Victorian London - Publications - Popular Fiction - Penny Dreadfuls and Gallows Literature

Penny Dreadfuls 

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Newsvender.- "NOW, MY MAN, WHAT IS IT?"

Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1845

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    Father of a Family (reads). "The wretched Murderer is supposed to have cut the throats of his three eldest Children, and then to have killed the Baby by beating it repeatedly with a Poker. * * * * *  In person he is of a rather bloated appearance, with a bull neck, small eyes, broad large nose, and coarse vulgar mouth. His dress was a light blue coat, with brass buttons, elegant yellow summer vest, and pepper-and-salt trowsers. When at the Station House he expressed himself as being rather 'peckish,' and said he should like a Black Pudding, which, with a Cup of Coffee, was immediately procured for him."

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1849

click here for Henry Mayhew on costermongers and literature in
London Labour and the London Poor

see also Mayhew in Letter to the Chronicle XXIX - click here

    Under such circumstances, it is easy enough to understand the agonized anxiety of low-lived ignorant Master Tomkins in these stirring times of Black Highwaymen, and Spring Heel Jacks, and Boy Detectives. In the shop window of the newsvendor round the corner, he sees displayed all in a row, a long line of “penny num­bers,” the mere illustrations pertaining to which makes his heart palpitate, and his hair stir beneath his ragged cap. There he sees bold highwaymen busy at every branch of their delightful avoca­tion, stopping a lonely traveller and pressing a pistol barrel to his affrighted head, and bidding him deliver his money or his life; or impeding the way of the mail coach, the captain, hat in hand, courteously robbing the inside passengers (prominent amongst whom is a magnificent female with a low bodice, who evidently is not insensible to the captain’s fascinating manner), while members of his gang are seen in murderous conflict with the coachman and the guard, whose doom is but too surely foreshadowed. Again, here is a spirited woodcut of a booted and spurred highwayman in headlong flight from pursuing Bow Street officers who are close at his heels, and in no way daunted or hurt by the contents of the brace of pistols the fugitive has manifestly just discharged point blank at their heads.
    But fairly in the way of the bold rider is a toll-gate, and in a state of wild excitement the toll-gate keeper is seen grasping the long bar that crosses the road. The tormenting question at once arises in the mind of Master Tomkins—is he pushing it or pulling it? Is he friendly to the Black Knight of the Road or is he not? Master T. feels that his hero’s fate is in that toll-gate man’s hands; he doesn’t know if he should vastly admire him or regard him with the deadliest enmity. From the bottom of his heart he hopes that the toll-gate man may be friendly. He would cheerfully give up the only penny he has in his pocket to know that it were so. He would give a penny for a simple “yes” or “no,” and all the while there are eight good letter-press pages along with the picture that would tell him all about it if he only were able to read! There is a scowl on his young face as he reflects on this, and bitterly he thinks of his hard-hearted father who sent him out to sell fusees when he should have been at school learning his A B C. Truly, he went for a short time to a Ragged School, but there the master kept all the jolly books to himself—the “Knight of the Road” and that sort of thing, and gave him to learn out of a lot of sober dry rubbish with­out the least flavour in it. Who says that he is a dunce and won’t learn? Try him now. Buy a few numbers of the “Knight of the Road” and sit down with him, and make him spell out every word of it. Never was boy so anxious after knowledge. He never picked a pocket yet, but such is his present desperate spirit, that if he had the chance of picking the art of reading out of one, just see if he wouldn’t precious soon make himself a scholar?
    Thus it is with the neglected boy, blankly illiterate. It need not be supposed, however, that a simple and quiet perusal of the astounding adventures of his gallows heroes from the printed text would completely satisfy the boy with sufficient knowledge to enable him to spell through a “penny number.” It whets his appetite merely. 

[click here for full text of The Seven Curses of London]

