Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Thieves’ Literature: Three centuries of Penny Bloods, Sensational Literature & Popular Melodrama — an Introduction

— by John Adcock —♠

Thieves’ Literature:

Three centuries of Penny Bloods, Sensational Literature & Popular Melodrama, from the early 1600s to the early 1900s

The greater the crime, the larger the woodcut.  Nothing Like Example, All the Year Round, 1868

Table of Contents












In its wider range, thieves’ literature embraces obscene prints, flash songs, immoral books, and degrading performances in low theatres and penny gaffs. — Thieves and Thieving,’ The Cornhill Magazine1860 [1]

Traditional studies have identified the penny blood, or penny dreadful, as an evolution of the gothic novel popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Bibliographer Michael Sadleir first suggested the theory, which was repeated by Montague Summers in 1940 [2]. The first chapter of E.S. Turner’s popular study Boys Will Be Boys was titled The Gothic Hangover [3]. I have found it more fruitful to widen that view, identifying the penny blood as just one string in a long cultural evolution rooted in the last dying speeches, criminal biographies, and Newgate Calendars popular in previous generations. The Spectator in 1845 noticed that “the sermons and biographies of the Newgate Ordinary are the great originals of the Jack Sheppard and Paul Clifford schools of romance [4].”  

By the 1830s, to keep printing presses from lying idle, publishers and printers of unstamped newspapers, political pamphlets and anti-clerical tracts turned to weekly accounts issued in penny numbers composed of true and fictional crimes, supernatural wonders, and domestic romances. Some of the penny bloods, such as Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, and Vileroy; or, The Horrors of Zindorf Castle, drew their inspiration from the Gothic novel, but the Gothic influence was filtered through the fierce popular melodrama of the London stage. Also influential was the catchpenny press whose dying confessions, broad-sheets and street ballads were bawled about the suburbs of London from dawn to dusk.

The term “penny bloods” refers to the penny parts works published in the thirties, forties, and fifties by publishers like Benjamin Davey Cousins, Edward Lloyd, and George Purkess [5]. Thomas Frost, who wrote a variety of bloods in the forties, described them as “Newgate romances.” In contemporary articles and newspaper accounts these sanguinary works were described as “highwayman literature,” “literature of the rails,” “gallows literature,” “thieves’ literature,” “criminal literature,” “Tyburn literature,” “felon literature,” “yellow literature,” “foul literature,” “kitchen literature,” “literature of horror,” “obscene literature,” “gutter literature,” “literature of the people,” and “literature of the lower orders.” In later centuries, they were the “literature of vice,” “mischievous literature,” “literary sewage,” “pernicious literature,” “satanic literature,” or “sensational literature.” 

In 1886 author Thomas Frost conveyed a sensational story to the proprietor of a large circulation illustrated popular periodical who he does not name. “I am unable to say,” Frost wrote, “whether this publication is one of those which we sometimes hear spoken of as “penny dreadfuls,” because I have never heard that term defined, or any publication assigned by title to that category [6].”

The term “penny bloods” did not exist before 1892, except in phrases such as “bloody-bones school” and “penny blood and thunder.” The phrase was an invention of early penny “blood” collectors like Arthur Edward Waite, Barry Ono, John Medcraft, and Frank Jay. These collectors and booksellers popularized the term to describe the bloodthirsty literature they craved for their book-shelves and recalled from their childhood reading. The Melbourne bookseller J.P. Quaine used to address his letters to these old boys
 book collector’s as “Dear Blood Brother,” and sign off “thine in gore.” 

Writing to a customer in 1951 Quaine explained the view of collectors: “The use of the word “Blood” and “Dreadful” seems a matter of choice. It is generally accepted that a Penny Dreadful should be used to describe wildly imaginative or school stories, not necessarily of a gory nature, while the “blood’ means the really fierce and gory yarns of pirates, highwaymen and cut throats generally. But all the old journals had a bit of both and they would be hard to classify; however, most of the Hogarth’s, Fox’s and Brett’s were bloods purely and simply, especially the Hogarth House lot [7].”

The first known use of the term “penny dreadful” was in The Bookseller of February 28, 1867, and in 1874 a new edition of John Camden Hotten’s Slang Dictionary defined the phrase as “an expressive term for those penny publications which depend more upon sensationalism than upon merit, artistic or literary, for success [8].”  James Greenwood coined a similar term, “penny awfuls,” in 1869 [9]. Researches in Cheap Popular Literature, from The Social Science Review, 1864 describes the serial weekly Halfpenny Gazette, which it later identifies as having a “youth” audience, as being vulgarly known as the “A’penny Orrifier.” That is very close to a “penny dreadful.”
Unlike the early “bloods” of Edward Lloyd, George Purkess, and William Clark, which were in the main adult literature, the “dreadful” came to represent a peculiar form of children’s literature of the late sixties and seventies, written almost exclusively for boys, and published in installments in weekly story papers, penny parts, and bound novels. From 1887, on into the twentieth century, reprints of American dime novels were known in Australia and New Zealand as “Deadwood Dicks.” The pejorative term referred to the popular Deadwood Dick tales, which were issued in the 6d. Life and Adventure Library. The publisher was The Aldine Publishing Company of London, which shipped and sold reprinted dime novels with flaring color covers throughout the British Empire.

