Everyone who has picked up a newspaper in the last twenty years will be familiar with the hardy perennial opinion that children are turned into thugs and killers by violent films and video games.
Whilst I don’t think that is true as a catch-all term, I can understand why people think that children may attempt to copy what they see on their various screens, but as a rule, my opinion is that watching a violent film does not make a child violent.
This story – which seems to be dusted off and rolled out every time someone under the age of sixteen slaps one of their friends – is not so new as to have only been thought of in the last two decades, though. The Victorians had similar concerns with certain literature having a negative effect on the nation’s youth.
Penny dreadfuls, penny bloods, penny awfuls, or penny numbers, as they were known, were shocking, violent short stories, usually about the antics of criminals such as highwaymen, grave-robbers and murderers, aimed at the barely literate lower classes of society. The publication of penny dreadfuls began in the 1830’s, when the success of Dickens’ ‘The Pickwick Papers’ demonstrated that books sold as serials – that is, sold in monthly installments – were more appealing to the greater populous, since the lower classes had not the time nor attention span to sit and read an entire novel, but could easily digest a whole book in short, ‘bite-size’ and dramatic chunks.
The penny dreadfuls were extremely cheap to produce, and being printed on the cheapest of pulp papers, could be sold at a price that the target audience could afford, and since they were sold as serials, once the reader had purchased the first installment, he would certainly have to purchase the rest to see how the story progressed.
The penny papers proved so addictive, that even those who could not afford it still purchased them by forming groups who would each put money in and buy a single paper to read between them.
Whilst the working classes devoured the ghoulish crime stories with relish, there were, of course, more upstanding members of society who frowned upon and dismissed the penny bloods as vulgar and coarse. One of their most vehement critics was the great James Greenwood, who wrote an article in St. Paul’s Magazine in 1873 condemning them and their affect on society’s youth. The article is below. As you read it, think of similar articles that have appeared in the present-day pres with regards to violent films and video games, and you will see that the problem of modern media corrupting the youth of today is not new at all;
"It would be an excellent and profitable arrangement if the London School Board were empowered not only to insist that all boys and girls of tender years shall be instructed in the art of reading, but also to root up and for ever banish from the paths of its pupils those dangerous weeds of literature that crop up in such rank luxuriance on every side to tempt them. Until this is done, it must always be heavy and uphill work with those whose laudable aim it is to promote education and popular enlightenment.
To teach a girl or boy how to read is not a very difficult task; the trouble is to guide them to a wholesome and profitable exercise of the acquirement. This, doubtless, would be hard enough, were our population of juveniles left to follow the dictates of their docile or rebellious natures; but this they are not suffered to do. At the very outset, as soon indeed as they have mastered words of two and three syllables, and by skipping the hard words are able somehow to stumble through a page in reading fashion, the enemy is at hand to enlist them in his service. And never was a poor recruit so dazzled and bewildered by the wily sergeant whose business it is to angle for, and hook men to serve as soldiers as is the foolish lad who is beset by the host of candidates of the Penny Awful tribe for his patronage.
There is Dick Turpin bestriding his fleet steed, and with a brace of magnificently mounted pistols stuck in his belt, beckoning him to an expedition of midnight marauding on the Queen’s highway; there is gentlemanly Claude Duval, with his gold-laced coat and elegantly curled periwig, who raises his three-cornered hat politely to the highly-flattered schoolboy and begs the pleasure of his company through six months or so - at the ridiculously small cost of a penny a week, that, he, the gallant captain, may initiate our young friend in the ways of bloodshed and villainy; there is sleek-cropped, bullet-headed Jack Sheppard, who steps boldly forth with his crowbar, offering to instruct the amazed youth in the ways of crime as illustrated by his own brilliant career, and to supply him with a few useful hints as to the best way of escaping from Newgate.
Besides these worthies there are the Robbers of the Heath, and the Knights of the Road, and the Skeleton Crew, and Wildfire Dick and Hell-fire Jack, and Dare-devil Tom, and Blueskin, and Cut-throat Ned, and twenty other choice spirits of an equally respectable type, one and all appealing to him, and wheedling and coaxing him to make himself acquainted with their delectable lives and adventures at the insignificant expense of one penny weekly.
It is not difficult to trace back the evil in question to its origin. At least a quarter of a century ago it occurred to some enterprising individual to reprint and issue in “penny weekly numbers” the matter contained in the “Newgate Calendar,” and the publication was financially a great success. This excited the cupidity of other speculators, in whose eyes money loses none of its value though ever so begrimed with nastiness, and they set their wits to work to produce printed weekly “pen’orths” that should be as savoury to the morbid tastes of the young and the ignorant as was the renowned Old Bailey Chronicle itself.
