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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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