To avoid confusion, I (arbitrarily) adopt the term “penny blood” for sensational parts literature published in penny numbers between 1832 and 1859, chief among which were Ada the Betrayed, The String of Pearls, Tyburn Tree and The Mysteries of London, and “penny dreadful” for literature published in penny numbers from 1859, when James Malcolm Rymer began writing penny dreadful romances for Reynolds’s Miscellany, until 1933, when the Aldine Company, the last of the penny dreadful publishers, shut its doors for good. Most of the Aldine’s published after 1895 were not strictly speaking penny dreadfuls — Aldine dropped serial penny numbers in the 1890’s to concentrate on boys’ story papers and complete stories in booklet form. The Aldine building, which contained Aldine’s file copies, was destroyed in the London Blitz [10].

A concise description of the penny dreadful is found in an article titled 
The Literature of Vice, from The Bookseller, Feb 28, 1867. Penny dreadfuls were “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.” Penny numbers were published weekly, every Saturday.

[2]  J. P. Quaine in his Melbourne bookshop 

Most penny dreadful serials inhabited a strange, weird, and mysterious territory between the two extremes of wealth and poverty. “Our scenes will range from the highest to the lowest...,” wrote James Malcolm Rymer in one penny romance, The Dark Woman; or, Plot and Passion, from 1861. Plots of penny serials introduced readers to a polluted underworld of corrupted royalty, twisted aristocrats, high-toby-men, prison-breakers, and artful dodgers, with background scenery which shifted from the scented bed-chambers of royalty to the meanest hovels above the sewers of London. The road to Newgate Prison was short and quick, with Calcraft The Hangman, or Jack Ketch, with his name like a raven’s caw, waiting at the edge of the scaffold. The critics main complaint was not against the blood, violence, and sexuality exposed in sensational penny numbers, but the contempt for Queen, State, Church, and Law which had its origins in radical freethinking movements of the early nineteenth century.

The struggle with the difficulties of nature, or with savage foes, or with wild animals, which so greatly attracts all English lads, is exchanged for a struggle with the law, its agents, and civilized society [11]. — The Revival of Newgate Literature,’ The Spectator, June 271868

The plots of nineteenth century romances, melodramas, penny bloods and penny dreadfuls consisted of abandoned orphans of mysterious parentage, stolen wills, lost inheritance, masks, disguise, ambiguous sexuality, and emotional and physical violence. Vice was punished, and virtue rewarded, just as it happened on the stage. Many of the heroes — or anti-heroes, were figures from criminal history such as Jonathan Wild, Jack Sheppard and Blueskin (real name Joseph Blake). Female characters were defined as spotless saints or fallen women. Material events were driven by divine providence, coincidence, and fate. For the most part the Victorian public, who we are accustomed to view as prudes, shying at naked table-legs, viewed criminal romances with equanimity and read them for pleasure. Perhaps it is significant that most criminal romances were written under the shadow of the scaffold, with public executions a near monthly occurrence in the United Kingdom until the year 1868.

Killing time has come round again. The Judges are performing their periodical circuits; and, here and there, as the grave impersonation of the law’s majesty departs from the assize town, some guilty wretch, “under sentence,” is “left for execution.” A considerable relaxation in the severity of prison treatment at once takes place towards the condemned. He is more kindly treated than heretofore; he is better fed, more commodiously lodged; friends are allowed to visit him, and a pious chaplain devotes himself to his spiritual welfare. But, notwithstanding all this sympathy, certain dread arrangements are put into progress. 

JACK KETCH slips down from Town early, and by a night train, and the fatal proceeding dawns. The time is not far distant when we shall look back with as great horror at the practice of public executions as we now revert with indignation to the torture which our forefathers applied. 

Great, no doubt, has been our advance along the road of civilisation within the last few years — the mitigation of our criminal code being amongst the best systems of national improvement. But we have improved but slowly. It was only in 1790 that the law for putting criminals to death by burning was repealed. And some of the present generation can recall the frequent Monday morning’s work at the Old Bailey, when you turned your head away, and buried your eyes more deeply in the straw of the hackney coach you sat in, because the crowd at the top of Newgate-street announced that some half-dozen sheep stealers, &c., including a woman or two, were expiating their offences, as it was called, by undergoing strangulation. 