The task was by no means a difficult one when once was found the spirit to set about it. The Newgate Calendar was after all but a dry and legal record of the trials of rogues and murderers, for this or that particular offence, with at most, in addition, a brief sketch of the convicted one’s previous career, and a few observations on his most remarkable exploits. After all, there was really no romance in the thing; and what persons of limited education and intellect love in a book is romance. Here then was a grand field! What could be easier than to take the common-place Newgate raw material, and re-dip it in the most vivid scarlet, and weave into it the rainbow hues of fiction? What was there that “came out” at the trials of Jack Sheppard and Claude Duval and Mr. Richard Turpin and which the calendar readers so greedily devoured, compared with what might be made to “come out” concerning these same heroes when the professional romance-monger, with the victim’s skull for an inkstand, gore for ink, and the assassin's dagger for a pen, sat down to write their histories?
The great thing was to show what the Newgate Calendar had failed to show. It was all very well to demonstrate that at times there existed honour among thieves; the thing to do was to make it clear that stealing was an honourable business, and that all thieves were persons to be respected on account at least of the risks they ran and the perils they so daringly faced in the pursuit of their ordinary calling. Again, in recording the achievements of robbers of a superior grade, the Calendar gave but the merest glimpse of the glories of a highway villain’s existence, whereas, as was well known to the romancist of the Penny Awful school, the life of a person like Mr. Turpin or any other Knight of the Road is just one endless round of daring, dashing adventure, and of rollicking and roystering, or tender, blissful enjoyments of the fruits thereof. Likewise, according to the same authority, it was a well-known fact, and one that could not be too generally known, that rogues and robbers are the only “brave” that deserve the “fair,” and that no sweethearts are so true to each other, and enjoy such unalloyed felicity, as gentlemen of the stamp of Captain Firebrand (who wears lace truffles and affects a horror for the low operation of cutting a throat, but regards it as quite the gentlemanly and “professional” thing to send a bullet whizzing into a human skull ) and buxom, fascinating Molly Cutpurse.
But after all, if the unscrupulous hatchers of Penny Awfuls (this term is no invention of mine, but one conferred on the class of literature in question by the owners thereof ) had been content to stick to Newgate heroes and Knights of the Road, perhaps no very great harm would have been done. At all events, the nuisance must soon have died out. Popular interest in the British Highwayman has for many years been on the wane. There are no longer any mail coaches to rob, and the descendants of the rare old heroes of Bagshot and Hounslow have brought the profession into disgust and contempt by taking to the cowardly game of garroting. Every boy may read of the pitiful behaviour of these modern Knights of the Road when they are triced up, bare-backed, in the press-room at Newgate, and a stout prison warden makes a cat-o’-nine-tails whistle across their shoulders. How they squeal and wriggle and supplicate!
“Oh! Sir, kind sir! O-o-o-oh-h, pray spare me; I’ll never do it again!”
There is not the least spark of dash or bravado about this kind of thing, and the cleverest penman of the Penny Awful tribe would fail to excite feelings of emulation in the minds of his most devoted readers.
The Penny Awful trade, however, has not been brought to a standstill on this account. Cleverer men than those who paraded Dick Turpin and Claude Duval as model heroes have of late years come into the garbage market. Quick-witted, neat-handed fellows, who have studied the matter and made themselves acquainted with it at all points. It has been discovered by these sharp ones that the business has been unnecessarily restricted; that even supposing that there are still a goodly number of simpletons who take delight in the romance that hangs on those magic words, “Your money or your life,” there are still a much larger number who take no interest at all in gallows heroes, but who might easily be tempted to take to another kind of bait, provided it were judiciously adjusted on the hook.
As for instance, there were doubtless to be found in London and the large manufacturing towns of England, hundreds of boys out of whom constant drudgery and bad living had ground all that spirit of dare-devilism so essential to the enjoyment of the exploits of the heroes of the Turpin type, but who still possessed an appetite for vices of a sort that were milder and more easy of digestion. It was a task of no great difficulty when once the happy idea was conceived. All that was necessary was to show that the faculty for successfully defying law and order and the ordinations of virtue might be cultivated by boys as well as men, and that as rogues and rascals the same brilliant rewards attended the former as the latter. The result may be seen in the shop window of every cheap newsvendor in London - The Boy Thieves of London, The Life of a Fast Boy, The Boy Bandits, The Wild Boys of London, The Boy Detective, Charley Wag, The Lively Adventures of a Young Rascal, and I can’t say how many more.
