Grave Matters 

Death and Dying in Victorian Britain    

BAVS conference: Death, dustmen and arcades

Having visited the absolutely splendid BAVS conference “Consuming (the) Victorians” in Cardiff, I could not resist the urge to write about it. Especially since I know some of my followers/ readers have had to miss the conference. It has been tough to decide which of the multitude of wonderful papers I was going to write about. As I know BAVS has asked at least one delegate to produce a blogpost on the conference, and because I am confident that this person will cover the excellent papers delivered by the keynote speakers, I will refrain from mentioning them in my blog and focus on the papers given in panels instead.

As it is impossible to cover all the papers I have had the pleasure of listening to I have decided to stick with the theme of my blog (and own research) and to mostly focus on the papers related to death. I am sure, however, my readers will forgive me the inclusion a short description of two papers with more cheerful topics, which have absolutely nothing to do with death, decomposition or decay, to balance things out a bit.

Before I start I have to complement the organizers on creating an interesting and extremely well organized conference with really interesting PGR/ECR workshops, arcade tours and the most impressive conference reception and dinner I have hitherto had the pleasure of attending. The reception and conference dinner were held at the absolutely stunning National Museum, which to everyone’s surprise had some incredibly famous paintings on display, including the waterlilies of Monet. I honestly had a wonderful time at the conference, and met a lot of interesting and lovely people (you know who you are). So thank you very much for creating such a great conference!

With regard to the workshops I have to say I really enjoyed the creative writing workshop in which Prof. Damian Walford Davies and Dr. Lucy Andrews discussed how their academic writing informs their neo-Victorian fiction/ poetry and how they tackle writing poetry/fiction set in the 19th century whilst being a 21st century author. Davies urged the audience not to eradicate the ideologies of the 21st century from their texts, but instead to embrace them, as the texts will otherwise come across as artificial. He at the same time emphasized the importance of being aware of the notions, ideas and values which one as an author brings to the text. I was very grateful when Andrews explained to us how she goes about collecting ideas and background information for her work, as it gave me (and I am sure others in the room) an idea about where to start if I wished to begin working on a creative writing project of my own. The highlight for me was when Andrews shared with us her murder board. This board  is filled with pictures which have formed the basis for the characters in her novel. I really, really loved this idea and cannot wait to read her book when it comes out.

Picture taken by Katie Bell and shared with Dr. Lucy Andrew’s permission

The workshop was truly inspiring. The only downside is that I now really, really want to write a novel on death and funerals in the 19th century, without having the time to do so… *Adds “novel on Victorian death and funerals” to bucket list and starts carrying around a notebook to jot down ideas*.

The papers were no less wonderful than the workshops. During the very first panel of the conference I had the pleasure of listening to Laura Foster’s interesting paper “Consuming Paupers: Cannibalism in Workhouse Representations”. In her paper she discussed how the workhouse diet became connected to Cannibalism and how this is represented in contemporary fiction, ballads and satirical illustrations. Foster, for example, discussed the ballad “The Workhouse Boy” which is about a boy who goes missing during Christmas and is eventually discovered to be one of the ingredients of the workhouse soup. Drawing on this example and others, Foster explained that the workhouse soup eventually became a melting pot for all the anxieties regarding the new poor law. She also showed how the representations of paupers simultaneously displayed the anxiety of the higher classes regarding the potential animalistic and savage nature of the paupers.

In the second panel I particularly enjoyed Jen Baker’s paper on “‘Mental Dram-drinking’: The Queer Consumption of the Dead Child Body in the Nineteenth Century”. In her paper Baker discussed the representation of child murders in the Victorian press, focusing on the murders of John Bird Bell and Fanny Adams. She explained how especially the coverage on the murder on Fanny Adams was curious in that it was exceedingly detailed. Not only did the press give an account of the numerous pieces in which her murderer Fredrick Baker had cut up her body, but also conveyed directions as to where each of the numerous body parts were found. As a result, such articles functioned as a guide to quite a large number of Victorians who, in search for some excitement, decided to pay the murder scene a visit. As Jen Baker explained these visitors subsequently took away any souvenirs they could get their hands on, including strands of grass.

Now, to turn to a less morbid topic. On the second day I had the pleasure of listening to Janice Li’s paper ‘From Great Exhibition to department stores: A Victorian spectacle of commodified social lives’. In her paper Li explained how the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace greatly affected the way in which Victorian shops and department stores displayed their goods. As Li explained the Great Exhibition was the first space where everyday objects with a common theme were grouped together and enclosed within glass cases. In choosing to place these everyday objects behind glass, the organizers invited the spectators to change the way in which they looked at them. The mundane, everyday thing, now became an object to be gazed at. Before long shops and department stores began to mimic the ways in which the Great Exhibition displayed its objects, thus giving rise to the phenomenon of window shopping. Commodities now became worthy of the public’s admiration, and were thus no longer merely objects to be touched and handled, and bargained over. In her paper Li discussed how the Crystal Palace also influenced the very architecture of shops, by pointing out that the arcades which were being built during the second half of the 19th century greatly mimicked the structure of the Crystal Palace. As one of the other members of the audience pointed out: Li’s paper was an eye opener for many of us.

Li’s paper was the perfect preparation for the Cardiff Arcades Tour which took place directly after this panel. The tour was organized Join Martin Willis, Ruth McElroy, and Caroline Langley who did a brilliant job. The tour was super informative, whilst not overburdening the listener with information. It was really nice to hear information regarding how and when the arcades were built, as well as about the kinds of shops that could originally be found there. The tour lasted for about 40 minutes, but was over in a flash. They are planning to make this a public tour, so make sure to keep an eye out for that if you were unable to attend it during BAVS. It’s definitely worth taking!