James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869

    Moreover, the boy who has been taught right from wrong, the boy who has been sent to school and knows how to read, has this advantage over his poor brother of the gutter—an advantage that tells with inexpressible severity against the community at large; he has trainers who, discovering his weakness, make it their profit and business to take him by the hand and bring him along in that path of life to which his dishonest inclination has called him.
    I allude to those low-minded, nasty fellows, the proprietors and promoters of what may be truthfully described as “gallows literature.” As a curse of London, this one is worthy of a special niche in the temple of infamy, and to rank first and foremost. The great difficulty would be to find a sculptor of such surpassing skill as to be able to portray in one carved stone face all the hideous vices and passions that should properly belong to it. It is a stale subject, I am aware. in my humble way, I have hammered at it both in newspapers and magazines, and many better men have done the same. Therefore it is stale. For no other reason. The iniquity in itself is as vigorous and hearty as ever, and every week renews its brimstone leaves (meanwhile rooting deeper and deeper in the soil that nourishes it), but unfortunately it comes under the category of evils, the exposure of which the public “have had enough of.” It is very provoking, and not a little disheartening, that it should be so. Perhaps this complaint may be met by the answer: The public are not tired of this one amongst the many abuses that afflict its soul’s health, it is only tired of being reminded of it. Explorers in fields less difficult have better fortune. As, for instance, the fortunate discoverer of a gold field is. Everybody would be glad to shake him by the hand—the hand that had felt and lifted the weight of the nuggets and the yellow chips of dust; nay, not a few would be willing to trim his finger nails, on the chance of their discovering beneath enough of the auriferous deposit to pay them for their trouble. But, to be sure, in a city of splendid commercial enterprise such as is ours, it can scarcely be expected that that amount of honour would be conferred on the man who would remove a plague from its midst as on the one whose magnificent genius tended to fatten the money-bags in the Bank cellars.
    At the risk, however, of being stigmatized as a man with a weak­ness for butting against stone walls, I cannot let this opportunity slip, or refrain from firing yet once again my small pop-gun against this fortress of the devil. The reader may have heard enough of the abomination to suit his taste, and let him rest assured that the writer has written more than enough to suit his; but if every man set up his “taste” as the goal and summit of his striving, any tall fellow a tip-toe might, after all, see over the heads of most of us. The main difficulty is that the tens and hundreds of thousands of boys who stint a penny from its more legitimate use to purchase a dole of the pernicious trash in question, have not “had enough of it.” Nothing can be worse than this, except it is the purveyors of letter-press offal have not had enough of it either, but, grown prosperous and muscular on the good feeding their monstrous profits have ensured them, they are continually opening up fresh ground, each patch fouler and more pestilent than the last.
    At the present writing I have before me half-a-dozen of these penny weekly numbers of “thrilling romance,” addressed to boys, and circulated entirely among them—and girls. It was by no means because the number of these poison pen’orths on sale is small that a greater variety was not procured. A year or so since, wishing to write a letter on the subject to a daily newspaper, I fished out of one little newsvendor’s shop, situated in the nice convenient neigh­bourhood of Clerkenwell, which, more than any other quarter of the metropolis, is crowded with working children of both sexes, the considerable number of twenty-three samples of this gallows literature. But if I had not before suspected it, my experience on that occasion convinced me that to buy more than a third of that number would be a sheer waste of pence. To be sure, to expect honest dealing on the part of such fellows as can dabble in “property” of the kind in question, is in the last degree absurd, but one would think that they would, for “business” reasons, maintain some show of giving a pen’orth for a penny. Such is not the case, however. In three instances in my twenty-three numbers, I found the self-same story published twice under a different title, while for at least half the remainder the variance from their brethren is so very slight that nobody but a close reader would dis­cover it.
    The six-pen’orth before me include, “The Skeleton Band,” “Tyburn Dick,”, “The Black Knight of the Road,” “Dick Turpin,” “The Boy Burglar,” and “Starlight Sall.” If I am asked, is the poison each of these papers contains so cunningly disguised and mixed with harmless-seeming ingredients, that a boy of shrewd intelligence and decent mind might be betrayed by its insidious seductiveness? I reply, no. The only subtlety employed in the precious composition is that which is employed in preserving it from offending the blunt nostrils of the law to such a degree as shall compel its interference. If it is again inquired, do I, though unwillingly, acknowledge that the artful ones, by a wonderful exercise of tact and ingenuity, place the law in such a fix that it would not be justified in interfering? I most distinctly reply, that I acknowledge nothing of the kind; but that, on the contrary, I wonder very much at the clumsiness of a legislative machine that can let so much scoundrelism slip through its cogs and snares.
    The daring lengths these open encouragers of boy highwaymen and Tyburn Dicks will occasionally go to serve their villanous ends is amazing. It is not more than two or three years since, that a prosperous member of the gang, whose business premises were in, or within a few doors of Fleet Street, by way of giving a fair start to his published account of some thief and murderer, publicly advertised that the buyers of certain numbers would be entitled to a chance of a Prize in a grand distribution of daggers. Specimens of the deadly weapons (made, it may be assumed, after the same fashion as that one with which “flash Jack,” in the romance, pinned the police officer in the small of his back) were exhibited in the publisher’s shop window, and in due course found their way into the hands of silly boys, with minds well primed for “daring exploits,” by reading “numbers 2 and 3 given away with number 1.”
