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Extra! Extra! Read All About It! Penny Dreadfuls Linked To Juvenile Delinquency!

Karen Thompson-Butler | University of Lancaster

“We have taught boys to read, we have put cheap literature within the reach of the poorest, and the results are not altogether edifying. Lads of a good natural character, honest and trustworthy, are suddenly seized with a rage for creeping through holes in walls and stealing property.” Daily News, 4th October 1875, Issue 9187, Author unknown

The Forster’s Education Act of 1870 created compulsory elementary education in England and Wales for children between the ages of five and thirteen. This resulted in a steady rise in literacy rates. However, some middle-class writers were concerned about what working-class children were reading and the effect that it would have on them. It was felt that popular ‘Penny Dreadful’ magazines glamorised the pirates, thieves, and murderers, that were central characters in many of their stories. As a result, the readership would be inspired to copy their actions. The above article in the Daily News questioned whether increased literacy was an altogether good thing.

Reductions in stamp and advertising duty combined with improved printing methods and cheaper paper meant the cost of producing newspapers plummeted. Demand for inexpensive reading matter resulted in a proliferation of magazines and newspapers catering to a newly literate mass readership. Owing to the inferior quality of both the paper and content, paired with their price of one penny, some of these magazines became commonly known as ‘Penny Dreadfuls’. This categorisation was created during the 1870s by writers in middle-class newspapers such as The Telegraph and The Illustrated London News, who were concerned about the popularity of ‘impure literature’ and its effect upon impressionable young minds.

In 1816, a few decades prior to the popularity of the ‘Penny Dreadful’, the term ‘juvenile delinquency’ was first recorded. Use of the term appears to have been triggered by a sharp increase in crimes committed by younger people from 1807 onwards. As early as the fourteenth century, it was believed that young children were inherently incapable of evil, and as such could not be held responsible for their actions. In the eighteenth century, this age was set at seven years, meaning that any child over the age of seven had the same status as an adult. They were allowed to gamble, drink alcohol, and were expected to work. However, they were also deemed legally responsible for their actions, could be prosecuted as adults, and be sentenced to imprisonment, transportation, and even execution.

This changed in the early years of the nineteenth century when it had to be proved that children between the ages of seven and fourteen were both capable and aware that they were committing crimes. Changes to legislation in 1855 meant that most minor offences, including those typically attributed to young offenders, moved away from the Crown Court and were heard in petty sessions. The victims of these minor crimes were also encouraged to pursue prosecution in the minor courts as the process was much cheaper. Most regional newspapers had a regular column reporting the number of cases tried at each session, and emphasis was given to ‘sensational’ crimes, especially those involving women and children. The sudden increase in the number of these cases following the change in legislation could have created the impression that juvenile crime was escalating out of control.

The Wild Boys of London, or, The Children of Night. A story of present day.  1866
The Wild Boys of London, or, The Children of Night. A story of present day. 1866

Cheap and lurid reading matter was in demand throughout the nineteenth century. The ‘Penny Blood’ was the term given to the sensational and lurid novels which were produced in weekly episodes at a cost of one penny. As the century progressed the ‘Penny Blood’ gave way to the ‘Penny Dreadful’. However, the popularity of such literature reached back even further, to the sixteenth century, when broadsides, cheaply produced sheets containing details of crimes, executions, and the confessions of condemned criminals were popular reading matter. These publications were often sold at public executions, and although they contained details of murders and hangings, they were not written in the sensational style that became dominant from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.

During the 1840s, newspaper proprietor Edward Lloyd published a series of illustrated newspapers which gained a substantial following amongst a working and lower middle-class readership. The serialised fiction contained within these periodicals featured the popular characters: Varney the Vampire, Sweeney Todd, and Spring-Heeled Jack. Initially, this literature was intended for adult readers. However, these melodramatic stories featuring exaggerated characters and coupled with garish illustrations soon found favour with a much younger audience. By 1865 the market for juvenile literature was expanding.