Now, to bring this already rather lengthy blogpost to a close, I would like to end with the panel that I was fortunate to be a part of myself, namely “Death, Decomposition and Dirt”. The first speaker was the wonderful Professor Brian Maidment, who gave a splendid paper entitled “Dusty Bob in the Marketplace: The Dustman as Consumer”, in which he discussed the cultural representation of the Victorian dustman with the aid of a number of satirical sketches. He showed us a number of wonderful prints which displayed the dustman as a source of, amongst others, contamination, noise and violence. Prof. Maidment has definitely convinced me that I do not know nearly enough about dustmen. Thankfully, he has written a book on that topic entitled Dusty Bob: A Cultural History of Dustmen, 1780-1870, which if it is anything like his presentation (which I am sure it is) will be well worth reading.

The second speaker was Clare Horrocks who gave a very interesting paper on ‘Corpulence and corruption: Punch’s Campaign for the removal of Smithfield Market’, in which she explored the controversy surrounding Smithfield Market in London. As concerns regarding miasma and effluvia arose during the 1840’s the Victorians began to worry about the injurious effects which the pollution produced by Smithfield market could have on the public health. Harrocks included a number of wonderful Punch cartoons which were produced for their campaign for the removal of Smithfield market.

I myself was the last speaker of the panel and presented a paper entitled ‘Not just about the pies: Consuming human matter in The String of Pearls. In this paper I explained how James Malcolm Rhymer’s refusal to describe the corpses of Sweeney Todd’s victims in The String of Pearls allowed him to exploit the concerns raised by the burial reform movement regarding the threat which the invisible, decomposing body had come to represent to Victorian society. If you would like to know more about this, please leave a comment to let me know. I am planning to publish an article on this topic, but would be more than happy to elaborate on it here.

Well, there you have it my reader, a small selection of the multitude of marvelous papers that I have witnessed. I truly hope that others will be blogging about the conference as well so they may cover some of the excellent papers which I have unfortunately not been able to mention in detail or have had to miss altogether.

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Dead or Merely Sleeping? Queen Victoria’s Relationship with the Post-mortem Photograph of Prince Albert

It is well known that Queen Victorian had a number of mourning relics made after Prince Albert’s death. Among these were a marble bust, casts of both his hands, as well as post-mortem photographs. It is less well known that the queen arranged for one of these photographs, which had been coloured in by hand and framed with an evergreen wreath, to be hung above the vacant side of the bed wherever she was to spend the night (Rappaport 409). Her relationship with this portrait is intriguing as her response to it differs widely from her reaction towards the death mask made by William Theed the Younger, as according to Helen Rappaport Queen Victoria refused to see the death mask upon its completion (Magnificent Obsession, 92).

Whereas Stanley Weintraub suggests that the Queen did not wish to see the death mask out of respect for the prince, who was against the practice of the taking of casts after death, this argument fails to account for the fact that the Queen did keep at least one of the plaster casts of the Prince’s hands on her nightstand. Moreover, the death mask would form the basis for several commemorative effigies which she personally commissioned. It was used both for the marble statue which was to be placed in the Royal Mausoleum near Frogmore House, as well as for the marble bust created by Theed, which became one of her favourite statues of the prince. If she was troubled by any disrespect shown towards the prince’s wishes it would seem improbable that she would have allowed artists to use it as the basis for their work and more likely that she would have provided them with one of the post-mortem photographs instead.

Perhaps a more plausible reason may be that Queen Victoria refused to see the death mask as it would present her with an image of Prince Albert which too directly linked him to suffering and with that to death. After he was summoned to Windsor castle to take the casts, William Theed would describe the Prince’s envisage as peaceful, but for “lines of suffering around the mouth” (as qtd in Rappaport, Magnificent Obsession, 137). The plaster cast, merciless in its representation of reality, would have displayed these lines as well, linking the object undeniably with the prince’s death. Rather than being confronted with imagines invoking her husband’s death, the Queen preferred to surround herself with idealized objects and images which invoked memories of the Prince when he was still alive. That the Queen had a post-mortem picture of Prince Albert hung above her bed seems to contradict this, but if we examine one of the two surviving photographs and place it within a broader framework of postmortem photography, it will become clear why the image was likely reassuring, rather than disturbing.

Postmortem photography has its roots in a long-standing tradition of postmortem portrait paintings. It was customary for middle- and upper-class families to commission a painting of a deceased loved one, if no prior portrait existed, for commemorative purposes. The invention of photography made postmortem portraiture accessible to most classes. Although in Britain it never attained quite the same level of popularity it held in America, post-mortem photographs nevertheless came to be viewed by some British Victorians as an important way to keep their deceased loved ones close to them. As Deborah Lutz has argued, the Victorians believed that photographs were capable of capturing part of a person’s presence. In 1843 the poet Elizabeth Barret Browning would write to Mary Russell Mitford:

It is not merely the likeness which is precious … – but the association, and the sense of nearness involved in the thing… the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever! It is the very sanctification of portraits I think– and … I would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest artist’s work ever produced (emphasis added, as qtd in Lutz 161).

To the Victorians photographs thus resembled other relics which literally incorporated a part of the deceased, such as hair jewellery. As Marcia Pointon suggests, “hair possesses remarkable qualities of durability” in that it does not decay after having been severed from the head (43). Like a photograph it provides the mourner with an unmitigated, lasting item which captures a segment of the ‘truth’ of someone’s existence, as it represents them, or a part of them, as they truly were. Much like a photograph hair also invokes a sense of continuity, as the severed lock serves as a reminder of the hairs still attached to the body which will continue to grow (45). Like the shadow forever dormant in the portrait, it appears to signify eternity rather than death.

