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Monthly Archives: July 2014

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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