    It is altogether a mistake, however, to suppose that the poison publisher’s main element of success consists in his glorification of robbers and cut-throats. To be sure he can by no means afford to dispense with the ingredients mentioned in the concoction of his vile brew, but his first and foremost reliance is on lewdness. Every­thing is subservient to this. He will picture to his youthful readers a hero of the highway, so ferocious in his nature, and so reckless of bloodshed, that he has earned among his comrades the flatter­ing nick-name of “the Panther.” He will reveal the bold panther in all his glory, cleaving the skull of the obstinate old gentleman in his travelling carriage, who will not give up his money, or setting an old woman on the kitchen fire, as a just punishment for hiding her guineas in the oven, in fishing them out of which the panther burns his fingers; he will exhibit the crafty “panther” wriggling his way through the floor boards of his cell, into a sewer beneath, and through which he is to make his escape to the river, and then by a flourish of his magic pen, he will convey the “panther” to the “boudoir” of Starlight Sall, and show you how weak a quality valour is in the presence of “those twin queens of the earth,” youth and beauty! The brave panther, when he has once crossed the threshold of that splendid damsel (who, by the way, is a thief, and addicted to drinking brandy by the “bumper”) is, vulgarly speaking, “nowhere.” The haughty curl of his lip, the glance of his eagle eye, “the graceful contour of his manly form,” a mere gesture of which is sufficient to quell rising mutiny amongst his savage crew, all fall flat and impotent before the queenly majesty of Sall. But there is no fear that the reader will lose his faith in Panther Bill, because of this weakness confessed. As drawn by the Author (does the pestiferous rascal so style himself, I wonder?) Starlight Sall is a creature of such exquisite loveliness, that Jupiter himself might have knelt before her. She is such a matchless com­bination of perfection, that it is found necessary to describe her charms separately, and at such length that the catalogue of the whole extends through at least six pages.
    It is in this branch of his devilish business that the author of “Starlight Sall” excels. It is evident that the man’s mind is in his work, and he lingers over it with a loving hand. Never was there such a tender anatomist. He begins Sall’s head, and revels in her auburn tresses, that “in silken, snaky locks wanton o’er her shoulders, white as eastern ivory.” He is not profound in fore-heads, and hers he passes over as “chaste as snow, or in noses, Sall’s being described briefly as “finely chiselled;” but he is well up in the language of eyes—the bad language. He skirmishes play­fully about those of Sall, and discourses of her eyebrows as “ebon brow,” from which she launches her excruciating shafts of love. He takes her by the eye-lashes, and describes them as the “golden fringe that screens the gates of paradise,” and finally he dips into Sall’s eyes, swimming with luscious languor, and pregnant with tender inviting to Panther Bill, who was consuming in ardent affection, as “the rippling waves of the bright blue sea to the sturdy swimmer.” It is impossible here to repeat what else is said of the eyes of Starlight Sall, or her teeth, “like rich pearls,” or of her “pouting coral lips, in which a thousand tiny imps of love are lurking.” Bear it in mind that this work of ours is designed for the perusal of thinking men and women; that it is not intended as an amusing work, hut as an endeavour to portray to Londoners the curses of London in a plain and unvarnished way, in hope that they may be stirred to some sort of absolution from them. As need not be remarked, it would be altogether impossible to the essayer of such a task, if he were either squeamish or fastidious in the handling of the material at his disposal; but I dare not follow our author any further in his description of the personal beauties of Starlight Sall. Were I to do so, it would be the fate of this book to be flung into the fire, and every decent man who met me would regard himself justified in kicking or cursing me; and yet, good fathers and mothers of England—and yet, elder brothers and grown sisters, tons of this bird-lime of the pit is vended in London every day of the Christian year.
    Which of us can say that his children are safe from the con­tamination? Boys well-bred, as well as ill-bred, are mightily inquisi­tive about such matters, and the chances are very clear, sir, that if the said bird-lime were of a sort not more pernicious than that which sticks to the fingers, we might at this very moment find the hands of my little Tom and your little Jack besmeared with it. Granted, that it is unlikely, that it is in the last degree improbable, even; still, the remotest of probabilities have before now shown themselves grim actualities, and just consider for a moment the twinge of horror that would seize on either of us were it to so happen! Let us for a moment picture to ourselves our fright and bewilderment, if we discovered that our little boys were feasting off this deadly fruit in the secrecy of their chambers! Would it then appear to us that it was a subject the discussion of which we had “had enough of”? Should we be content, then, to shrug our shoulders after the old style, and exclaim impatiently against the barbarous taste of writers who were so tiresomely meddlesome? Not likely. The pretty consternation that would ensue on the appalling discovery!—the ransacking of boxes and cupboards, to make quite sure that no dreg of the poison, in the shape of an odd page or so, were hidden away! ~the painful examination of the culprit, who never till now dreamt of the enormity of the thing he had been doing!—the reviling and threatening that would be direc­ted against the unscrupulous news-agent who had supplied the pernicious pen’orth! Good heavens! the tremendous rumpus there would be! But, thank God, there is no fear of that happening.
    Is there not? What are the assured grounds of safety? Is it because it stands to reason that all such coarse and vulgar trash finds its level amongst the coarse and vulgar, and could gain no footing above its own elevation? It may so stand in reason, but Unfortunately it is the unreasonable fact that this same pen poison finds customers at heights above its natural low and foul water­line almost inconceivable. How otherwise is it accountable that at least a quarter of a million of these penny numbers are sold weekly? How is it that in quiet suburban neighbourhoods, far removed from the stews of London, and the pernicious atmosphere they engender; in serene and peaceful semi-country towns where genteel boarding schools flourish, there may almost invariably be found some small shopkeeper who accommodatingly receives consignments of “Blue-skin,” and the “Mysteries of London,” and unobtrusively supplies his well-dressed little customer with these full-flavoured articles? Granted, my dear sir, that your young Jack, or my twelve years old Robert, have minds too pure either to seek out or crave after literature of the sort in question, but not Un-frequently it is found without seeking. It is a contagious disease, just as cholera and typhus and the plague are contagious, and, as everybody is aware, it needs not personal contact with a body stricken to convey either of these frightful maladies to the hale and hearty. A tainted scrap of rag has been known to spread plague and death through an entire village, just as a stray leaf of “Panther Bill,” or “Tyburn Tree” may sow the seeds of immorality amongst as many boys as a town can produce.

