of serial publication of “Treasure Island” in November Stevenson was a frequent visitor to the offices of “Young Folks” in Red Lion Court where Henderson gave mid-day gatherings for his authors and editors. In September while awaiting publication of his story R. L. S. was already excitedly planning his next boy’s story for Henderson, to be titled “Jerry Abershaw, a Tale of Putney Heath.” By February 15, 1882 he was asking his friend Henley to send him the “Newgate Calendar.” Roadside inns, felon literature, and highwaymen were constantly on his mind.

W. E. Henley said that “Young Folks” authors such as Alfred R. Phillips, author of the wildly popular serial “Don Zalva the Brave” were “in no wise model citizens; they had their weaknesses, and (on his (Stevenson’s) editor’s report), were addicted to the use of strong waters, so that they had to be literally hunted for their copy.” Stevenson dedicated his novel “The Black Arrow to Phillips.” A serial titled “Sir Claude the Conqueror” appeared a bit previous to “Treasure Island.” An editor’s note on November 12, 1881 regretfully informed the readers that Sir Claude was to be discontinued; “we should not have broken off the story thus suddenly if we had not been forced to do so by circumstances which we need not describe in detail.”

Stevenson wrote to Gosse on November 9, 1881 : “See no. 571, last page; and article, called Sir Claude the Conqueror, and read it aloud in your best rhythmic tones; mon cher, c’est épatant. The story in question, by the by, was a last chance given to it’s drunken author; not Villiers -- that was a nom de plume -- but Viles, brother to my old boyhood’s guide, philosopher and friend, Edward Viles, author of Black Bess and Blueskin : a Romance. There is a byway of literary history for you; and in its poor way, a tragedy also.” 

Two days later he wrote to James Henderson “I was heartily sorry to find your poor friend Viles or Villiers had come to grief. Alas ! a little tragedy in it’s way.” In addition to Viles there were other contributors from the penny dreadful field contributing to “Young Folks” that R. L. S. may have conversed with, Charles Stevens and Percy Bolingbroke St. John. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that Stevenson learned of Viles authorship of “Black Bess” through Henderson’s offices in Red Lion Court, quite possibly from Edward Viles brother Walter.

Edward Henry Viles was born November 21, 1841 at 41 Freeschool Street, St. Olave’s, Southwark, London. “Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road, a Tale of the Good Old Times,” was published by Edward Harrison on August 8, 1863. Probably he was also involved with Harrison’s “Boys’ Miscellany,” described by Jay as “essentially the first periodical of what we may term the sensational character” which preceded “Black Bess,” appearing weekly from March 7, 1863 to February 27, 1864. The September 19, 1863 issue began serializing the anonymous “Sixteen-String Jack, the Daring Highwayman.”

He was next occupied with “TheYoung Ladies’ Journal” which ran from April 13, 1864 to February 1920 and “The Gentleman’s Journal” running from 1869 to 1872 when it merged with “The Young Ladies’ Journal.” Frank Jay said both periodicals were published by E. Harrison and Edward Viles, so perhaps they had a partnership. Viles had made enough money by 1870 to build and occupy the magnificent Pendryl Hall in Codsall Wood, Stafford, impossibe on the rates paid a penny dreadful hack no matter how prolific he was. By this time he was also assisting the eccentric Frederick James Furnivall with editing “The Fraternitye of Vacabondes.”

Frank Jay said Viles “was also a very keen and ardent collector of “Bloods” and “Penny Dreadfuls.” The writer was told by a well-known secondhand book-seller that Viles engaged him to employ a four wheeled cab and go round to all the old lending libraries and secondhand booksellers and buy up all the books of this kind he came across, and in this manner he acquired an immense stock which, at his death were sold by auction and commanded big prices.”

The (anonymous) works attributed to Edward Viles are;

1863 *Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road. A Tale of the Good Old Times* Anon. Illustrated by Robert Prowse and others. No. 1 August 8, 1863. E. Harrison, Salisbury Court, Fleet Street.

1864 *Gentleman Clifford and his White Mare Brilliant; or, the Ladies’ Highwayman* Anonymous. Illustrated by Moore and Williamson. London : E. Harrison.

1866 *Blueskin : A Romance of the Last Century* By the author of “Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road” &c. Illustrated by Robert Prowse and others. Edward Harrison, Salisbury Square, Fleet Street.