What is remarkable about postmortem photography is that the subject is portrayed in a way that creates the illusion that he or she was still alive. This was achieved by placing the corpse in everyday postures and in a homely environment.[1] Grown-up men were occasionally depicted reclining in a bureau chair in their Sunday clothes, with or without their eyes open, as if merely resting after a busy day of work. Children and adolescents were often held by one of their parents, or surrounded by their siblings, in order to make the photograph appear like a family portrait.

Post-mortem of a mother with her deceased daughter

Post-mortem of a mother with her deceased daughter

If the family wished to have a picture of a child in a sitting position without appearing in the photograph themselves, this posed a serious problem to the photographer. Due to the child’s size it was nearly impossible to have its corpse maintain a realistic sitting position despite the rigor mortis. The result was a whole range of rather awkward photographs in which the child corpse was seated on the lap of one of its family members, mostly the mother, who in turn was covered by a black cloth so as to make it appears if they were not there.[2]

The mother is hiding behind a cloth whilst holding her deceased child.

The mother is hiding behind a cloth whilst holding her deceased child.

In some cases the photographer went so far in their attempt to make their subject appear to be “alive” that they painted eyes on the eyelids of the deceased after the photograph had been taken.

Photograph of a deceased child. The colour on the cheeks and eyes were added after the photograph was taken to make it appear alive.

Photograph of a deceased child. The colour on the cheeks and eyes were added after the photograph was taken to make it appear alive.

In other cases a decision was made, as with Prince Albert, to have a picture taken of the deceased lying in bed. The photographer then went to great lengths to give the body “the appearance of being asleep, if not bedded down for the night” (Litten 13).

Image 1: Post mortem Photograph of Prince Albert

Postmortem photograph of Prince Albert in 1861.

If we examine the photograph of Prince Albert, we find that the photographer indeed went to great lengths to create the illusion that the prince was still alive. Although the wreath which is hung above his head appears to serve as a strong reminder that the man in the photograph is deceased, the symbolic meaning which it held for the Victorians appears to negate such a simple reading. To the Victorians the “circular shape of the wreaths is meant to symbolize eternity, while their flowers and leaves represent life and renewal; thus the funeral wreath promises resurrection and eternal life” (Batchen 92). Rather than being a symbol of death, the wheat represented life to the Victorians. Upon taking a closer look at the picture it is noticeable that there is a piece of cloth placed underneath the chin, which was customary to do before rigor mortis set in, so as to prevent the mouth from opening (Jalland 22). Through careful rearrangement of the pillow and bedlinen and selection of a right camera angle, the photographer has attempted to create the illusion that the cloth is an extension of the bedlinen. Strikingly, the very presence of the bandage indicates that great haste was made in taking the picture, likely within 6 to 12 hours of Prince Albert’s death (Dominick and Vincent DiMaio 26). It is therefore likely that Queen Victoria wished the photo to be taken before death had any chance to alter her deceased husband’s appearance. The result is a photograph of a man who looks peaceful and at ease and displays no signs of a prolonged struggle with illness.[3] In this it forms a contrast to the death mask, which displayed signs of suffering. The photograph in a sense beautified the prince’s dead body, portraying it as more peaceful than it had been in reality. As such, it provided Queen Victoria with an image of her husband as she had last seen him, without immediately invoking memories of his illness and death, unlike the death mask. It is this very denial of death inherent to post-mortem photography, which allowed the Queen to retain “a sense of nearness” to her husband. To believe that his “very shadow [was] lying there fixed forever” (emphasis added, Browning as qtd in Lutz 161).



[1] Most often these postmortem photographs were taken in a studio, as this was cheaper. Only the wealthy were able to afford to pay the photographer compensation for the costs he incurred for the transportation of his equipment. The décor in these studios very much mimicked that of the Victorian parlor so as to invoke a homely feeling.

[2] This was also quite customary when photographs were being taken of infants who were still very much alive. By positing a parent behind them under a cloth, or hiding behind furniture, the adult could force them to keep the a position for the duration of half a minute, which was the necessary time for the photograph to be taken.

[3] Although it is by no means certain that it was this particular photograph which Queen Victoria would have had hanging above her bed, the other photographs taken would have displayed similar characteristics.


Works cited:

Batchen, Geoffrey. Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance. Princeton Architectural Press, 2006. Print.

DiMaio, Dominick, and Vincent J. M. DiMaio M.D. Forensic Pathology, Second Edition. CRC Press, 2001. Print.

Litten, J. ‘The English Funeral 1700-1850’. Grave Concerns: Death and Buial in England 1700-1850. Ed. Margaret Cox. York: Council for British Archaeology, 1998. Print.

Lutz, Deborah. Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2015. Print.

Museum, Cincinnati Art, Julie Aronson, and Marjorie E. Wieseman. Perfect Likeness: European and American Portrait Miniatures from the Cincinnati Art Museum. Yale University Press, 2006. Print.

Netzley, Patricia D. Queen Victoria. Lucent Books, 1996. Print.

Pointon, Marcia. ‘Materializing Mourning: Hair, Jewellery and the Body’. Material Memories: Design and Evocation. Ed. Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward, and Jeremy Aynsley. Oxford: Berg, 1999. Print. Materializing Culture.

Rappaport, Helen. Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the Monarchy. London: Hutchinson, 2011. Print.

—. Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion. ABC-CLIO, 2003. Print.

Weintraub, Stanley. Uncrowned King: The Life of Prince Albert. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.


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Exploding coffins and illusive tappers

Although it sounds like something one would expect to encounter in a Victorian farce, exploding coffins actually became a real issue during the early Victorian era. If we are to believe the writing of men involved in the burial reform movement, such as Edwin Chadwick and John Claudius Loudon, caskets were “popping” left right and center. It were especially lead caskets which suffered from this defect.