Teenage boys were in demand in the workplace; they were able to do many of the jobs normally done by adults, but for a fraction of the wage. This resulted in a target market of young men with a limited amount of free time, but also with some disposable income which could be spent on magazines. Serial fiction depicting lowlife crime, for example, The Wild Boys of London, would have been appealing to this audience, who were looking for a little excitement in their dreary lives.

The Wild Boys of London, or, The Children of Night. A story of present day.  1866
The Wild Boys of London, or, The Children of Night. A story of present day. 1866

One of the most popular periodicals of its day was Edwin J Brett’s Boys of England, a weekly publication which printed a total of 1,702 issues between its launch date on the 27th of November 1866 and the 30th of June 1899, before becoming incorporated into another magazine. In an early edition of the periodical, Brett stated his agenda was ‘to provide exciting stories which did not glorify pirates and villains’. Presumably, he was aware of the anxiety surrounding the correlation between boys’ reading matter and increasing juvenile crime rates. However, by looking at the subject matter discussed within the correspondence columns of the Boys of England we can see what topics concerned the readership and also gauge their reactions to the content of the magazine. Rather than being compelled to go on the rampage in violent crime sprees, readers’ questions revolved around normal height ranges for their age, entry requirements for the Navy, and how to improve one’s handwriting. These latter questions indicated that working-class readers were more interested in improving their chances of employment than in criminality.

Children’s Penny Dreadful Jack Harkaway’s Schooldays, estimated publication 1880
Children’s Penny Dreadful Jack Harkaway’s Schooldays, estimated publication 1880

As these ‘Penny Dreadful’ magazines apparently sensationalised crime, and it was believed that most juvenile crimes were committed by the working classes, it is understandable how there appeared to be a link between the two. Patronising views came from middle-class writers, such as Elizabeth Barret Browning (amongst others), who felt that working-class youths would be unable to distinguish between fantasy fiction and the reality of their everyday lives. Ironically, these writers were less concerned about the abysmal quality of life of these children.

This leads to the question: did reading cheap sensationalist fiction encourage the working-class boy into a life of crime, or was it the desperation to escape long working hours and abject poverty?

Children’s Penny Dreadful The Poor Boys of London, or, Driven to Crime, estimated publication 1866
Children’s Penny Dreadful The Poor Boys of London, or, Driven to Crime, estimated publication 1866

There is little evidence to suggest that ‘pernicious literature’ contributed to the rise of juvenile delinquency. In fact, the opposite appears to have happened: by the end of the nineteenth century, as overall literacy rates increased, juvenile crime rates decreased. It would seem that the anxieties surrounding the rise in juvenile delinquency being the result of working-class children being lured into criminality by reading ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ were completely unfounded.

A modern parallel would be the way in which today’s newspapers raise concerns about violent computer games potentially encouraging aggressive behaviour in those who play them. In the nineteenth century, the assumption was that the working classes were more predisposed to lawbreaking and that ‘impure literature’ was somehow to blame. I would suggest that these crimes occurred because of poor living conditions, long working hours, and low pay. Middle-class writers attempted to solve the perceived problem by encouraging children to read wholesome and self-improving literature, but this failed to achieve popularity. The perceived rise in crime was due to the transfer of many juvenile cases to the local courts, which in turn brought about the impression of a rising crime rate and had nothing to do with the reading material of young boys.


Further Reading:

  • Robert J. Kirkpatrick, From the Penny Dreadful to the Ha’penny Dreadfuller: A Bibliographical History of the Boys’ Periodical in Britain – 1762-1950, London, The British Library, 2013

  • C. Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900, Harlow, Pearson Education Limited, 2010

  • Barry Godfrey and Paul Lawrence, Crime and Justice 1750-1950, Oxon and New York, Routledge Press, 2011

Karen Thompson-Butler completed her MA at Edge Hill before going on to start her PhD at Lancaster University. Her areas of study are the mass readership publications of the late-Victorian Press, particularly correspondence columns, body image, advertising and design and the advertising of ‘quack’ medicines and products.


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