These sickening proofs of lingering barbarism are past. We do not presume to say that capital punishment is now more often inflicted than the safety of society demands; but we wonder that its public exhibition can still be tolerated, being confident that this must eventually be withdrawn, as a brutal and most brutalizing practice [12]. — Public Executions, The Era, 1854

Even when romantic scenes were set in the distant past the cardboard heroes and villains of the penny numbers walked, laughed, and fought in the real streets of London in Wych Street, Hyde Park, Fleet Street, and the Seven Dials. The contemporary reader of the fifties and sixties could shudder as he/she imagined the highwaymen, resurrection men, foot-pads, and boy burglars walking the same streets on view from their own bedroom windows.

There is scarcely a writer at the present day, I believe, connected with the periodical press, but who has written picturesque, humorous, or descriptive sketches, upon the sights, characters, and curiosities, natural and physical, of the Great Metropolis, the Great Wen, the Modern Babylon, the World of London, the Giant City, the Monster Metropolis, the Nineveh of the nineteenth century, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera [13].  Curiosities of London, Household Words, 1855

London’s streets and alleys were redolent with history and romance. A boy who read Edward Viles’s Blueskin, a Romance, could personally visit the locations mentioned in the book, which began with a scene set in Wych Street.

On The north side of Wych Street, nearly about the centre, is the entrance to New Inn, through which in the daytime there is a thoroughfare into the dismal region of Clare Market. In a narrow court of this street the notorious Jack Sheppard served his apprenticeship to Mr. Wood, the carpenter; and in White Lion passage stood the ‘hostelrie’ of the “White Lion” the scene of many of the events in the career of that prince of “cracksmen,” who used nightly to meet in the tap-room his professional friends and acquaintances, and with whose feats and various adventures the pen of Mr. Harrison Ainsworth has made us so familiar [14]. — Old and New London, Edward Walford, vol. 3

In the nineteenth century penny dreadfuls were considered ephemera; the writers, illustrators, and engravers carried out their tasks in anonymity, and few mourned their passing. In our own time, we are more tolerant of the lower class attributes of popular culture, the literature of the masses. The lives and adventures of the purveyors of “gallows literature,” are as fascinating as they are elusive.


[1] Thieves and Thieving, The Cornhill Magazine, Sept. 1860, p. 337

[2] Preface, A Gothic Bibliography, Montague Summers, London: Fortune Press, 1940, p. ix

[3] Boys Will Be Boys: The Story of Sweeney Todd, Deadwood Dick, Sexton Blake, Billy Bunter, Dick Barton, et al by E. S. Turner, was published in London by Michael Joseph Ltd. in October 1948. A new revised edition followed in 1957 and a further new revised edition in 1975.

[4] The Great Unchanged, The Spectator, May 3, 1845, p.420

[5] The earliest mention of fictional “penny parts” I could find was in the Durham Chronicle March 26, 1825 in which we discover a description of street boys selling cheap knock-offs of Memoirs of Harriette Wilson in penny and two penny numbers.

[6] Reminiscences of a Country Journalist, Thomas Frost, p.176

[7] Dec 6, 1951, Papers and Correspondence of Stanley Lorin Larnach, The University of Sydney

[8] “Put the Pernicious Things into the Fire;” The Perceived Menace of the Penny-Dreadful,  E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra, Henty Society Bulletin, No. 121, 2010

[9] The Seven Curses of London, by James Greenwood, London: S. Rivers & Co. 1869

[10] Speaking of Aldines, Charles Wright, The Collector’s Digest Annual, Christmas 1957

[11] The Revival of Newgate Literature, The Spectator, June 27, 1868, p.764

[12] Public Executions, The Era, March 26, 1854

[13] Curiosities of London, Household Words, June 23, 1855

[14] Old and New London, Edward Walford, vol. 3, p.34


[1] Edith the Captive; or, The Robbers of Epping Forest, By James Malcolm Rymer, Illustrated by C. F. Sargent and C. Bonner, 104 Nos. London : John Dicks. May 12, 1860

[2] Photograph of Melbourne bookseller J.P. Quaine,The Advocate, Burnie,Tasmania, Sept 20, 1948

[3] 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, Aug 2, 1863

[4] The Work Girls of London; Their Trials and Temptations, London: Newsagents’ Publishing Company, 147 Fleet Street. Illustrated by Harry Maguire and Robert Prowse, 1864, (colorized image)




  1. Great stuff! Thanks so much for this posting. Looking for the next installment...

  2. John,
    What a pleasure to read. Art and Scholarship at its best. Thank you for your good work. Anxious to see the road ahead.
    Mark Strand, Fargo, ND USA