Lead coffins had gained popularity in the early 19th century, when the body snatching trade was thriving. As many of my readers will know, men referred to as body snatchers or resurrection men, would dig up bodies which had just been interred, in order to sell these to anatomical schools where they would be dissected. Because lead coffins were hard to pull out of the grave due to their weight, and were nearly impenetrable when closed off properly, they quickly became the preferred coffin for the middle- and upper-classes who were anxious to protect the bodies of their dead beloved.[1]

As the following quote from Edwin Chadwick’s A Supplementary Report on the results of a Special Enquiry into the Practice of Interment in Towns [1843] shows, the great downside to these coffins was that they had the nasty habit of exploding:

I have known coffins to explode, like the report of a small gun, in the house. I was once called upon at midnight by the people, who were in great alarm, and who stated that the coffin had burst in the night, as they described it, with ‘a report like the report of a cannon’. On proceeding to the house I found in that case, which was one of dropsy, very rapid decomposition had occurred, and the lead was forced upon. Two other cases have occurred within my experience of coffins bursting in this manner. I have heard of similar cases from other undertakers. The bursting of lead coffins without noise is more frequent. Of course it is never told to the family unless they have heard it, as they would attribute the bursting to some defective construction of the coffins (Chadwick 14).

To prevent the caskets from spontaneously combusting, undertakers would take the precaution of having them tapped. For this express purpose a hole was created in the side of the coffin into which a tap might be inserted, which allowed someone to drain the bodily fluids and gasses. If this was neglected (as in the example above), combustion was almost inevitable. The explosion might occur at home, during the service or after the funeral. Chadwick writes that it was not uncommon for caskets located in vaults and mausoleums to combust, “unless they were watched and ‘tapped’” (15). This makes me wonder how many unfortunate passersby nearly got a heart attack when suddenly hearing a really loud bang, whilst passing by a family vault during his stroll along the local churchyard. If this had happened to me during nighttime, I surely would have bolted from the place.

All fun aside, when Chadwick mentions that at least some of these caskets at churchyards were being “watched and tapped” this indicates that someone was actually employed to walk around the graveyard with a container of some sort (a bucket?) and a tap to check if any of the lead coffins in the vaults needed tapping. Unfortunately, I have not come across a reference to this particular job in any of the other texts I have consulted. I would really like to discover if this person was employed by a sexton, by the family of the deceased to ensure that the coffin remained intact, if this was an extension of the service provided by the undertaker, or if this was perhaps part of the job of a gravedigger. Unfortunately, leads are painfully missing.

Whilst writing this post I became aware that this is not the only point where the identity of the tapper is shrouded in mystery. Indeed, when Chadwick mentions the tapping of the coffin in the Victorian home, he remains strangely silent on the point of which of the undertaker’s employees was charged with this macabre job. Was this the task of one particular employee, who regularly visited the houses of clients in order to check the coffins? Where all of the undertaker’s men charged with this? I cannot imagine an undertaker taking it upon himself to complete this dreadful task if he could help it.

A lead casket being advertised as the best option to keep the dead safe. As the era progressed, the spontaneous combustion of these coffins became of increasing concern to the Victorians, as it came to be viewed as a health hazard. As the undertaker in the first quote points out, the spontaneous combustion of lead coffins was not necessarily accompanied by sound. If it were to happen at home, the crack, which the explosion would inevitably cause, allowed all manner of bodily gasses and fluids to ooze out, causing the room in which it was located to become a den of noxious gasses. If the members of the household would not notice this soon enough, their health could be a serious jeopardy. There was also always the risk of the coffin cracking during the funeral, which cannot have been agreeable to the gravediggers. According to John Claudius Loudon, the smell was often so unbearable that the London gravediggers were “obliged to be plied constantly with rum to induce them to proceed” (4). However, as Chadwick points out, no amount of liquor could save them if they directly ingested the miasma, as this occasionally resulted in immediate death (14).

Although Chadwick extensively discusses the effects which miasma and effluvia might have on the human body if it were to accidentally be exposed to it, he strangely forgets the unfortunate coffin tapper who of necessity constantly exposed him/herself to this dangerous matter. Again, I cannot help but wonder why this person is so invisible in this text. Was the task too distasteful to be discussed in any detail, causing Chadwick to exclude him/her from the text all together? Or, was perhaps it perhaps a strategic decision? Whilst rereading the report it occurred to me that Chadwick only uses the potentially exploding coffin to illustrate the danger which the concentrated miasma and effluvia posed to those who come into contact with it. Nowhere in his report, however, does he petition for abolishing the use of lead coffins. Could it be that Chadwick did not explicitly discussed the risks to which the tapper was exposed, because it would have forced him to plea against the use of lead caskets, which might have cost him some of the support he was depending on in The House of Commons? After all, by the 1840’s the Victorians still greatly feared body snatchers and lead coffins appeared to be the only means of keeping the resurrection men at bay.

Whatever the reason may be, the illusive tapper has received very little attention in the Victorian era, and as a consequence, in our own. Do any of my readers know of any references to this task/ profession, or the person charged with it? It would definitely make for an interesting side project to discover more about this person who roamed about churchyards with a tap and a bucket of brown, nasty smelling goo.


[1] Many Victorians believed in the second coming of Christ, and therefore the resurrection of the body after death, causing them to fear dissection after death. As such, they went to great lengths ensure that they themselves nor their loved ones ended up on the dissecting table.


Works cited:

Chadwick, Edwin. Report on the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain. A supplementary report on the results of a special inquiry into the practice of interment in towns. Made at the request of Her Majesty’s principal secretary of state for the Home department. London: W. Clowes & Sons, 1843.

