Penny Bloods and the Penny Dreadfuls

Penny Bloods, later called Penny Dreadfuls, were cheap nineteenth century publications that featured sensational and intriguing stories printed over a series of weeks. Originally, they told stories of pirates and highwaymen, and later focused on crime and mystery. They were popular because they cost buyers a penny and were cheaper than other fiction available, such as works by Charles Dickens, which cost about a shilling (or 12 pennies).

Sweeney Todd Cover, Public Domain

Penny Dreadful “Sweeney Todd” cover. Public domain.

The weekly penny publications were extremely popular, and millions of copies were sold. They appeared in the 1830s around the same time as Madame Tussaud was traversing the countryside with her show of wax figure that included plenty of murderers and the paraphernalia associated with them. The publications become so popular there were soon over 100 publishers producing them. Penny Bloods and Penny Dreadfuls were originally targeted to young working class males and entertained them by allowing them to escape into a thrilling fantasy world. The publications were printed on cheap paper, often included black and white illustrations on the front page, and were short, no more than eight to sixteen pages long.

Over time the Penny Bloods or Penny Dreadfuls changed. Some of the early stories included: Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Etc. that appeared in 1836. A pirate tale titled The Flying Dutchman appeared in the late 1830s, and, Emily Fitzormond, or the Deserted One was a mystery that began appearing in 1841. In the mid-1840s, publications titled The Mysteries of London began to contrast the lives of the rich against the poor living in slums. Domestic romances also appeared, among which were “Fatherless Fanny, or the Mysterious Orphan, and Alice Horne, or the Revenge of the Blighted One. One of the more popular series published happened between 1867 and 1868. It was Black Bess; or the Knight of the Road (cover shown above). This 254-part series was about the infamous pock-marked murdering highwayman, Richard “Dick” Turpin (1705-1739). He became so popular, he morphed from a thieving uncouth murderer into a heroic and gallant protector of the weak.

Penny Dreadful Cover from the 1860s

a Penny Dreadful cover from the 1860s. Public domain.

According to one nineteenth century writer, there were several different types of Penny Dreadfuls: The first and highest class publications were claimed to always honor virtue. A step below were publications called “milksop” because characters in these tales were the type of men that might believe it was proper to seize, by force, any woman whom they fancied, but they were not low enough to beat their wives or murder their mothers. Thirdly, and last, the lowest publications were classified as Police Court horrors that included “details of disgusting and filthy lives.”[1]

One serial publication that might be considered the lowest kind was about a highwayman known as Richard Ryder, otherwise called Galloping Dick. He robbed and murdered people. Authorities eventually captured him and it seemed as if Galloping Dick’s end would be him dangling from a noose at Newgate. Somehow that did not happen because his murdering confederates achieved a daring rescue, and, once more, Galloping Dick was set free to rob, plunder, and murder at will.

Penny Dreafuls showing the cover for Spring-Heeled Jack, Public Domain

Penny Dreadful cover for “Spring-Heeled Jack.” Public domain.

It was nefarious characters such as Galloping Dick that caused critics to declare Penny Dreadfuls created crime. One critic became so upset about them he suggested, “the ‘Penny Dreadful’ is a pest which should be put down.”[2] Another nineteenth century critic noted that the books produced a “baleful influence on the minds and morals of the rising generation.”[3] Other critics hoping to make their case about the publications’ criminal influence pointed to an instance where a reputed half-witted boy was so consumed and enthralled by the Penny Dreadful books, he killed his mother in imitation of the books.

Not everyone supported the critics or the idea that the Penny Dreadfuls were the cause of crime and murder. The famous weekly British magazine of humor and satire, Punch, was one publication that did not believe the books influenced or created crime. In fact, the publication was somewhat sympathetic to the books, and, to show its support, Punch published the following poem:

“Alas! for the poor ‘Penny Dreadful’!

They say if a boy gets his head-full

Of terrors and crimes,

He turns pirate — sometimes;

Such literature is not healthy;

But does it make urchins turn stealthy

Depleters of tills.

Destroyers of wills,

Or robbers of relatives wealthy?

A lad, who’s a natural ‘villing’

When reading or robbing and killing

May feel wish to do so;

But Sheppard — like Crusoe —

To your average boy’s only ‘thrilling.’

Let us put down the vile,

Yet endeavour the while,

To be just to the poor ‘Penny Dreadful’!”[4]

A gentleman named P.E. Moulder wrote an article titled “The Literature of Factory Workers by One of Them.” He did not blame Penny Dreadfuls for crime and stated in relation to young male factory workers reading them:

“I do not know whether the boys of our upper and middle classes read this class of literature (though I strongly suspect they do when they get the chance), but I do know that our factory boys are ravenous devourers of Penny Dreadfuls, and I must confess that so far as I am able to judge I cannot see that the majority are any the worse for doing so. I doubt whether this wholesale denunciation of Penny Dreadfuls can have any good effect on the lads themselves, for this reason , that it is part of a boy’s nature to delight in tales of thrilling adventures, clever invention, and remarkable travel.”[5]

Another assessment of Penny Dreadfuls that also supported the cheap books noted:

“Evil men are not evil because they read bad books: they read bad books because they are evil: and being evil, or diseased, they are quickly able to extract evil or disease even from good books. There is talk of disseminating the works of our best authors, at a cheap rate, in the hope that they will drive the Penny Dreadful out of the market. But has good literature at the cheapest driven the middle classes form their false gods?”[6]

Competing literature began to challenge the popularity of Penny Dreadfuls in the 1890s with The Halfpenny Marvel, popular publications produced by Alfred Harmsworth, a British newspaper and publishing magnate. These were cheaply priced half-penny magazines with one long complete tale and three or four short stories. However, soon the short stories were replaced with an installment of serial stories that often involved foreign travel and sometimes featured detective tales.

Alfred Harmsworth. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Initially, The Halfpenny Marvel tales were considered to be more respectable than the competition. Harmsworth claimed he began publishing them hoping to challenge the “pernicious influence” of Penny Dreadfuls and stated in an editorial in 1893:

“It is almost a daily occurrence with magistrates to have before them boys who, having read a number of ‘dreadfuls,’ followed the examples set forth in such publications, robbed their employers, bought revolvers with the proceeds, and finished by running away from home, and installing themselves in the back streets as ‘highwaymen.’ This and many other evils the ‘penny dreadful’ is responsible for. It makes thieves of the coming generation, and so helps fill our gaols.”[7]

Cover for “The Halfpenny Marvel.” Public domain.

Harmsworth soon produced other publications, such as The Union Jack, that focused on adventure stories primarily set around the British Empire and at sea. At first the stories were high-minded moral tales, reportedly based on true experiences, but it was not long before these papers started using the same kind of material as the publications they competed against and they turned into what became known as the “ha’penny dreadfuller.”

A “Union Jack” cover in 1908. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] British Books, vol. 11-12 1896, p. 124.
  • [2] The Publisher, Vol. 10, 1895, p. 383.
  • [3] British Books, p. 1.
  • [4] Punch, 1895, p. 109.
  • [5] British Books, p. 124. 
  • [6] The Speaker, Vol. 12, 1895, p. 368.
  • [7] Boyd, K., Manliness and the Boys’ Story Paper in Britain, 2003 p. 37.

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