In 1885 Floodgate Street, with its narrow alleys, was plundered by a gang of boys straight from the penny dreadfuls. An ‘aggressive’ street-thief named Trunkey (for his prominent nose) was the captain of these self-styled “Boy Pirates” of Floodgate Street.
His Slawkenbergian proboscis was pretty well matched by a portentously large mouth, which his friends were wont to speak of as his “gap.” In addition to this, he was deeply and abundantly be-freckled, and had a shock of hair so fiery-red that even the toning-down effects of dirt could scarcely dim its lurid brightness.
Though his boots were too large for his calloused feet, and his dirty pants were held up by a home-made belt made up of rope and broken braces, he walked with a confident swagger. He carried a ‘neddy’ about with him and his pockets were stuffed with ‘arf-bricks’ for throwing at unoffending strangers passing by. His pirates were boys between ten and fifteen years of age, surrounded by poverty and drunkeness, neglected by their parents, (if they had any,) starving, beaten, hungry, and dirty.
They were the terror of their neighbourhood. They stole pennies from children, old women, and shop-keepers alike. They stripped empty houses to their boards, nicked fruit and vegetables from the street stands, robbed boats on the wharves, and assaulted drunks for their property, a species of crime known as “bug hunting.”
With the spoils they would buy ale, perform popular songs picked up in frequenting music-halls, with such titles as Up To Dick, That’s Where You Make a Mistake, The Strict Q T, Can You Lend My Mother a Saucepan, and Mickey’s on the Booze, and attend three-penny gaffs, to cheer the hero and boo the villain. They also read penny dreadfuls; The Wild Boys of London, Charlie Peace; or The Burglar and the Beauty, and The Boy Bushrangers.
The author of “A Pirate Crew,” from All the Year Round, No. 845, Feb. 7, 1885, was probably drawing on his own boyhood memories of the penny dreadfuls since all these titles came out in the sixties and seventies. It is extremely doubtful that publishers would take the chance on reprinting “The Wild Boys of London” in 1885 when the book had been stopped mid-serial by the police in 1877. Newsagents suffered the most from the suppression and would have been loathe to handle a publication that would bring the law down on their heads.
The odd title here is “The Boy Bushrangers,” a title that is on no list that I know of. There was, however, a serial in Sons of Brittania begun on April 25, 1874 titled “The Young Bushranger, a Story of the Australian Wilds,” by our old friend Vane St. John which was possibly printed in penny numbers by Hogarth House under the title “The Boy Bushranger.” For all his faults as a stylist St. John told a thrilling tale ideally suited for the penny dreadfuls. Some of his scenes are quite haunting like this excerpt;
“…suddenly as they looked they saw a strange and terrible sight.
The heavy, white mist which had so suddenly made its appearance did not extend down to the surface of the water, but left a space of a few feet clear.
And along this space, gliding noiselessly over the bottom of the lake, was a canoe, a large canoe, the rowers of which were skeletons, and the oars of which made no sound.
Weird, and wonderful, and horrible it looked as it passed onwards, without so much as a ripple of the water, save where the prow met the waves, its ghastly crew bending to and fro, and keeping time as if to some unheard chorus.”
Penny Dreadfuls and the bloodthirsty melodramas of the penny gaffs were blamed for having a pernicious effect on the children of London. Of course ! Penny numbers were shrewdly published on Saturday to act as catchpennies to the crowd of impoverished and working-class youth, most of them only having Sundays to spare for leisure activities.
“The school teachers read the novels of Mrs. Henry Wood and Edna Lyall. In the window of the local paper-shop the Police News and the Penny Illustrated were displayed on Saturday nights, and boys bought the lives of Jack Sheppard, Charles Peace, and other notorious burglars in endless penny numbers.” ‘The Lives of the People’ from Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts. Thomas Jones, C. H. 1935.
Not every reader was susceptible but enough evidence survives to show that some youths were greatly influenced by the ‘penny poison’ that they read, or had read to them. For a homeless street arab life was a constant struggle to feed himself, theft was a natural response to poverty and hopelessness. To such as these Jack Sheppard and the other boy burglars must have seemed princes worthy of emulation.