Loudon, John Claudius. On the Laying Out, Planting, and Managing of Cemeteries. And on the Improvement of Churchyards. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1843.

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RSVP Conference: Murder, religion and… umbrella’s?!

It has been an awful long while since I have written a blogpost, as a lot has been going on, but I am not writing to blog about that. Instead, I would like to devote this blogpost to the RSVP (Research Society for Victorian Perodicals) 2015 conference, which was held from July 10 – 11 in the lovely city of Ghent.

As I am a true introvert going to conferences always is a bit of a “thing” for me. You can pretty much compare it to climbing the mount Everest, going bungee jumping for the first time because a friend talked you into it or something of the sort. I am always incredibly nervous. Not so much about giving the presentation itself (well, OK that still gets to me a little), as the entire networking which surrounds it. But looking back, with this conference there really was no need to be worried. All the RSVP members are extremely kind and welcoming. They easily strike up a conversation with you and are sincerely interested in the research that you are conducting. It really has been one of the most lovely conferences I have visited up to now, both with regard to the people, as well as the quality of the papers

The conference was marked by some surprising discoveries, which unfortunately did not always receive the attention they deserved. Jeremy Parott’s discovery of a 20 volume set of All the Year Round presumably owned and annotated by non-other than Dickens himself, hit like a bomb, and as many of my readers will have noticed, was picked up by the media rather quickly. However, I would like to draw attention to a panel which undermined many of the prejudices which have come into existence regarding religious popular fiction.

The panel I am referring to was entitled “the religious press”, and unfortunately was not attended by many. Through a clever use of graphs Anne DeWitt was able to show us just much more media coverage (think advertisements, reviews etc.) religious novels were receiving during the end of the century than non-religious novels. What her graphs and research appear to indicate is that a now obscure religious novel entitled Robert Elsmere [1888] by Mrs Humphry Ward was in comparison far more popular than the now famous George Elliot’s Middle March [1871]. This was quite the eye opener for me, as a lot of the sources I have been consulting state that the religious novel became less popular over the course of the Victorian era. DeWitt’s research appears to indicate that this was indeed not the case.

On the same panel Louis James disclosed another really interesting discovery; contrary to what scholars have argued/ assumed, religious tracts and tract magazines aimed at the lower-classes were actually incredibly popular during the early- and mid-Victorian era. Although many scholars of popular fiction have stated that the lower-classes did not much care for religious journals, and preferred more sensation publications such as penny bloods, James’ research showed that during 1858 there were no less than 18 major religious journals aimed at the lower classes, of which approximately 900.000 copies were sold per issue! Needless to say I am very much looking forward to reading more of his work on this subject.

Both papers made several of us wonder how it is possible that there existed such a big gap in our knowledge regarding religious popular fiction. As the incredibly interesting discussion which ensued after this panel made clear, there appears to be a taboo on writing and speaking about religion, even in Victorian studies. Whereas, now-a-days we write numerous articles and books about the way in which the Victorians dealt with death, the authors of these texts often desperately try to stay away from the religious aspect of it. Yet, for many Victorians one did not exist without the other. So yes, definitely some food for thought.

As stated above, the quality of the papers was extremely high, so it will be impossible to give credit to all the wonderful papers I listened to. Really, there was not one talk which I did not enjoy. Nevertheless, I would like to highlight 3 more presentations. In one of the first panels Maria Damkjaer gave a very witty and interesting presentation entitled “Suspicious Movements: The Secret Lives of Umbrellas in the Periodical Press”. In her talk she explained that especially in its early years the umbrella was not considered to be anyone’s property. It was quite normal to visit the club with an old, battered umbrella, only to emerge from it with a brand new one. This ungraspable quality quickly gave the umbrella the reputation of being incredibly unreliable, much akin to those traitorous women who might leave you for another man any time. I am sure there were not many in the room who had previously been especially interested in the literary life of umbrella’s, but I am probably not the only one who now has R. L. Stevenson’s “The Philosophy of Umbrella’s” on her ‘to read’ list.

Source: Illustrated Police News, issue unknown

The other two papers I would like to quickly discuss were part of the panel I was on, which had the wonderful title “Sex, Murder and Violence”, and was chaired by the awesome Andrew King (I honestly wish I had talked to him more; I will blame that on lack of time as well as my damned introvertedness). As this was the final panel of the conference, and it was a staggering 28 degrees (inside and outside) none of us actually expected anyone to show up. Imagine our surprise when the room was so crowded that all the seats were taken! First up was Bob Nicholson, who really is one of the best presenters that I have ever seen (and I have been fortunate enough to see quite a few good ones). In his paper he traced the change which Illustrated Police News underwent from being a sensational newspaper focusing on violence and murder, to becoming something akin to a “lad’s magazine”. He drew some really interesting comparison to more contemporary magazines whilst doing so. All this he did in a way that was both incredibly funny and easy to follow. I sincerely hope that someday I will have the confidence to let go of that piece of paper on which I have carefully jotted down every word and sentence, to which I am currently still cling desperately with shaky hands, and can just “wing it” with some much flare as he did.

Did I mention I was up right after this? *gulp* I had the pleasure of presenting a paper entitled “Poisonous Corpses and Lurking Threats: Changes in the Representation of the Murdered Body in Ada, The Betrayed and The String of pearls”, in which I trace shifts in the representation of murder and the murdered body in the work of James Malcolm Rhymer. Whilst in his earlier work Rhymer very much attempted to influence his reader’s emotions – especially that of disgust – by presenting him/her with truly gruesome descriptions of murders and murdered bodies, he opted for a non-representation of these in his later work in order to appease his critics. I received some really lovely comments on my presentation afterwards. Someone even pointed out that apparently writing about an eye ball having fallen out of its socket is an academic accomplishment.

