Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and other Penny dreadfuls and bloods for your delection!


Penny Dreadfuls

and Penny Bloods

Just ONE page on the Collecting Books and Magazines web site based in Australia!
Page updated 29th October, 2008.
Justin's 'Collectors Miscellany' Extracts offsite

The term Penny Dreadful has become part of our everyday lives. I suppose that in the minds of most people it’s a term of abuse for cheap literature mainly read by juveniles. At least that’s what it originally was when it was first coined in the mid-19th century, but it soon became a label which society slapped on almost every form of literature for the young. I was amazed last week to see a bookseller on the Internet who had a sign on his home page which said "NO PENNY DREADFULS" underneath which was a cover from a Spiderman comic! The label has certainly traveled a long way.

To clarify the term, and its predecessor the Penny Blood, we have to go back to the first quarter of the 19th century. The popular form of literature in England then was the Gothic novel. The setting and plot to this type of fiction generally included castles, dungeons, hideous hags, plus a hero, heroine and villain. The problem here was that these books cost much more than any average worker could afford and, apart from this, only a small percentage of the working classes could read. A combination of events changed this situation and put popular literature into the hands of the common man.

Reforms in the government’s education policy led to most children being taught to read. The introduction of a new type of steam-powered printing press meant publications could be turned out at an unprecedented rate. The stamp tax on newspapers was abolished and a new type of paper made from esparto grass cost only a fraction of the existing price.

These factors led to cheaper literature being made available to a growing market of poor and working class people. For these first time readers caught in a squalid and deprived existence it was an escape into the exciting world of literature. The first periodicals to gain popular appeal (apart from newspapers and journals) were serial publications such as The Newgate Calendar and The Terrific Register (1825). The former chronicled the lives of famous criminals both present day and historical while the latter offered sensational reports of murders, tortures, ghostly sightings, bizarre customs etc. Charles Dickens ‘took in’ The Terrific Register every week and recalls being delightfully "...frightened out of my wits by it!"
The first publisher to successfully gauge the public’s growing fascination with sensational reading material was Edward Lloyd. His first serial publication (apparently) was ‘Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads etc" (1836) in 60 numbers.

Its success was instant and he quickly put out "History of the Pirates of all Nations" (1836) in 71 numbers. Lloyd was an unscrupulous businessman and had no qualms about cashing in on the dramatic success that Charles Dickens was enjoying at the time. He set his writers to produce plagiarisms of Dickens’s works, issuing them with slightly altered titles e.g. Oliver Twiss, Nickelas Nicklebery, The Penny Pickwick etc. Lloyd is credited with coining the term penny blood as his sensational publications invariably contained gory scenes.

In all Lloyd put out over 200 serials from the mid-1830s to the mid-1850s . The money they earned him helped establish a newspaper empire, which continued well into this century. In his later years Lloyd was ashamed of his early publications and employed agents to go around old bookshops buying up this material and destroying it. Luckily one agent stored up a large amount and later sold them for a handsome profit.

The launch of the storypaper The Boys of England in 1866 by Edwin J. Brett was the beginning of the end for the penny blood. Brett saw that adult readers had moved on to more ‘refined’ fiction in journals and newspapers. He aimed his new paper specifically at the juvenile market and used schoolboys as heroes in his stories. The result was a runaway success with sales starting at 150,000 per week, soaring to 250,000 in 1871 due to the introduction of the legendary character, Jack Harkaway. Strangely enough, Brett, had been a publisher of penny bloods prior to this. In 1860 he founded the infamous Newsagents’ Publishing Company. This firm put out some of the most daring bloods in its day such as 'The Wild Boys of London’ or, The Children of the Night (1866) in 105 numbers. The tale featured a gang of sewer-dwelling boys who salvaged corpses and done battle with the police! Its reprinting (c.1876) was suppressed by the police at number 79!

The success of Brett’s Boys of England led the way for a host of imitators all very similar in format. A critic at the time is credited with coining the term ‘penny dreadful’, which was used to describe this new breed of children’s literature. The label is unfair. The fiction in these publications was, by and large, of a high standard with exciting, well-written adventure stories. Far from glamorising villains and criminal behaviour these new storypapers condemned vice and promoted virtue. H.G. Wells, Winston Churchill and Noel Coward were amongst their boyhood audience and in later years praised them highly.

Even the more edifying Boys Own Paper (1879 -1967) published by The Religious Tract Society was branded a penny dreadful! Victorian society used escapist fiction as a scapegoat to blame for juvenile crime while ignoring the deeper ills like poverty and prostitution. In fact records show that at the height of the storypaper boom juvenile crime fell.

I’m a keen collector of the old penny bloods and penny dreadfuls. Over the years I’ve managed to build up a pretty good representative collection. If anybody out there collects or has material in my line, I would love to hear from you. Even if you have only a passing interest in this murky backwater of fiction you can get in touch with me as follows:

Contact: Michael Holmes mickeyholmes@gmail.com , Carrickcoola, Riverstown, Co. Sligo, Ireland, 
telephone  + 353 71 91 65036.

A friend and collector in the States has set up a listserve ( a kind of forum where people can leave messages, queries, articles, ads etc ) on the internet to try and promote more interest in penny dreadfuls, bloods dime novels and storypapers.
The address for Justin's listserve (online newsletter, as per CB&M List) is:


As you may or may not know I am trying to finish a bibliography of the Penny Bloods of Edward Lloyd and have kept running up against this old story about the mischievious doings of an Australian bookdealer back in the 1930s. It is recounted in a book called Penny Dreadfuls, written by an english author Mick Anglo, although I have come across it in several different places. The gist of it from his account is:

The following account of the matter appears in Mick Anglo’s book Penny Dreadfuls and other Victorian Horrors :

Montague Summers.....was certainly fooled by [John. P. Quaine,] an extremely knowledgeable Melbourne bookseller with a sense of humour, who issued an important catalogue for collectors in the 1930s. Stanley Larnach, a writer and collector of ‘dreadfuls’ who lived in Sydney, New South Wales, and was a leading member of the Book Collector’s Society of Australia, said that Quayne’s catalogue included two beautiful ‘dreadful’ titles: ‘The Skeleton Clutch; or, The Goblet of Gore’, a romance by T. Prest issued in penny parts (E.Lloyd 1841); and ‘Sawney Beane, the Man-Eater of Midlothian’ by T. Prest issued in penny parts (E.Lloyd 1851). Montague listed both of these splendid titles, which were Quayne inventions, in his Gothic Bibliography.

Apparently this was an intentional list of spurious titles which may have been intended as a sales ploy or literary joke. Problem is I want to establish if in fact they were inventions, or was Quaine drawing on another source.

Is there any way you could post my letter on your site - perhaps some old collector out there could help. If you can think of any other source for an answer, or better still where I could locate a copy of this dubious catalogue of Quaine's I would be tremendously grateful.

ARTICLES of interest
Spine-Chillers were Big Time, by Ray Heath: MAN, June, 1949 pps 18-19 (Australia)

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