homepage logo

The Return of the Penny Dreadful

By Staff | Jan 16, 2017

The fandom of the recent Showtime/Sky series “Penny Dreadful” revived a coined phrase not commonly heard since the Victorian England era. Indeed, I confess, I was almost through the first season (and realizing Penny Dreadful was not a character in the show) before I consulted Google with the origins of the phrase. What I discovered, spun me into a time-travel adventure back through history, to 19th century England.

Well, at least for an hour or two.

With the rise of capitalism and industrialization in the 1830’s, Britain saw literacy rates increase as well as opportunities for the working class. As in any booming economy, money is spent more freely in the area of entertainment and travel.

A market developed for cheap, popular literature. The serial booklets of juicy tales and adventure, “Penny Bloods” were born.

Issued in weekly parts and costing a penny, these gothic tales full of illustration sometimes broke off mid-sentence on the final page-leaving the reader in suspense. By the 1860’s the “Penny Bloods” were renamed Penny Dreadfuls and expanded to stories of pirates, highwaymen, crime and the supernatural. Some of the stories were reprints and rewrites of thrillers such as The Monk, and Highwaymen as in Black Bess or The Knight of The Road or The Flying Dutchman.

The most successful Penny Dreadful was The Mysteries of London which was written and published in 1844 by G W M Reynolds. He based it on a French book, but soon it developed into a literary phenomenon, spanning 12 years, 624 numbers and 4.5 million words.

This series’ popularity was due to the intimate association the readers experienced, with it contrasting the dreadful slums to the decadent lives of the rich.

True crime and murder also became popular by the mid 1800’s. Previously adored characters with super-human exploits such as Dick Turpin made the way for Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls. The romance of the “Demon Barber” who murdered his clients for his neighbor Mrs. Lovett to bake into meat pies.

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. The Penny Dreadful’s focus now narrowed to the Victorian era children.

By the 1890’s, the popularity of penny-literature was challenged by many competitors. Periodicals and Marvels published by Alfred Harmsworth were priced at one half-penny and inspired moral tales instead of the dubious example of crime and horrors the ‘dreadfuls’ brought to the upcoming generation.

Eventually, these stories reverted back to the same sensationalized material that the competitors’ publications used and then, over time, evolved into British comic magazines.

As an Archivist and lover of historical documents, I often cross paths of interesting tales during my research. Sometimes they are well known tales, re-told through the generations and sometimes, they are purposely buried deep within the written words.

I suppose that is why the Penny Dreadful phrase caught my attention. At times, these tales seem right off the page of penny-fiction, not the historical account of a once living person. Whether fact or fiction, it can be difficult to decipher the difference.

In the upcoming months, I will share some of these juicy, regional tales in this column. However, in true fashion of the sensationalized Penny Dreadful, some may be fiction. I ask the reader, “Will you be able to tell the difference?”

Of course, suspense is key to any true Penny Dreadful, but it seems almost cruel to make anyone wait a month to confirm their conclusion. Therefore, with timely consideration, I will post the answer and further information on each tale on facebook.com/ ABHResearch.