[click here for full text of The Seven Curses of London]

James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869

see also Thomas Archer on bad influence of penny dreadfuls - click here

see alsoJames Greenwood in The Wilds of London - click here


was the Strand at Night, described by the gentleman who wrote to the Daily Telegraph of Aug.26, over the signature of "ASHAMED":-
    "I found it, what you may see for yourself any night, a veritable pandemonium. . . .  It was very much lighter than the Strand use to be formerly. The noise was deafening. The crowd seemed scudding to and fro, as if bent on some expedition of intense haste. Hansoms were rushing by, one moment, as if driven by excited fiends; next moment there was a block of carts and carriages, almost locked close together, from kerb to kerb. I would not have dared to cross the road for fear of a horrible death. Still the shouting continued, and the lights blazed, and the people hurried by - no rest, no pause, no peace, not for a moment! I stood by the street corner and held on to the iron post, and tried to realise the facts of the procession; and, as I looked, and listened to the hideous cries, I said to myself, 'Surely, I cannot let my wife into the secret of all that is going on here.' Presently, the confusion, so to speak, disentangled itself and became plain - too vilely plain. Men were calling out the news of the day at the top of their voices, but louder still boys and girls - young things of girls not thirteen years old, some of them - were vending vociferously prints which I do not think ought to be sold even in secret. I had heard of these distressing publications, and I knew they were to be obtained in London; but I had not idea that the police would allow them to be sold, and by young girls - shoeless, impudent little waifs - in the Strand at night. I suppose girls and boys no bigger than themselves purchase this pestilent trash and consume their prurient horrors out of sight of parents and guardians. It is an awful shame, Sir, when you come to think of it, this fouling the minds of the young to turn a dirty penny. I don't care what the motives of the people may be who sow such printed poison broadcast. No good, no possible good, can come of it being hawked about by young folk in the open Strand of a night. While I was standing by the post, a girl of about seventeen, most ragged and dirty, pushed a picture-paper into my face. It was a paper about the devil, I think, illustrated with a woodcut frontispiece of burlesque hussies, such as one sees in comic operas. I am sure by the girl's leer it was something vile. At her heels came a little street urchin, not higher than my elbow, bawling out another precious fly-leaf concerning Satan in his character of professed Lothario."
    [A night or two later the Police took courage and stopped this traffic in filthy garbage. Colonel Henderson should have ordered this to be done before. Ed. - P.I.P.]

The Penny Illustrated Paper, 5 September, 1885