Last on the panel, but definitely not least was Patrick Low, who no one would have believed to be a first year PhD student, if this had not been announced by Andrew King first. In his paper he discussed how phrenology became increasingly popular and began to influence the way in which suspects in court cases were viewed. He looked especially at Mayor John Five whose obsession with phrenology might have influenced his rulings. For those interested, Patrick also wrote a blogpost on the conference which you can find >here<.

So in the end I came away with a notebook once again filled with lots of interesting notes. I greatly enjoyed the RSVP conference and I hope to be able to attend again next time.

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Redefining my definition of Penny Bloods

In my previous blogpost I discussed some of the existing definitions of penny bloods and proposed what I considered to be the first penny blood. However, as I was very much aware that not everyone might agree with me on the topic, or that part of my reasoning might have been wrong, I requested members of a wonderful listserv Bloods, Penny Dreadfuls and Dime novels to give me some feedback. I was fortunate enough to receive two rather extensive replies in which the authors put forward quite a different point of view. Based on their feedback I decided to post a revision of my blogpost. Part of being in academics is after all to pose an argument, to admit when one is wrong and to revise and adjust it afterwards. Before I set out to do so, however, I wish to extend a particular thank you to Justin, who really has been a wonderful help!

Whereas in my previous blogpost I argued for an exclusion of Newgate calendar and novels from the genre of penny bloods, my correspondents advised me against doing this. They pointed out that a rather substantial part of the penny bloods and later penny dreadfuls consist of the adventures of pirates, buccaneers and high-way men. Furthermore, this discussion called to mind the overlap which I had encountered in some penny bloods with this type of novel. In, for example, Miranda: Heiress of the Grange by Rhymer (perhaps my favourite penny blood), a Highway man is partially responsible for saving the day.

Rather than excluding this type of literature then, I propose to emphasize the existence of two sub-genres within the genre of penny bloods, as nearly all novels fall roughly within the category of the Newgate calendar and novel or the domestic romance. For those who have not read my previous blogpost I will include the short passage which I dedicated to an explanation of what Newgate literature is and how it came into being: The Newgate Calendar started out as a collection of broadsheets which were sold during executions at Newgate prison in 1773, but later became a collection of short stories based on biographies of notorious criminals. The immense popularity of these stories gave rise to the Newgate novel, the greatest difference being that each of these novels focused on the adventures of one particular 18th century highwayman, footpad, brigand, pickpocket, thief, bandit or robber and his allies (Beller 121). The domestic romance is a term which is much harder to define, because as Louis James explains in Fiction of the Workingman: “it does not mean a tale of home life, as we would expect today. The term denotes not so much a particular subject, as an approach to the subject. G. D. Pitt defined a domestic romance when he declared ‘the events are brought home to the evidence of our senses, as constant with scenes of real life’” (97). What is meant here is that although these stories are by no means plausible, they aim to create the illusion of presenting ‘life as it is’. They enabled people to read about characters and situations with which they could identify:

“They feel at home in it, it makes little demand on the imagination, and they are flattered to imagine themselves in the picture. Above all, it presents life subtly romanticised – situations are more dramatic, people are less complicated, the horizon is always bright” (James 113).

At the same time, these novels always revolve around a romantic plot in which for example a young woman is betrayed by her lover (as in Ada the Betrayed), in which her lover becomes the victim of a vicious plot to keep the two beloved apart (as in Miranda; Or, the Heiress of the Grange), or in which a young woman is trying to uncover whether or not her lover is still alive and what happened to him (The String of Pearls).

This then brings me to the matter of the first. It is highly possible that either Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, brigands, pickpockets, thieves, banditti, and robbers of every description or History of the Pirates of All Nations were the first penny bloods, as these were the first publications with a “lurid and sensational” subject matter to have been published at the price of one penny by Edward Lloyd. Micheal Holmes informed me that he argued in article he wrote for the Book & Magazine Collector that History of the Pirates of All Nations should be awarded the title of first, as the first issue was published in March 1836 and Lives of the Most Notorious Highwayman etc. was not published until April.

With a certain amount of caution, I nevertheless pose that Ela, the Outcast [1839] makes a very strong claim to be the first of the domestic romances to be published at the price of one penny. Although this penny blood has often been dated to around 1845, John Adcock has published an advertisement for this periodical on his blog Yesterday’s Papers, which dates it back to October 1839. This would make Ela the earliest domestic romance penny blood that we currently know of.

With respect to the first of the “penny dreadfuls” I have been warned to err on the side of caution, as the dividing line between the two genres is not quite clear even to experts. Perhaps they are even two sides to the same coin. I will therefore revert back to the date which Robert J. Kirkpatrick has given for the possible end of publication of penny bloods in his book From the Penny Dreadful to the ha’penny dreadfuller, namely 1870.

My revised definition of penny bloods, which is now similar to that of Kirkpatrick, is as follows:

Penny bloods are a genre of novels published in serial numbers at the price of one penny between 1836-1870, characterized by their sensational and violent subject matter. These novels can roughly be subdivided according to their topic, into the sub-genre of the Newgate calendar and novel or the domestic romance.


Works cited

Adcock, John. “Ela, the Outcast”. Yesterday’s Papers. Yesterday’s papers, 18 Jun. 2010. Web. 26 Aug. 2014.

Beller, Anne-Marie. “Newgate Novel”. Mary Elizabeth Braddon: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction. Jefferson:McFarland, 2012. Digital.

James, Louis. Fiction for the Working Man: A study of the literature produced for the working classes in Early Victorian England 1830-1850. Oxford: OUP, 1963.