This much is true of each and everyone, however - that it is not nor does it pretend to be anything else than a vicious hotch-potch of the vilest slang, a mockery of all that is decent and virtuous, an incentive to all that is mean, base, and immoral, and a certain guide to a prison or a reformatory if sedulously followed. If these precious weekly pen’orths do not openly advocate crime and robbery, they at least go so far as to make it appear that, although to obtain the means requisite to set up as a Fast Boy, or a Young Rascal, it is found necessary to make free with a master’s goods, or to force his till or run off with his cash-box, still the immense amount of frolic and awful jollity to be obtained at music halls, at dancing rooms, - where “young rascals” of the opposite sex may be met, - at theatres, and low gambling and drinking dens, if one has “only got the money,” fully compensates for any penalty a boy of the “fast” school may be called on to pay in the event of his petty larcenies being discovered.
“What’s the good o’ being honest?” is the moral sentiment that the Penny Awful author puts into the mouth of his hero, Joe the Ferret, in his delectable story “The Boy Thieves of the Slums.”
“What’s the good of being honest?” says Joe, who is presiding at a banquet consisting of the “richest meats,” and hot brandy and water;
“Where’s the pull? It is all canting and humbug. The honest cove is the one who slaves from morning till night for half a bellyfull of grub, and a ragged jacket and a pair of trotter cases (shoes), that don’t keep his toes out of the mud, and all that he may be called a good boy and have a “clear conscience” ’ (loud laughter and cries of “Hear, hear,” by the Weasel’s “pals”).
“I ain’t got no conscience, and I don’t want one. If I felt one a-growing in me I’d pisen the blessed thing” (more laughter).
“Ours is the game, my lads. Light come, light go. Plenty of tin, plenty of pleasure, plenty of sweethearts and that kind of fun, and all got by making a dip in a pocket, or sneaking a till. I’ll tell you what it is, my hearties,” continued the Weasel, raising his glass in his hand (on a finger of which there sparkled a valuable ring, part of the produce of the night’s work),
“I’ll tell you what it is, it’s quite as well that them curs and milksops, the ‘honest boys’ of London, do not know what a jolly, easy, devil-may-care life we lead compared with theirs, or we should have so many of ‘em takin’ to our line that it would be bad for the trade.”
It is not invariably, however, that the Penny Awful author indulges in such a barefaced enunciation of his principles. The old-fashioned method was to clap the representatives of all manner of vices before the reader, and boldly swear by them as jolly roystering blades whose manner of enjoying life was after all the best, despite the grim end. The modern way is to paint the picture not coarsely, but with skill and anatomical minuteness; to continue it page after page, and point out and linger over the most flagrant indecencies and immoral teachings of the pretty story, and then, in the brief interval of putting that picture aside and producing another, to “patter” (if I may be excused using an expression so shockingly vulgar) a few sentences concerning the unprofitableness of vice, and of honesty being the best policy. And having cut this irksome, though for obvious reasons necessary, part of the business as short as possible, the “author” again plunges the pen of nastiness into his inkpot, and proceeds with renewed vigour to execute the real work in hand.
Writing on this subject it is impossible for me to forget a vivid instance of the pernicious influence of literature of the Penny Awful kind as revealed by the victim himself. It was at a meeting of a society, the laudable aim of which is the rescue of juvenile criminals from the paths of vice, and there were present a considerable number of the lads themselves. In the course of the evening, as a test, I suppose of the amount of confidence reposed by the lads in their well-wishers and teachers, it was suggested that any one among them who had courage enough might rise in his place and give a brief account of his first theft, and what tempted him to it. It was some time before their was any response, although from the many wistful faces changing rapidly from red to white, and the general uneasiness manifested by the youths appealed to, and who were seated on forms in the middle of the hall, it was evident that many were of a great good mind to accept the invitation.
At last a lad of thirteen or so, whose good-conduct stripes told of how bravely he was raising himself out of the slough in which the Society had discovered him, rose, and burning red to his very ears, and speaking rapidly and with much stumbling and stammering - evidences one and all, in my opinion, of his speaking the truth - delivered himself as follows:-
“It’s a goodish many years ago now, more’n six I dessay, and I used to go to the ragged-school down by Hatton-garden. It was Tyburn Dick that did it, leastways the story what they call Tyburn Dick.
