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Pockets of Poison

Penny Bloods and the Demon Barber

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#7, 1995

And then there was the Industrial Revolution.

The population of this country is for the first time becoming a reading population, actuated by tastes and habits unknown to previous generations, and particularly susceptible to such an influence as that of the press.
Report to the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1832

Of course, printing itself had been round for a good many years. Johann Gutenberg had produced his Bible in the mid-fifteenth Century, which had made him penniless and introduced a methodology that would last some three hundred years without fundamental changes. But more profound social changes were needed before the mass acceptance and wide distribution of the printed word was to be had. The Eighteenth Century had seen the first newspapers appear in England, and later it had seen the growing efficiency of steam technology that operated regardless of season, bringing workers out of the farms and into the cities. Science was cruising along doing well for itself, and though this is fifty years before Charles Darwin, someone had already worked out the theory of Black Holes. Basically the ideals of the Renaissance were working themselves down through the class system into changes of a massive scale, and were making a hell of a mess in the process.

The cities were filthy, cramped, dangerous. Crime flourished, as did another pervasive illness of hastily-planned automation -- boredom.

And of course the people were changing as well. In the early Nineteenth Century, the idea of the educated commoner was becoming... common, and worrisome for some. It was an idea that was probably over-emphasised at the time, because of all the workers in the new union movements and other political trends, it was the articulate ones that were getting noticed. But education and re-education certainly were become much more prominent, and everybody wanted to help. Over and above normal schooling there were church schools, adult education classes, Mechanics Institutes and the like, mutual instruction classes... The working class was not necessarily becoming articulate, but by 1830 it is estimated up to three quarters of them had learned to read.

For writers, journalists and publishers at all levels of the system, there was suddenly an audience like there had never been before. Not a rich audience -- quite the opposite -- but a vast, hungry and thus profitable one, nonetheless.

* * *

The first Penny magazine was published in 1832, The Penny Story-Teller by William Strange. But the man most responsible for the look of that format arrived on the scene two or three years later, one Edward Lloyd, who also ended up exerting a large amount of influence on the horror genre while he was about it. He was the son of a farmer and a mechanic by training, but had realised the public's need for cheap entertainment whilst running a small shop in London. Setting up offices in Salisbury Square, he began producing chapbooks of pirates and highwaymen, as well as The Calendar of Horrors. These were generally 'number' novels, produced monthly and costing 6p for 24-32 pages, but later on he switched to the more commercially viable format of a weekly magazine, eight pages for a penny. This had been done, but it was his innovation of publishing novels in long-lasting series that became so popular. The first issue in the format was assigned to one of his staff writers, Thomas Peckett Prest, who had previous handled The Calendar of Horrors. The new work appeared in 1839, The Penny Pickwick, attributed to 'Bos'.

This was hardly the most ethical of beginnings -- two years previously the immensely popular Charles Dickens had produced his Pickwick Papers, a follow-on from his series of sketches of London life collected as Sketches by Boz [1]. But with no copyright laws to protect artistic creation, Edward Lloyd and his writers started raking in the profits.

They also managed to come up with some original work, or at least distil previous genres into new forms that were indeed a significant progression of ideas. An undated broadsheet shows a popular format for printing up till and during the time of the Penny Blood.

The most successful serial of the period was Edward Vile's Black Bess, named after Dick Turpin's horse, one of many serials that turned the infamous smuggler and robber, executed a century earlier and known for his cruel tortures, into a dashing, romantic hero. Criminals, notably highwaymen, pirates, and even Robin Hood, were always popular with the masses, and so were the horror stories.

Edward Lloyd published over two hundred different serials in his time, up to 1856 when he mellowed into a more sedate line of publishing. And he was of course by no means the only source on the market -- with that same lack of copyright law, and the fact that the latest printing technology only cost some £30 to set up, the competition was fierce and even cheaper imitators numerous. But let's look at the actual horror stories, and see what was being published, and why.

The most famous and long-lasting character created in the Penny Bloods (or Penny Dreadfuls, as they were known to their critics) is Thomas Prest's 'demon barber', Sweeney Todd, first told of in The String of Pearls: A Romance in 1846 [2] . We'll have a look in detail at this particular series later, but a more instructive example is James Malcolm Rymer's Varney the Vampire: or the Feast of Blood. This was another product of Lloyd's stable, and indeed it was assumed up until the 1960s that Varney was also a creation of Prest -- but the discovery of certain of Rymer's scrapbooks show he is almost certainly the author.

Varney is generally regarded as the next stage in the evolution of the vampire mythos after Polidori's The Vampyre of 1819. The interesting thing is not the quality of writing so much as how Rymer approached the topic to fit the large number of pages he had to fill, and to satisfy the particular demands of his audience.