Kirkpatrick, Robert J. From the Penny Dreadful to the ha’penny dreadfuller. London: The British Library, 2013.

Prest, Thomas Peckett. Ela the Outcast; or, the Gipsy of Rosemary Dell. London: E. Lloyd, 1839. Digitial.

Rhymer, James Malcolm. “Ada, the Betrayed; or, The Murder at the Old Smithy”. Lloyd’s penny weekly miscellany of romance and general interest. Vol 1. London: Edward Lloyd, 1843. Print.

—. “Miranda; Or, the Heiress of the Grange. Lloyd’s penny weekly miscellany of romance and general interest. Vol 1. London: Edward Lloyd, 1843. Print.

—. “The String of Pearls. A Romance”. ed. Lee Jackson, nov. 2001. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

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A Matter of Firsts: The First Penny Blood

Ela, the Outcast.  Mr. Wallingford faints after touching a corpse at an inquest.

Ela, the Outcast.
Mr. Wallingford faints after touching a corpse at an inquest.

What better way to commemorate the launch of this new blog than to write a first blogpost on the matter of “firsts”? For a chapter that I am currently working on, which focusses on the representations of murdered bodies in penny bloods, I have come across a number of experts who each award the title of “the first penny blood” to a different work. Perhaps this is unsurprising as almost all “firsts” appear to have been under date at one time or another. Even if in a particular time period someone claimed to have written, created or invented a first, there are bound to have been a number of people who claimed that the credits should have been awarded to someone else instead.

I now find myself faced with the task of deciding with which scholar I would agree, and if I agree with them at all. A task, which is not made any easier by the fact that each scholar appears to have created their own of what they think a penny blood is. In this blogpost then, I aim to assess the different definitions attributed to the phrase penny blood, and hope to come to a new, workable definition of the term “penny blood” in the hope that this will render it possible to determine which novel can be awarded the title of first penny blood.


Previous definitions and possible firsts

In this section I will first look at the definitions which other scholars have attributed to the penny blood. However, I will not immediately engage with the time frame which they provide for the publication of penny bloods in their definitions, as I will return to that aspect in the second section entitled “A new definition and a new first”.

Perhaps one of the reasons why we struggle to define the term “penny blood” is because it was coined in retrospect. The earliest entry in the Oxford Online Dictionary dates back to 1891 when it appeared in The Standard and it was understood to refer to “a cheaply published work of fiction characterized by sensationalism or violence”. One of the problems the definition provided by the OED is that it is not specific enough, as it does not provide us with a set time frame (or even period), nor with an explanation as to what one should understand by “a cheaply published work of fiction”.

In the section “Notes on Penny Bloods” on the site which hosts her wonderful database entitled “Price-one-Penny. Cheap Literature, 1837-1860” Marie Léger-St-Jean offers the following definition of penny blood:

Penny bloods are novels published either in penny periodicals of varying sizes or in weekly autonomous penny numbers, usually comprising eight pages with a woodcut on the first. Serials from periodicals could also be reprinted in stand-alone editions. Both forms of seriality, easing the financial burden for both producers and consumers, date back to the eighteenth century… Penny bloods were … the first to offer novels in penny numbers at a time when a triple decker cost 31s 6d and circulating libraries charged two guineas (42s.) for a yearly subscription.

This definition leads Léger-St-Jean to appoint the Penny Pickwick (1836-1838), a plagiarism of Dickens’ work which was written by Thomas Peckett Prest and published by Edward Lloyd, as the first penny blood.

My main concern with this definition is that it does not contain any reference to the sensational and violent aspect to which the name “penny blood” itself seems to refer. When criticism on Penny Bloods reached its peak in 1947, it was precisely their sensational nature that awarded them a bad reputation. In the novel The Great Plague of Life; or the Adventures of a lady in search of a good servant [1847] by Henry Mayhew, for example, a servant is accused of having served her mistress undercooked lamb and of having accidentally put a rotten French egg into the pudding, rendering dinner completely inedible, all because she had been too absorbed in one of the serial numbers of Ela the Outcast (as qtd in The New Castle Guardian 6, col. 2). Although this text is clearly meant as a satire, it does indicate that the influence which the ‘penny bloods’ could potentially have on those who read them, was becoming a growing concern to the members of the upper-classes. This idea is reaffirmed by a summary of a lecture given by Rev. T. A. Wheeler that same year, which was part of a larger series of lectures entitled “Lectures to the Working Classes”, published in the The Norfolk News: “The lecturer then averted to the penny issues of novels that were now falling into the hands of the working classes, and which he said contained the spurious spawn of the continental immorality and sensationalism” (4, col. 2). The historian William Hepworth Dixon in his letters to the Daily News entitled “The Literature of the Lower Orders” even warned that “[c]ontact with such literature is inevitable corruption. Nothing can prevent it” (2).

In From the Penny Dreadful to the ha’penny dreadfuller Robert J. Kirkpatrick gives a definition which does include the sensational aspect of the penny bloods:

‘“penny blood”, the term given to describe the sensational and lurid novels published in the form of weekly serials, costing one penny, and which had their heyday between around 1830 and 1870’ (65-66).

Judith Flanders in her article on penny dreadfuls published on the website of the British Library appears to largely tie in with Kirkpatrick’s definition:

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. At first the bloods copied popular cheap fiction’s love of late 18th-century gothic tales, the more sensational the better, ‘a world,’ said one writer, ‘of dormant peerages, of murderous baronets, and ladies of title addicted to the study of toxicology [the study of poison], of gipsies and brigand-chiefs, men with masks and women with daggers, of stolen children, withered hags, heartless gamesters, nefarious roués, foreign princesses’.

