Tuesday 12 April 2011

More From The Penny Dreadfuls

Beyond the mists of time, back to the era of the nineteenth century we go spinning past flapping calendar pages till we hit 1905 and  "The First Rate Boy's Paper" which was one of a number of publications aimed at impressionable youths who would often club together so that they could pool their third farthings (12 of these equaling 1 old penny) to buy a copy and share it between them.

These papers which serialized lurid tales of characters such as Spring Heeled Jack and the early Sexton Blake, along with U.S. imports which threatened to lead the nation's youth even further astray by treating them to the tales of such American desperados as Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill Cody, were of such concern that high minded commentators (they have always been with us it seems) sought ways to counter the threat.

Publisher Alfred Harmsworth much in the manner of a clerical gentleman some fifty years later, came up with the idea of presenting youngsters with tales of an uplifting and enlightening nature and undercut the Penny Dreadfuls by selling his papers for a ha'penny. Things went well to begin with but as the writers ran out of inspiration and the readership ran out of steam, Harmsworth's high minded publications became noticeably less high minded. As A.A. Milne somewhat dryly observed; "Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha'penny dreadfuller."

Images supplied by the inimitable (and very self effacing) Malcolm Norton.


  1. Marvelous! I can't understand why "Rats" the Boy Ferret never caught on in the way that Sherlock Holmes and Sexton Blake did!

    Sometimes it can be more fun trying to think up explanations for old covers than actually reading the stories - rather like those old cartoons they used to print at the back of Punch so readers could provide new captions for them. In fact I recently bought some French story-papers from 1918 which were made even more baffling by my pitiful attempts at translation.

    All the same, one can't help wondering what happens to old fictional characters when the last of their readers have died off. Do they disappear in a puff of smoke like obsolete gods are supposed to do? Or was Ray Bradbury right when he imagined them all continuing to inhabit a remote moon somewhere in outer space...?

  2. I think they wait in the comics green room until Alan Moore brings them back on stage in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Phil! (And if Mr Moore reads the Cloud 109 blog, as I hope he might and he certainly should, perhaps Rats the Boy Ferret will get another lease of life there.)

  3. You, er, do realise...

    1: 1905 is not in the 19th century?
    2: The "penny dreadfuls" had largely collapsed by 1905 thanks to Harmsworth?
    3: The "halfpenny dreadfullers" was how they started out in the 1890's but by 1905 they had improved rapidly and obliterated their competition? (and cost a penny by then, Union Jack being one of the last to go up in 1904)
    4: Sexton Blake was a Harmsworth character?