Sunday, 30 October 2016

A Brief History of Penny Dreadfuls

In the 1830s, increasing literacy and improving technology saw a boom in cheap fiction for the working classes. ‘Penny bloods’ was the original name for the booklets that, in the 1860s, were renamed penny dreadfuls and told stories of adventure, initially of pirates and highwaymen, later concentrating on crime and detection.

The first ever penny dreadful published was 'Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, &c.' It was  published in 1836 in 60 issues. 

Highwaymen remained a favourite topic for Penny Dreadfuls as publications such as  Gentleman Jack, Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road, went to show.

The illustrations in these kind of publications were an essential element, particulary when it came to marketing. One regular reader was quoted as saying: ‘You see’s an engraving of a man hung up, burning over a fire, and some…go mad if they couldn’t learn what he’d been doing, who he was, and all about him.’ 

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that one publisher’s standing instruction to his illustrators was, ‘more blood – much more blood!’

The most successful penny-dreadful the world has ever seen was Mysteries of London by G W M Reynolds which first appeared in 1844. 

He based the series on a French book, but it soon took on a life of its own, spanning 12 years, 624 numbers and nearly 4.5 million words . Instead of highwaymen, this series was much closer its readers’ own lives, contrasting the dreadful world of the slums with the decadent life of the careless rich.

After highwaymen and then evil aristocrats fell out of fashion, penny-bloods found even more success with stories of true crimes, especially murders. And if there were no good real-life crimes current, then the bloods invented them. The most successful of them was the story of Sweeney Todd. The ‘Demon Barber’ first appeared in a blood entitled The String of Pearls, which began publication in 1846. Even before it reached its conclusion, it was adapted for the stage, setting the murderous barber, who killed his clients for his neighbour Mrs Lovett to bake into meat-pies, on the road to world fame.

After concentrating first on highwaymen and then on true crime,  it was the pursuers, not the murderers, who took centre-stage in penny dreadful publications.

 In 1865, a 70-part penny dreadful, The Boy Detective, or, The Crimes of London, appeared, with its hero, Ernest Keen, who runs away from home and works for a police inspector, ‘so cleverly that the fly coves called him the BOY DETECTIVE!’

Penny-bloods had originally had a broad readership, but in the 1860s the focus narrowed, and children became the main target. There were dozens of titles – The Wild Boys of London (1864–66), The Poor Boys of London (c.1866), even The Work Girls of London (1865).

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