The time of the Gothic Novel had come and gone. Certainly such a ready source of horrors didn't go untapped and Ms Radcliffe and most of her ilk were serialised in the penny magazines at one time or another -- and there were at least three separate reprints of Lewis' The Monk. But the subtleties and poetic landscapes of much of the earlier work were not appreciated by the new generation. New ways were needed to shock or convince. The most obvious method was simply to make the action more visceral and immediate, as the famous conclusion to the first chapter shows rather well:

The glassy, horrible eyes of the figure ran over that angelic form with a hideous satisfaction -- horrible profanation. He drags her head to the bed's edge. He forces it back by the long hair still entwined in his grasp. With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth -- a gush of blood, and a hideous sucking noise follows. The girl has swooned, and the vampire is at his horrible repast! [3]

A more interesting consequence is that people were much less willing to accept straight supernatural explanations, and often rationales would be given near the end of stories to place the action back in the real world. Indeed at the conclusion to the first of Varney's encounters with a mortal family he reveals he is simply pretending demonic powers to scare them. And then Varney is as surprised as anyone to discover he really is a vampire after all.

Another example of a mentality differing from the classic form is that whenever Varney would be finally driven out from his latest haunt, it would not be the human heroes or protagonists that sent him packing. Rather, in practically every case they would look on helpless as the mob would take their revenge on the monster -- now a familiar sight thanks to the torch-wielding peasants of Universal Monster flicks. It would be too easy to claim this is a straight reflection of the audience, but certainly it was a characteristic of the Penny Bloods to portray the upper classes as slovenly and corrupt. After all, the 'robbing from the rich' principle was behind every highwayman that waved a musket.

Varney himself was a nobleman, Sir Frances Varney of Ratford Hall, Yorkshire no less. And yet while he was presented as being more akin to the Nosferatu figure than the dashing Count, through sheer doggedness (he was killed scores of times, to no avail) and his final self-realisation and suicide, he seemed to achieve his own dignity.

' "You can keep that for your pains, and for coming into some danger with me. But the fact was, that I wanted a witness to an act which I have set my mind on performing... You will say that you accompanied Varney, the Vampyre to the crater of Mount Vesuvius and that, tired and disgusted with a life of horror, he flung himself in to prevent the possibility of a reanimation of his remains."

'Before, then, the guide could utter anything but a shriek, Varney took one tremendous leap, and disappeared into the burning mouth of the mountain.'

But then, that was at the end of some hundred and eight chapters, and in those two years Rymer had to play with his mythos, managing to introduce a great deal of variety over the previous versions, from comic relief (including a 'Count Polidori') to more serious treatments of the relationship between a vampire and his prey.

It is easy to say, and to demonstrate, that at the pace of eight pages a week Varney wasn't particularly well written -- but those were the conditions of the time and they were changing the way horror was defined.

There are lots of other examples of the horror serial, and some of them showing their author's serious intent on readdressing the classics.

James Rymer's second most famous contribution was Ada, the Betrayed: Or the Murder at the Old Smithy in 1847, one of a number of stories following the exploits of much put-upon heroines. Others include such old-school delights as Prest's Vileroy; or, The Horrors of Zindorf Castle, whereas there was a number of somewhat less Gothic tales of the prostitutes of London [4]. Speaking of which, one of the royal courtesans printed her memoirs of the court in this format -- offering to leave out certain parties for a price, and G. W. M Reynolds managed to publish an attack on royal corruption in a similar form in 1849.

Reynolds, who edited his own The London Journal, is more interesting as the author of such tales as The Mysteries of London in 1845 and Wagner the Wehr-Wolf in 1847. The latter involved a German peasant who deals with the devil, winning eternal life on the condition he becomes a werewolf every seven years. He is finally saved from his fate by some passing Rosicrucians! The Mysteries of London also contains an early use of the Mummy, and from that section, these wonderful paragraphs:

Stretched upon a shutter, which three chairs supported, was a corpse -- naked, and of that blueish or livid colour which denotes the beginning of decomposition!

Near this loathsome object was a large tub full of water; and to that part of the ceiling immediately above it were affixed two large hooks, to each of which hung thick cords...

But how great was Richard's astonishment when, glancing from the objects just described towards the villain who had hauled him into that den of horrors, his eyes were struck by the sombre and revolting countenance of the Resurrection Man.

There were other monsters, and other deals with the devil -- quite a few in fact, and the Faust legend created a number of stories, such as Bianca and the Magician (1841), and at least one which was actually called Faust, by Reynolds in 1846 (in which Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf himself, makes a cameo at one point). The opposition had their own problems, and it wasn't just reprints of The Monk that hid lecherous clergyman, with such examples as Love and Crime (1840) and The Fate of Gaspar (1842) having similar themes.

Whilst work such as another Faust adaptation, The Demon Huntsman, or the Fatal Bullet (1842), laboured to evoke allegory and social relevance, others such as The Demon of Sicily (1840) had bolder ambitions. This serial by Edward Montague is described by [161] to have 'applied the Cosmology and demonology of Milton's Paradise Lost to Gothic romance, and has verbal echoes of Milton's work'.