1868 * The Black Highwayman, Being the Second Series of Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road* Illustrated by Robert Prowse. Edward Harrison, Salisbury Square, Fleet Street. Jay has 1866-1868.

A comparison of “Blueskin” to the works of James Malcolm Rymer has convinced me that Rymer was the true author of “Blueskin,” (and possibly of “The Black Highwayman” as well),although he had already covered the story of Blueskin in his masterful 1860 penny dreadful “Edith the Captive; or, The Robbers of Epping Forest.” “Blueskin” and “Black Highwayman” both bore the words “by the author of Black Bess” on the title page to capitalize on the success of the interminable “Black Bess,” a ploy long in use by other publishers. For instance “Tyburn Tree; or, The Mysteries of the Past” By James Lindridge was “by the Author of The Old Manor House,” whose real author was gothic novelist Charlotte Smith.

“Gentleman Clifford” is wretched writing even by penny dreadful standards and bears little resemblance to the style of “Black Bess,” which (if I am correct) leaves one penny dreadful work on Viles resume, and that contested, which bears little resemblance to any of the above mentioned works, “Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road, a Tale of the Good Old Times.” Even this may have been the joint work of a variety of what historian Bill Blackbeard once termed “pocket hacks,” numerous authors working under the supervision of the author with the contract; i.e. Edward Viles. 

I had always thought that “Black Bess,” was the work of a multitude of hacks but after reading the entire work I can say that the style is remarkably consistent throughout, and the entire work shows that it is not just a series of improbable captures and escapes ad infinitum, but was carefully planned and plotted from the start.

*Photo of Pendryl Hall courtesy Trefor Thomas. Thanks to Peter Ross.


  1. Really extraordinary notice on Black Bess, John. It is amazing to know that the characters featured in this penny dreadful are involved in separate adventures. I am particularly interested in Dick Turpin, whose Spanish version will appear soon in Acotaciones. May I ask you where to find "Dick and his friend Duke" and "Dick Turpin" penny dreadfuls covers?

    1. Hi, you may be astonished to learn that there is evidence from an account in an 18th Century journal that Turpin became the captain if a pirate ship that was captured by the French off the coast of Spain, which they occupied at the time. Turpin and his shipmates were put in prison for a time, then came the Spanish to re-take their port town. They seized it and released the prisoners and set them free. The record is in the Annual Register and the year was 1733 if I remember correctly, a time that is a blank for Richard Turpin, so for me it was him. That was shortly before he became a highwayman. I can say more.

  2. I don't know of a British title "Dick and his friend Duke," maybe that title was a Spanish translation. There are as many different Dick Turpin titles as there are Jack Sheppard from the nineteenth century.

    The penny dreadfuls are very rare and most of them reside in the British Library. Many Dick Turpin dreadfuls are on microfilm as the Barry Ono collection from the same library.

  3. Thanks John, I made obviously a mistake when looking at this cover of Dick and his Friend Duke. I took for granted it was a penny dreadful based on the highwayman adventures, yet the reference to Dick Turpin included in the comment (taken from from Wikipedia), was by no means related to the material offered for sale.

  4. Hi John, thanks for your amazing blogs which I am only just discovering;-)

    I have a question. I recently bought a copy of Black Bess in two volumes the full 254 parts which have obviously been privately bound. Do you know how to tell if they are the penny originals or the half penny reissue. The preface is dated London March 18th, 1868. I have a copy of The String of Pearls from 1850 and The Lady in Black from 1847 and although they are the same size, my Black Bess is larger.

    I haven't been able to come to any conclusion searching the internet and just thought if anyone could help me it would be you.

    Any information you might have would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  5. I would say it was a later issue if the preface is dated 1868. Reynolds's Miscellany was advertising Black Bess in1863

    Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road. A Tale of the Good Old Times* Anon. (Edward Viles) Illustrated by Robert Prowse and others, No. 1 August 8, 1863 (Reynolds's Miscellany ad) E. Harrison, Salisbury Court, Fleet Street. “ran to 254 penny weekly numbers and 2028 pages, each number of eight pages…” -Frank Jay N&Q April 29, 1922.

    Check my Penny Bibliography for dates on your other titles >

    John :)

  6. My volume of String of Pearls coincides exactly with your bibliography, as does The Lady in Black which incidentally runs to 71 numbers. ;-)

    Thanks again, John.