This leads Flanders to put forward the Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, brigands, pickpockets, thieves, banditti, and robbers of every description as the first penny blood, a serial published by Edward Lloyd which was one of the first (if not the first) serials to be priced one penny.

The issue which I have with the definitions offered by both Kirkpatrick and Flanders is that they include publications which belong to the genre of the Newgate Calendar and – novel. The Newgate Calendar started out as a collection of broadsheets which were sold during executions at Newgate prison in 1773, but later became a collection of short stories based on biographies of notorious criminals. The immense popularity of these stories gave rise of the Newgate novel, the greatest difference being that each of these novels focussed on the adventures of one particular 18th century highwayman, footpad, brigand, pickpocket, thief, bandit or robber and his allies (Beller 121). Because the Newgate Calendar and – novel have such a distinct history and subject matter of their own, I would like to propose to view them as a genre separate from the penny blood.

Newgate Calendar

A new definition and a possible new first.

My discussion of the definitions of penny bloods noted above would leave me with the following definition:

A penny blood is a novel published between 18?-18? in serial numbers at the price of one penny known for its sensational and violent subject matter, but which does not have the life of highwaymen, footpads, brigands and other such common crooks as its main topic.

In the remainder of this blogpost, I will attempt to fill in the timeframe which I have left open in the definition above and to introduce what I think might be viewed as the first penny blood.

Ela, the Outcast. Walter Wallingford sees corpse being dragged out of the water by gypsies

Ela, the Outcast.
Walter Wallingford sees corpse being dragged out of the water by gypsies

Having discarded the Dickens’ plagiarisms and the Newgate Calendar/ novel’s as possible contenders for the title, it is necessary to identify the earliest penny publication with a sensational and violent subject matter. With the help of Price One Penny: A Database of Cheap Literature, 1837-1860 and additional research with regard to dates of publication, I would like to put forward Ela the Outcast; or, the Gipsy of Rosemary Dell [1839] by Thomas Peckett Prest and published by Edward Lloyd as the first penny blood. The novel, which is actually a plagiarized version of a novel entitled The Gypsy Girl, or the Heir of Hazel Dell [1836] by Hannah Maria Lowndes, relates the story of Ela Beranzio, who is seduced by Mr. Edward Wallingford. After practically being sold to his fiendish friend Rackett, Ela, who is pregnant with Wallingford’s child, is eventually taken in by a wandering band of gypsies. Mr. Wallingford in the meantime has married and now has two children, a boy named Walter and a girl called Christabelle. However, his happiness is crudely disturbed when an old gipsy woman named Zetla curses him. One faithful night, the gipsies set the house on fire. Although Mr. Wallingford’s wife and son survive the fire, there is no trace of little Christabelle. Unbeknownst to them, the gypsies have abducted the little girl intending to use her to exact their revenge upon Mr. Wallingford. As Ela takes pity on the little girl, she rescues her by first placing her in someone else’s care, and eventually reintroduces her to the group as Esther, the cousin of her daughter Fanny. What ensues is sensational in the true sense of the word; a series of abductions, some more fires and (of course) a horrible murder.

Having now established a possible “first”, it will now be necessary to determine when the publication of penny bloods came to an end. During the 1860s the market for cheap literature changed drastically. Whereas adults drifted away from the sensational penny bloods, publishers became aware of a new reading audience, namely children. Slowly, but surely, the penny bloods made place for novels aimed at juveniles which were called penny dreadfuls. As I do not claim to be an expert in the field of penny dreadfuls, I can only draw upon what others have written here. According to Kevin Carpenter the first publishing company to publish penny dreadfuls was the Newsagents’ Publishing Company (NPC), which would make The Wild Boys of London, which was published in between 1864-66, the first penny dreadful (53).



My analysis in the above two sections thus leave me with the following definition of the penny blood:

A penny blood is a novel published between 1838-1864 in serial numbers at the price of one penny known for its sensational and violent subject matter, but which does not have the life of highwaymen, footpads, brigands and other such common crooks as its main topic.

As I have hopefully shown, this definition would identify Ela the Outcast; or, the Gipsy of Rosemary Dell [1839] by Thomas Peckett Prest and published by Edward Lloyd as a very strong contestant for the title of the first penny blood. However, if you, yourself, would attribute a different definition to the penny blood, or know of an even earlier text than Ela, the Outcast which might be a serious contestant for the title of “first”, then please feel free to leave a comment. More general comments are more than welcome as well.




Beller, Anne-Marie. “Newgate Novel”. Mary Elizabeth Braddon: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction. Jefferson:McFarland, 2012. Digital.

Carpenter, Kevin. “Robin Hood in Boys’ Weeklies to 1944”. Popular Children’s Literature in Britain. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008. Print.

Flanders, Judith. “Penny Dreadfuls”. The British Library. The British Library, Web 7 July 2014.

Hepworth Dixon, Henry. “The Literature of the Lower Orders”. Daily News 9 Nov. 1847: 2-3.

Kirkpatrick, Robert J. From the Penny Dreadful to the ha’penny dreadfuller. London: The British Library, 2013.

Léger-St-Jean, Marie. “Notes on Penny Bloods” Price One Penny: A Database of Cheap Literature, 1837-1860, University of Cambridge. 27 June 2013. Web. 8 July 2014.

Mayhew, Henry. “The Great Plague of Life; or the Adventures of a lady in search of a good servant”. The New Castle Guardian 12 June 1847: 6.Digital.

“Penny blood.” Oxford Online Dictionary, 2014. Web. 7 June 2014.

Prest, Thomas Peckett. Ela the Outcast; or, the Gipsy of Rosemary Dell. London: E. Lloyd, 1839. Digitial.

Unknown. “Lectures to the Working Classes”. The Norfolk News 27 Mar. 1847: 4. Digital.

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