Penny Dreadfuls of the Victorian Era

Hello, my sweetie!

Metropolitan London of the Victorian era was a labyrinthine universe that was rapidly expanding; a dangerous world full of risks.

The melodramatic stories that were at the heart of the cheap booklets of the time functioned largely as a relief valve to this chaos. It is noteworthy that the same position occupied by the penny dreadfuls in London's entertainment was undertaken by the cinema addressed to the same audience a few decades later. 

The penny dreadfuls appeared in Great Britain in the late 19th century causing an unprecedented publishing phenomenon. These were cheap-cost dramatized sequels aimed primarily at the lower social classes.

The subjects they dealt with were largely grotesque, overflowing with the sole aim of causing awe and amazement. They usually involved extreme and frightening incidents, serial killings and all sorts of atrocities, often deriving their content from real incidents that took place in the dark alleys of Victorian metropolitan London.

The episodes were circulated on a weekly basis and consisted of 8 to 16 pages, accompanied by rich text and illustrations. The front page was dominated by the title in large letters and a large black and white illustration typical of the theme and story of the episode.

Keep reading, sweetie! 🙂

First Appearance

The first publications appeared in the 1830s and were immediately beloved by the working classes to which they were primarily targeted. But they were also loved by many readers from the upper social classes, which undoubtedly contributed to their dissemination.

The number of published titles rose sharply in the 1830s and 1850s. In particular, by the end of 1850, there were already over 100 publishers of penny dreadfuls across England.

The first penny dreadful, "Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, & c.", was published in 1836 with the main theme of the adventures of notorious robbers and other thugs. It was a great success and completed in sixty episodes.

Mysteries of London

The most successful commercial series was George W. M. Reynolds' Mysteries of London. The series began in 1844 and has enjoyed great success for 12 consecutive years, publishing 624 issues.

Much of his success was due to the subject dealing with life in nineteenth-century London. It presented the city as a distinct mosaic of contrasts. The stories brilliantly highlighted the crime and poverty of the London slums as well as the wastefulness and wastage that characterized the wealthy inhabitants of the city.

Even today this series is of great interest as it is considered one of the first examples of steampunk text.

Sir Varney, An Aristocratic Vampire

One of the most interesting cases is Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood.

It consists of 220 issues that were published between 1845 and 1847 and tell in an intense melodramatic tale the stories of an aristocratic vampire, Sir Francis Varney, who persistently pursues the Bannerworth family. The paternity of the text has not been fully ascertained as the work is sometimes attributed to James Malcolm Rymer and other times to Thomas Preskett Prest. 

Varney the Vampire is considered particularly important in literary rule, especially in the category of Gothic horror, not so much for the quality of its writing or its inventive plot but for its role in the development of vampire literature. The image of the aristocrat-vampire as we know him today, and as Bram Stoker inspired him in "Dracula" (1897), owes his form to a significant degree in Victorian love for Vampire Varney.

The Vampire Varney has canines and its bite marks on the victims' throats. He also possesses submission forces and superhuman strength. He differs from the classic form of the vampire in the following elements: he is not afraid of garlic and circulates undisturbed in daylight. Also, although he does not need water and food to survive he can feed on human food.

But the most important element of Varney is that he is the first vampire in Gothic literature who expresses strong signs of dissatisfaction with his vampiric nature.

Spring-Heeled Jack And Batman

One particularly popular hero of the penny dreadfuls was Spring-heeled Jack. This character was based on a legend that sprang from the urban imagination and quickly found himself in the cheap brochures of Victorian society.

The appearances of the real Jack split and terrorized the Victorians, and the recordings of his appearances/attacks quickly took on mass hysteria.

The legend speaks of a tall man with a cape who has the ability to make supernatural jumps, hence the connection to the springs at his feet. Those who claimed to have seen him spoke of a devilish figure with glossy nails, eyes firing and a mouth that fired blue gases at his victims, who were usually young girls or constables.

The first recorded report of this strange man's appearance was made in 1837 in London. There have even been government agencies that have publicly confirmed his existence to some extent. A typical example is a mayor of London, Sir John Cowan, who referred to Jack in a speech given on 9 January 1838.

Jack's legend with the springs on his feet has been so crucial that it has become central to dozens of cheap periodicals and plays. The evolution of the character through the penny dreadfuls is of particular interest because, from an urban legend, Jack was quickly turned into an anti-hero in the 1870s and from 1880 until the early 20th century emerged as a classic superhero.

Jack's legend is intertwined with another popular masked hero as the resemblance between them is obvious. Specifically, Jack the penny dreadful Spring-Heeled Jack: The Terror of London was a wealthy eccentric aristocrat who had set his life's purpose in enforcing law and order. Hosted by a secret hideout and very good technological know-how for his time, Jack was disguised in the streets of London trying to fight injustice and crime.

