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Death and Dying in Victorian Britain    

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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10 Responses to A Matter of Firsts: The First Penny Blood

  • Hello Marjorie,

    Please don’t take it wrong if I have a lot to say here. I am not criticizing you, I am only trying to have a discussion and to let you know what some of my ideas are on this topic. You are an academic, I am just a collector, and I look forward to reading what else you have to say on this topic.

    Re your methodology: Are you trying to determine which title was finished first, or when the genre came into being? I ask this because I think you should not approach this topic as if you were judging a race, i.e. trying to figure out which title was the first across the finish line. The dates of publication attributed to penny bloods, when they are not just pure guesswork (which they much too often are), are generally taken from the title page or from the preface, when this is dated. But this date marks the finish of a serial, not its commencement. So if you are trying to establish when this genre came into being, then you should look at which penny dreadful title was the first to commence serialization. By this criterion, then, a long serial that began earlier would beat out a shorter one that commenced later and finished earlier.

    This brings me to Ela. I have a copy of the first edition, which has a preface dated March 15, 1841. This means that it started publication in March of 1839. So the date you give for this title, i.e. [1839] is correct, but only for the start of serialization.

    Re your definition: I agree with you that a definition should consider the “sensational and violent aspect” of a penny blood. But one thing that is missing, I think, from all the definitions you examine, and also your own, is that it should be an original work. Not original in the sense that it cannot be a plagiarism of an earlier work, but original in that it is not a reprint or piracy of something already published. Otherwise the Novel Newspaper would possibly come in first, but it is not at all a typical blood (if it counts as one at all), and it contained reprints only, as far as I know. This is not to say that the Novel Newspaper does not figure in the history of this genre, only that it is not, I think, a penny blood proper. I also don’t mean to suggest that a reprint in penny numbers of a lurid title first published in volume form cannot be considered a penny blood, but if you are trying to establish the beginnings of a new form of literature, then in my opinion such a reprint should not count – it is not yet something new.

    You write, “This leads Flanders to put forward the Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads … as the first penny blood.” This is commonly accepted, but I believe this is an error, and Lloyd’s History and Lives of the Most Notorious Pirates of all Nations began first. In a nutshell, some numbers of Pirates have advertising for Highwaymen, and this established that Highwaymen began serialization later than Pirates.
    I agree with you that Newgate Calendar-type publications are something different from penny bloods proper. But what I think should be excluded from the definition of “penny blood” is works with many short items that purport to be factual, e.g. the Terrific Register or the Calendar of Horrors. I think excluding highwayman novels is a bit arbitrary, for the following reasons.

    As far as I know, the academic literature on the Newgate Novel is focused almost exclusively on upper class literature, i.e. Ainsworth, Lytton and Thackerey. See, e.g., The Newgate Novel 1830-1847 by Keith Hollingsworth, which barely mentions Lloyd, Prest, Rymer or Reynolds, and does not use “penny blood” or “penny dreadful” at all. But as an academic you may know more here than I do.

    Penny bloods were influenced by (and plagiarized) this upper class Newgate Novel, but this is not different from the way they copied other upper class works like those of Dickens or Sir Walter Scott, and as far as I know this was pretty much a one-way street. Bloods copied these upper class novels, whether in the Newgate Novel genre or some other genre, but not much the other way around. This goes for highwayman novels just as it does for other types of novels.

    Moreover, highwaymen figure in so many penny publications, from the earliest ones to the later juvenile ones, and to later publications put out by Aldine, McGlennon, Daisy Bank and Mellifont Press, that if you were to exclude highwaymen then you would, in effect, be maiming what appears to me to be a fairly coherent continuum of popular literature. Also, the penny issue publications were all strongly indebted to and influenced by Gothic novels, chapbooks, Newgate Calender-type publications, and all these are teeming with highwaymen, robbers and banditti. Paul Clifford, Gentleman Jack and Claude Duval, all published by Lloyd, have always been considered penny bloods. Why exclude them? Even some Reynolds titles have highwaymen as characters.

    Bottom line is, and here we may just have to agree to disagree, that I don’t think novels about highwaymen “have such a distinct history and subject matter of their own.” I think there are two somewhat, but not entirely, distinct histories – one history of penny publications (which in turn may have two distinct histories, i.e. up to about 1860 for adults, and after 1860 for juveniles), and another history of upper class Newgate novels. Both of course draw on earlier types of publication.