The aim of most of this material was not profoundly literary, but to entertain and be accessable, to capture the public imagination, to be read. I have mentioned Thomas Prest's A String of Pearls, which fulfilled the criteria superbly, so much so that Sweeney Todd is the only character created by the Penny Bloods that is still in active circulation, what with Stephen Sondheim's musical from the seventies, and Neil Gaiman's recent comic adaptation (so recent it hasn't hit Sydney yet).

But what exactly was the legend about? Peter Haining goes to a lot of trouble in [162] to try and track down the real Sweeney Todd. On the way he discovers a tale that crossed the English Channel and back again about a barber that would kill his customers and feed them to the local pastry cook, in turn based on a fourteenth century French ballad. Apparently Prest using a 1825 publication, The Tell Tale, for his source (it was, after all, no secret that he 'researched' his stories well). However the story has a number of English ancestors as well, including the case of five female barbers in Drury lane, and an 1818 lawsuit filed by a respectable butcher, also in Drury Lane, after a local paper ran a story claiming human remains had been found on the menu [5]. Further investigation came up with Sawney Bean as one of Prest's possible sources -- the Scottish clan of cannibals that also inspired Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, and finally two newspaper reports of murders by a cut-throat barber in London. These are particularly noteworthy as they were dated 1784-5, the period Prest specifically mentions in his serial, and the second of them took place extremely close to Sweeney Todd's reported premises of 186 Fleet Street.

Perhaps Peter Haining only proves that stories of cannabalism and a fear of barbers were not uncommon -- for a start he points out the barber also doubled at the time as a minor physician whose tasks included the bleeding of patients, this being the origin of the striped red barber's pole. That last point about the murders is certainly fascinating, but any further facts will be almost impossible to track down or substantiate.

Nonetheless, once again we see the stuff of ballads and popular mythology translated into these penny serials and unleashed for eager consumption by the population at large. But there was, of course, more than just straight translation going on.

In a real sense the spread of print was driving out the old superstitions in the same way that the industry was claiming the forests for power and pulp. The superstition would never actually die out, but the old ways of storytelling were being replaced, a carefully nurtured oral tradition making way for more hastily scribbled sheets of paper. But there was also a new faith, not so much the idea that words have power, but that the press could be used for miracles of reform, and that the printed word could be eternal. As Richard Carlile, political dissident, said at the time: 'I had a complete conviction that there was something wrong somewhere, and the right application of the printing press was its remedy' [quoted in 160].

The penny bloods were changing the horror genre into a more self-conscious and more immediate, read visceral, form. And certainly the adventures of Lord Frances Varney, Vampire, will be available to be read for a long time to come -- whether or not anyone will is another matter.

In part two: the Penny Gaffs, and the evolution of the publications towards the twentieth century.


[2] Chronicle of the World, Jerome Burne (ed), Chronicle, 1991, c1989

[8] A Pictorial History of Horror Stories, Peter Haining, Treasure Press, London, 1985, c1976.

[80] Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula, Christopher Frayling, faber and faber, London, 1991. Of course.

[160] Print and the People 1819-1851, Louis James, Allen Lane, London, 1976.

[161] Fiction For the Working Man 1830-1850, Louis James, Oxford University Press, London, 1963. These two were recommended by the ever-reliable Mr Frayling, and are excellent resources. Print and the People provides a great number of reprints of original Penny Blood material, with historical context that forms the outline of this essay, whilst Fiction for the Working Man goes into a lot more detail about the how and why.

[162] The Mystery and Horrible Murders of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Peter Haining, Frederick Muller Ltd, London, 1979. A well researched and very interesting book. In all the work I've seen by Haining, such as [8] above, not to mention a score of Doctor Who references, horror anthologies and the like, he seems to be aiming more for the 'masses' himself, complete with intricate detail. Not a bad way to be, really.


[1] One of the later serialised novels was Oliver Twiss!
[2] Published as part of The People's Periodical and Family Library, as 'edited by E. Lloyd'. While the titles of the actual magazines were usually innocuous, this was a deliberate plot to keep the moral guardians of the time at bay, whereas it was the picture on the front that usually grabbed the punter.
[3] I received that passage in year 11 English as an example of melodramatic writing. I'm not sure if that's a good sign or not...
[4] One feature of the Gothic tales was the divine protection the protagonists had on their virtue -- it seems secondary characters could be casually raped in the narrative, but our heroine could be held captive for months with every attack on her foiled.
[5] Along with the actual fiction magazines, the papers of the time were also somewhat sensationalist. One of the popular reporting techniques was to convey in great detail a prisoner's last words at the public executions -- whether he said them or not. And as a journalist admitted at the time, 'fires are our best friends, next to murders, if they are good fires'. The more things change...

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