The resemblance to Batman is obvious, and many today consider Jack a worthy ancestor of the Dark Knight. Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, however, claims that his hero is not based on Jack whom he did not know. So, whether Jack's dreadful Victorian penny is related to Bruce Wayne is worth investigating. It is highly likely that these stories were passed unconsciously through collective imagination without Kane having to be fully aware of the Victorian legend.

The Social Value Of Penny Dreadfuls

Although penny dreadfuls are considered a cheap form of art, with many even questioning their categorization as a kind of art, it is extremely important to consider their value based on the historical and social context in which they appeared.

On the one hand, their dissemination was favored by the possibilities of the development of printing itself, which until recently seemed impossible. On the other hand, this was helped by the increase in the population that could read. These two factors, as well as the very subject of these cheap publications, have helped to make the penny dreadfuls so popular with the British public.

Well, my sweetie, this is the end of this article!

I hope you enjoyed it—I certainly did while writing it!

Thank you for accompanying me on my writing journey!

It would be lovely if you could share your thoughts with me! Or whatever you like...Surprise me! 

Written by Violet Hamers
  • Kim says:

    Fascinating. I’d heard of the penny dreadfuls but never really knew anything about them. I do wonder at the human’s seeming penchant for the bizarre, the macabre and downright grotesque. Perhaps, as you suggest in the final words about Spring-Heeled Jack , “It is highly likely that these stories were passed unconsciously through collective imagination without Kane having to be fully aware of the Victorian legend.” Perhaps it is so. The interest in the Vampire genre has certainly not died out.

  • Anne-Marie Lowndes says:

    This is a very interesting and well written and researched article. It made ma want to find out more!

  • Tae says:

    I used to volunteer at a Victorian mansion museum; in October, they sold copies of Varney the Vampire at their gift shop.

  • Babs says:

    Interesting article, thanks!

  • Linda says:

    Loved the article, very informative.

  • Gwen says:

    This article is very informative and I had no idea about the penny dreadful but they resemble the dome novels of the west

  • Veronica says:

    Here is another great insight into history. Personally I am not interested in blood and gore movies or publications but I know most of the world feeds off of the macabre.
    Thanks for the information!

  • Irene says:

    Penny Dreadfuls were just what the public needed!! Most people lead rather dull lives & through the machinations of the characters in these small weekly episodes were enabled to imagine something extra, more dramatic in their ordinary lives. “Dime novels” also served the same purpose in the USA but their stories featured other characters more closely related to their reading public such as detectives, criminal gangsters & the like as compared to the psychotic, sadistic & other fanciful characters in the GB versions. Great for the burgeoning readers in the working classes in both countries as they were cheap & easily obtained by borrowing other people’s copies.

  • Wendy says:

    I’ve actually seen the Varney the Vampire in book form. A friend had a copy and loaned it to me. Good literature it wasn’t, but that was largely due to the fact that the authors were paid by the word and the poor dears resorted to repeating large portions of text at the beginning of each chapter from the end of the previous chapter. I suppose this had the advantage of filling in the readers on what happened previously if they had missed a booklet, but really slows things down if you’re reading it altogether as a book. Judicious trimming of the duplications would have helped a lot in speeding up the story and the action. It was an interesting precursor to Stoker’s ‘Dracula.’ I wonder if any other Penny Dreadfuls were gathered into books?

  • Lyn says:

    How very interesting and amazing how rumours can become the ‘norm’ for stories that then become books
    Thank you
    I really enjoy your little bits of info.
    Makes one appreciate how you writers investigate to make your novels become real

    • Cobalt Fairy says:

      We also find it very interesting. We are glad to see that it is an intriguing subject also for you, Lyn. ❤️

  • Kim says:

    Quite fascinating and a subject of which I had no knowledge. Thank you.
    Kim A.

  • Sonia says:

    Very interesting. Enjoyed the article.

  • LaVera Lewis says:

    Here in the U.S. they were called penny dreadfuls but they were also called pulp fiction. A lot of well known authors got their start writing for the pulps.

  • Dolores Stevenson says:

    O had heard of them but not quite how dreadful they were. Thank you.

  • Sam in NH says:

    Thank you Violet
    I found this very interesting.

    • Cobalt Fairy says:

      Thank you, Sam! We’re happy you found this interesting! Research yields such wonderful results sometimes!

  • Kay says:

    Dear Ms. Violet Hamers,
    I certainly did enjoy my time with you as I learned about Penny Dreadfuls. Thank you for enlightening me about this interesting subject. It seems I cannot get enough knowledge about this very intriguing era.
    ~~kay~~

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