    Now to the question, which one came first? This may be a bit like asking which animal was the first mammal – not which species, but which individual. Moreover, answering your question is made almost impossible by the fact that many of these items are not dated, and not even datable. So much guesswork and misinformation has been published that sorting it out really means starting from scratch. Having said this, I think Ela is certainly a viable candidate. Another candidate is The Witch’s Cliff, another Lloyd publication, which Medcraft dates 1839. I don’t know if the titlepage of this bears a date, but even if it does, it is probably impossible to determine which of these two commenced first.

    Another candidate is Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest by Pierce Egan. Some collectors of penny bloods would not even admit this to their collection – it is not at all uncommon, was often reprinted, and is not terribly dreadful, but it is a specimen of the genre. Both Jarndyce and Summers date the first edition 1840, and at 41 nos., it may have commenced before Ela. But I am not entirely sure how reliable this 1840 date is.

    Another candidate is Blueskin’s Life of Jack Sheppard, which James says was published by Glover in 1839. I realize this does not meet your definition, which excludes crooks. I also don’t know how accurate this date is.
    But one thing I did notice in looking into this question, and I hadn’t really noticed it before, is that 1839 is pretty clearly the year (maybe +/- one year) when original long fiction usually referred to as “penny blood” was first published. There does seem to me to be a fairly bright line here.
    As to which one is last, or which title is the first “penny dreadful” as opposed to “blood,” I think this is even harder to answer, and I won’t even try to do so. One problem is that by 1860 (the year that is usually taken to mark, at least approximately, the divide between bloods and dreadfuls) there were so many publishers putting out so many titles that identifying the last one is like finding a needle in a haystack.

    Another problem I personally have with this is that I think the divide between bloods and dreadfuls may be made out to be sharper than it actually is. Do we really know who actually bought and read the NPC publications? I have no problems accepting that Boys of England was a juvenile publication, marketed toward, bought by and read by boys. But do we know who read The Skeleton Horseman? To me it seems a bit like saying that today video games or superhero movies or Harry Potter books are mainly for boys – but I think in fact adults (maybe immature adults, but technically adults) also consume them.

    I think it would be interesting to try and figure out who actually read these “juvenile” publications. I think the dividing line may be far more blurred than most people make it out to be. See, e.g. Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay, “Popular Authors.” When an emigrant asks a deck hand whether there is not “any book that gives a true picture of a sailor’s life,” the deck hand (whom I am assuming to be an adult or near adult, but admittedly he could have been a teen), he mentions Tom Holt’s Log by Stephens Hayward, who did much of his work for “juvenile” publications. And Stevenson seems to suggest that the numbers of Black Bess that he found as a boy had belonged to a gamekeeper (at least that is my reading). Also keep in mind that many writers (Hayward, Hemyng, P. B. St. John) wrote both adult and so-called juvenile fiction, further undermining, in my opinion, the idea that that bloods and dreadfuls should be considered separately. But I don’t deny that there is a difference between the earlier and the later penny publications, and I want to be clear that on this issue I am trying to raise a question only – I am not saying that the received view is clearly wrong. Still, my point is that trying to find the “last” blood is even more difficult than trying to find the first one.

    I think I have rambled enough for now; I’ll probably have some more things to add later. I am interested in reading what others will have to say about this. Justin

  • Marjolein

    I honestly cannot thank you enough for your extensive comment. It was really very informative and helpful! As I announced on the list, I will make sure to write another blog post on this topic in which I revise this post based on all the feedback I have received.

    If you wish to add additional feedback and comments, then please do. Also, please do not be afraid of offending me. When I asked people to comment on this blog post I was very much aware that they might not agree with me at all. I really wished for an honest opinion and I am glad I received it, since, to be honest, I have learned more from the comments which I have received in response than from the books I have read on the topic so far. So, I am just really grateful that you took the time to write such a detailed reply.

  • Just realized that I called you “Marjorie” earlier — I apologize! I really don’t know why I did that!

  • It’s hard to find knowledgeable people in this particular subject, but you sound likie you knnow what you’re talking about!

  • Hello Marjolein,

    I like your new definition! I have a few suggestions. One, for your purposes, as you are, I believe, interested in a genre of literature, as opposed to publishing or readership, I’d make clear that you are interested in things that were written specifically for serial publication. This would rule out reprints of, e.g., J. F. Cooper’s works, translations, or things like the Black Pirate. Maybe you should also make clear that there were many other types of works that are neither domestic romances, nor about robbers and highwaymen. For example, there were many historical novels, like Stanfield Hall, or many of Reynolds’s works.

  • Marjolein

    Dear Justin,
    As ever, thank you so much! You really have been such a wonderful help! I will take your suggestions to heart and make sure to use them in my chapter. 🙂

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    • Marjolein

      Apologies for the late reply. My twitter name is @MCPlatjee. I’d be honoured if you’d follow me :).

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