Well, my brother Bill was a bit older than me, and he used to have to stay at home and mind my young brother and sister, while father was out jobbing about at the docks and them places. We didn’t have no mother. Well, father he used to leave us as much grub as he could, and Bill used to have the sharin’ of it out. Bill couldn’t read a bit, but he knowed boys that could, and he used to hear ‘em reading about Knights of the Road, and Claude Duval, and Skeleton Crews, till I suppose his head got regler stuffed with it. He never had no money to buy a pen’orth when it came out, so he used to lay wait for me, carrying my young sister over his shoulder, when I came out of school at dinner time, and gammon me over to come along with him to a shop at the corner of Rosamond Street in Clerkenwell, where there used to be a whole lot of the penny numbers in the window.
They was all of a row, Wildfire Jack, the Boy Highwayman, Dick Turpin, and ever so many others - just the first page, don’t you know, and the picture. Well, I liked it too, and I used to go along o’ Bill and read to him all the reading on the front pages, and look at the pictures until - ‘specially on Mondays when there was altogether a new lot - Bill would get so worked up with the aggravatin’ little bits, which always left off where you wanted to turn over and see what was on the next leaf, that he was very nigh off his head about it.
He used to bribe me with his grub to go with him to Rosamond Street. He used to go there regler every mornin’ carryin’ my young sister, and if he found only one that was fresh, he’d be at the school coaxin’ and wigglin’ (inveigling or wheedling), and sometimes bringin’ me half his bread and butter, or the lump of cold pudden what was his share of the dinner. He got the little bits of the tales and the pictures so jumbled up together that it used to prey on him awful.
I was bad enough but Bill was forty times worse. He used to lay awake of nights talkin’ and wonderin’ and wonderin’ what was over leaf, and then he’d drop off and talk about it in his sleep. Well, one day he come to the school, and says he,
“Charley, there’s somethin’ real stunnin’ at the corner shop this mornin’. It’s Tyburn Dick, and they’ve got him in a cart under the gallows, and there’s Jack Ketch smoking his pipe, and a whole lot of the mob a rushing to rescue him wot’s going to be hung, and the soldiers are there beatin’ of ‘em back, and I’m blowed,” says Bill, “if I can tell how it will end. I should like to know,” says he. “Perhaps it tells you in the little bit of print at bottom; come along, Charley.”
Well, I wanted to know too, so we went, and there was the picture just as Bill said, but the print underneath didn’t throw no light on it - it was only just on the point of throwin’ a light on it, and of course we couldn’t turn over. I never saw Bill in such a way. He wasn’t a swearin’ boy, take him altogether, but this time he did let out, he was so savage at not being able to turn over. He was like a mad cove, and without any reason punched me about till I run away from him and went to school again. Well, although I didn’t expect it when I come out at half-past four, there was Bill again. His face looked so queer that I thought I was going to get some more punching, but it wasn’t that. He come up speakin’ quite kind, though there seemed something the matter with his voice, it was so shaky.
“Come on, Charley,” he said, “come on home quick. I’ve got it,” and opening his jacket, he showed it me - the penny number where the picture of the gallows was, tucked in atwixt the buttonings of his shirt.
“But how did you come by the penny?” I asked him.
“Come on home and read about Jack Ketch and that, and then I’ll tell you all about it.” Bill replied. So we went home; and I read out the penny number to him all through, and then he up and told me that he had nicked (stolen) a hammer off a second-hand tool stall in Leather Lane, and sold it for a penny at a rag-shop. That’s how the ice was broke. It seemed a mere nothing to nail a paltry pen’orth or so after reading of the wholesale robbery of jewels, and diamond necklaces, and that, that Tyburn Dick did every night of his life a’most. It was getting that whole pen’orth about him that showed us what a tremenjus chap he was. Next week it was my turn to get a penny to buy the number - we felt that we couldn’t do without it nohow; and finding the chance, I stole one of the metal inkstands at the school. That was the commencement of it; and so it went on and growed bigger; but it’s out and true, that for a good many weeks we only stole to buy the number just out of Tyburn Dick.”
A question likely to occur to the reader of these pages is - what sort of persons are these who are so ignoble and utterly lost to all feelings of shame that they can consent to make money by a means that is more detestable than that resorted to by the common gutter-raker or the common pickpocket ? How do such individuals comport themselves in society? Are they men well dressed and decently behaved, and have they any pretensions to respectability? The bookselling and publishing trade is a worthy trade: do the members of it generally recognise these base corruptors of the morals of little boys and girls? Or do they shun them and give them a wide berth when they are compelled to tread the same pavement with them?
