Sensational Victorian Tabloid Newspapers

Updated on January 11, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

With names such as The Fly, The Town, and The Star of Venus, newspapers were produced in huge numbers for the entertainment of the Victorian working classes. But, there were so many of them that they had to outdo one another with ever more lurid descriptions of vicious criminals and their ghastly crimes along with the pitiful condition of their victims.


Sensational Stories

Nothing was too gruesome for the pages of the penny dreadfuls that at first were called appropriately “penny bloods.” An image of a body being dissected on the coroner’s table? Put it on page one. Pictures of hideously disfigured murder victims lying on slabs in the morgue? That’s got to go above the fold.

Journalistic ethics were laughably lax. If a story was judged to be lacking in salacious content, the rewrite desk would simply make stuff up.

Jack the Ripper’s blood-curdling rampage in 1888 was meat and drink to the tabloids. The fiend’s escapades still put food on the table for many writers.

In October 1888, a Mrs. Mary Burridge was reported to have dropped dead from fright after reading a juicy description of Jack’s mutilation of one of his victims. But, it’s entirely possible that Mrs. Burridge’s demise came from the vivid imagination of a tabloid writer.

The penny dreadfuls were not without their critics. The satirist and novelist William Makepeace Thackeray got into the act by attacking them and sneering at the folks who read them.


Thackeray Discovers the Penny Press

Thackeray inherited £20,000 from his father in 1832 (with inflation that would be equivalent to about $6 million today) and quickly squandered it on stock speculation and gambling.

To earn a living he started writing for magazines. In one article “Half-a-Crown’s Worth of Cheap Knowledge” (Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, March 1838) he wrote about the popular press.

Thackeray started out with thinly concealed sarcasm directed at the education of the working class and the type of periodical its members read.

He attempted to flatter the readers of Fraser’s by saying few would be aware of the periodicals published for the lower orders pointing out they are probably “ignorant of the philosophical excellence of the Poor Man’s Friend [or] the graceful sprightliness of the Shew-up Chronicle.” He then gave his opinion that the Poor Man’s Friend, which claimed to speak up for the downtrodden working class, was “neither more nor less than a humbug.”

But, perhaps we can imagine the occasional member of the aristocracy taking a furtive look at The Penny Story-Teller or The London Satirist while passing through the servant’s hall.

William Makepeace Thackeray. Most of the images of the writer make him look as though he has a nasty smell under his nose.
William Makepeace Thackeray. Most of the images of the writer make him look as though he has a nasty smell under his nose. | Source

The Unknown Population

In his article, Thackeray made the point that higher society was largely ignorant of the great masses among whom they lived but with whom they shared nothing. He wrote that a few members of the upper classes had ventured into the territory of the poor but had taken “the precaution of drunkenness before [making] the attempt, and moving stealthily among those dangerous and savage men effectually disguised – in liquor.”

He said that those who had made such expeditions could expect to return with their pockets emptied and their eyes blackened. He did not paint a flattering picture of “fourteen-fifteenths” of the population that made up the working class.

He carefully glossed over, by not even mentioning, the habit of members of the upper class employing the services of poverty-stricken prostitutes.

A real journalist exposed this trade in Pall Mall Magazine, which was not a penny dreadful. In 1885, W.T. Stead investigated the world of child prostitution and demonstrated how easy it was to purchase the virginity of a 13-year-old girl for just £5 (about $600 in today’s money).

Obviously, only the wealthy and morally superior members of society to whom Thackeray was addressing his message could afford such an expenditure.

The middle and upper classes, of course, only read the quality broadsheets such as The Times.
The middle and upper classes, of course, only read the quality broadsheets such as The Times. | Source

Titillating Content Criticized

Thackeray turned his attention to the gossip genre of the penny press. “The main point of these papers,” he wrote “seems to be a wish to familiarize every man in London who can afford a penny with the doings of the gin shops, the gambling houses, and - houses more infamous still. The popularity of the journals, and their contents, are dismal indications indeed of the social condition of the purchasers, who are to be found among all the lower classes in London.”

There’s more than a touch of hypocrisy here. As the Victorian Web notes, in his 20s “Thackeray lived the life of a propertied young gentleman, including … gambling, drinking in taverns, and, undoubtedly, sexual encounters with women.” He suffered from a condition in the nether regions that has been speculated as the after effects of gonorrhea.

He suggests that exposing the working class to the “licentiousness [that] was considered as the secret of the aristocracy” encourages the growth of bad behaviour on a massive scale. At least here he doesn’t dodge the reality that among high society some bawdy goings on occurred.

The Illustrated Police News specialized in shocking crime reporting.
The Illustrated Police News specialized in shocking crime reporting. | Source

The Crown Mocked

He quotes a lengthy passage from The Fly that purports to describe a snowball fight involving Queen Victoria. Thackeray doesn’t like the account: “… let us say that we scarcely have seen anything more witless or blackguard than this Fly. It is inconceivably dirty, and, at the same time, inexpressibly dull.” Harrumph.

A decade later Thackeray went on to gain back the fortune he lost when he published his satire of society, Vanity Fair. He no longer had to sully his superior intellect by reading the penny dreadfuls.

Bonus Factoids

The word “tabloid” evolved from a trademark registered to the pharmaceutical company Burroughs, Wellcome in 1884. It described a “small tablet of medicine” that is easily digestible. Early in the 20th century, the word was applied as a description of small newspapers that published easily digestible stories.

There was also a brisk trade in penny dreadful fiction publications. Judith Flanders of the British Library writes that “Between 1830 and 1850 there were up to 100 publishers of penny-fiction, as well as the many magazines which now wholeheartedly embraced the genre.” Serialized stories of highwaymen, pirates, and other criminals would cover several issues, and might end at the bottom of the last page in mid sentence, to be continued next week.

In his book 2009 book Jack The Ripper: Case Closed, historian Dr. Andrew Cook makes the claim that the whole affair was made up by journalists. He says the penny dreadfuls were in a circulation war and to boost sales they linked together five unrelated murders as the work of a single deranged killer.

There’s a direct line of descent between the penny dreadfuls and the now defunct News of the World. The newspaper, known as a “scandal rag,” was aimed at Britain’s working class and reporters routinely broke the ethical standards of professional journalism.


  • “Jack the Ripper and the Tabloid Press.” The History Press, undated.
  • “Tabloids.” Lapham’s Quarterly.
  • “Penny Dreadfuls.” Judith Flanders, British Library, May 15, 2014.
  • “Jack the Ripper ‘Was Invented to Win Newspaper War.’ ” Daily Mail, May 1, 2009.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)