My dear reader, I assure you that whether they are shunned or recognised by those who know them is not of the least moment to the blackguardly crew who pull the strings that keep the delusive puppets going. Well dressed they are - they can well afford to be so, for they make a deal of money, and in many cases keep fine houses and servants and send their children to boarding-school. They dine well in the city, and bluster, and swagger, and swear, and wear diamonds on their unsullied hands, and chains of gold adorn their manly bosoms. As for any idea of moral responsibility as regards those whose young souls and bodies they grind to make their bread, they have no more than had Simon Legree on his Red River slave plantation. They are labouring under no delusion as to the quality of the stuff they circulate. In their own choice language, it is “rot,” “rubbish,” “hog-wash,” but “what odds so long as it sells?”
They would laugh in your face were you so rash as to attempt to argue the matter with them. They would tell you that they “go in” for this kind of thing, not out of any respect or even liking they have for it, but simply because it is a good “dodge” for making money, and their only regret is that the law forbids them “spicing” their poison pages and serving them as hot and strong as they would like to. I speak from my own knowledge of these men, and am glad to make their real character known, in order to show how little injustice would be done if their nefarious trade were put a stop to with the utmost rigour of any law that might be brought to bear against them.
Again, it may be asked, who are the “authors,” the talented gentlemen who find it a labour of love to discourse week after week to a juvenile audience of the doings of lewd women and “fast” men, and of the delights of debauchery, and the exercise of low cunning, and the victimising of the innocent and unsuspecting? Ay, who are they? Few things would afford me greater satisfaction than to gather together a hundred thousand or so of those who waste their time and money in the purchase and perusal of Penny Awfuls, and exhibit to them the sort of man it is to whose hands is entrusted the preparation of the precious hashes. Before such an exhibition could take place however, for decency’s sake, I should be compelled to induce him to wash his face and shave his neglected muzzle; likewise I should probably have to find him a coat to wear, and very possibly a pair of shoes. His master, the Penny Awful proprietor, does not treat him at all liberally. To be sure he is not worthy of a great amount of consideration, being, as a rule, a dissipated, gin-soddened, poor wretch, who has been brought to his present degraded state by his own misdoings.
As for talent, he has none at all; never had; nothing more than a mere accidental literary twist in his wrist - just as one frequently sees a dog that is nothing but a cur, except for some unaccountable gift it has for catching rats, or doing tricks of conjuring. He works to order, does this obliging writer. Either he has lodgings in some dirty court close at hand, or he is stowed away in a dim, upstairs back room of the Penny Awful office, and there the proprietor visits him, and they have a pot of ale and pipes together - the one in his splendid attire, and the other in his tattered old coat and dirty shirt - and talk over the “next” number of Selina the Seduced; and very often there is heard violent language in that dim little den, the proprietor insisting on their being “more flavour” in the next batch of copy than the last, and the meek author beseeching a little respect for Lord Campbell and his Act.
But the noble owner of Selina generally has his way.
“Do as you like about it,” says he; “only bear this in mind. I know what goes down best with ‘em and what’s most relished, and if I don’t find that you warm up a bit in the next number, I’ll knock off half-a-crown, and make the tip for the week seventeen-and-six instead of a pound.”
- James Greenwood, St Paul’s Magazine, 1873.
In the kind of circles of society Greenwood would have moved in, the condemnation of penny papers was widespread, but not all literary figures were critics; in 1901 the great essayist G.K Chesterton wrote ‘A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls’
‘Varney the Vampire’, ‘The String of Pearls’ (AKA Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street ((No, he was never a real person))) and Reynolds’ ‘Mysteries of London’ were a few of the most popular penny titles.
Alfred Harmsworth, a well-meaning publisher, decided to go to war with the penny papers by releasing half-penny papers filled with moral tales. He thought that the cheaper price would encourage readers of the penny dreadfuls to abandon the corrupting tales of murder and crime and read his uplifting tales instead, but such was the influence and popularity of the stories of horror that after a short time, the half-penny-papers began to run similar garish stories in order to compete with the penny bloods.
I suspect that if we could glimpse a hundred years into the future we would discover that our descendants have some form of corrupting media they are vociferously claiming is damaging the youth of the day, but surely, indulging in the reading, watching, doing or playing of something frowned upon by moralists and / or adults is a mainstay of our culture, and every generation frowns upon something its offspring gets up to?
Those who today frown upon violent video games must have watched the occasional video nasty in the eighties, and their parents may have been involved somehow in the punk scene of the seventies, who would have been jeered at by their parents who lived through the swinging sixties, who would have been parented by people there for the birth of rock and roll, and the children of today will, no doubt, in fifteen years or so be raising a finger of complaint to some other movement or cult, thus proving that little has, and will, change in our society since the days of the Victorian moralists and their objections to penny dreadfuls.