“The mischievous lad who some time since presented a pistol at Her Majesty’s head, and got well whipped for his pains, was found in possession of a collection of lives of celebrated highwaymen, and the various gangs of youthful burglars and would-be highwaymen who have lately appeared in the dock have one and all modelled their career upon the heroes of criminal novels. Only the other day a terrible illustration occurred of the actual effect of this gallows literature upon weak minds. A young man, nineteen years of age, named Westby, shot his father dead at Nottingham, having first murdered a little office boy at the office of the solicitor where he was employed, “merely to strengthen his nerve,” and then took refuge in a fowl-house, where he was captured with a revolver in his possession, with which, as he frankly owned, he intended, when the police came, to shoot as many as possible. The key to this otherwise inexplicable outburst of homicidal fury was afforded by the poor mother’s words :- “My son was very fond of reading, and would sit for hours at his favourite amusement, studying periodicals and sensational literature.” By this “sensational literature” his habits appear to have been formed, and they were eccentric enough. He would not, we are told, “allow anyone to visit his bedroom, which was entered by an opening in the floor. To this opening, he had attached a trapdoor, with bolts, and at night he always fastened himself in. He had also pulled down the bedstead, and had been in the habit of sleeping in a hammock slung up from the roof, while around the walls of the room were a number of pictures of the ‘Life of Dick Turpin,’ &c. A singular collection of cuttings from newspapers was also found in his desk at Mr. Fraser’s office, including recipes for the manufacture of guncotton and other explosives, together with accounts of marvellous adventures. Here is a direct instance of the effects which the modern substitutes for the Newgate Calendar have upon weak intellects and crazy brains.” - Penny Dreadfuls. November 26, 1881.The Saturday Review.
As early as 1841 the Sixth Report of the Inspector of Prisons in England found that a “vast number of boy malefactors, when examined, were found to have been misled by witnessing the performance of such plays as Jack Sheppard.” Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal No. 515, Dec. 11, 1841, covered the report under the title “Felon Literature” and quotes numerous boys testimony to their influence.
An eighteen year old said “I have seen Jack Sheppard performed; I thought he was a capital example for those who followed the trade.” A fourteen year old thought Jack Sheppard was “very nice, and if I was only as clever I would be thought the very best of thieves.” Another; “I had his life, some boy took it from me; most boys have his life.” A twenty-one year old said “..I noticed them picking one another’s pockets on the stage; it gave everyone a great insight how to do it. If I did not know how to do such tricks when I went into the theatre, I am sure I could when I came out.”
One eighteen year old identified as J. H. had just entered into the fifth year of his apprenticeship when he came across a “Life” of Jack Sheppard. He then saw the play, probably in a penny gaff, it “excited in my mind an inclination to imitate him; the part was well acted at the play. I read how he got into places; and I had a wish to try if I could do the same. The play made the greatest impression on my mind. A few weeks after I saw the play, I committed the first robbery. When the scene is hoisted, he is carving his name upon a beam which goes across the shop. I wrote ‘Jack Sheppard’ on the shop-beam, just as it was in the play. It occurred to my mind that this trade was like my own- a carpenter. I often thought about it when I was at work. J. and me were always talking about it at the shop. Sheppard used to follow carding, and that set us ‘agaite.’ (After reciting various robberies committed by himself and his companions, this lad says) :- We continued to talk about Jack Sheppard, and we were getting like Jack and his companions. I am quite convinced that if I had never seen the play, I should never have got into this trouble. The play did me far more harm than the book. We did these things for the name of the thing; we were not short of money.”
James Greenwood, “The Amateur Casual,” in The Seven Curses of London, cautions against taking such tales at face value. “A talent for gammoning “Lady Green,” as the prison chaplain is irreverently styled, is highly appreciated among the thieving fraternity.” Greenwood toured the boys wing of the gaol with a governor known by the boys to blame penny dreadfuls for their pernicious influence. All boys when asked would say “It was them there penny numbers what I used to take in, sir,” and receive a pat on the head and an homily for his troubles.
Considering the terrible lives they led boys really had no need to blame the penny dreadfuls. The Bee-Hive, a working man’s newspaper reported the following sad story in 1870;
BOW-STREET. James Anderson, a ragged little urchin, of about eight years of age, was charged with stealing money from a till. A corn chandler disposed that he saw the prisoner crawl into his shop and creep behind the counter. He put his hand into the till and went out of the shop. Prosecutor followed, and ultimately captured the prisoner, who by this time had thrown the money away. Prosecutor lost altogether about four shillings. Some of the money was picked up by the boys in the street. - The father of the prisoner here stepped forward, and said that his boy had become corrupted by bad companions amongst whom he had fallen, and who frequently enticed him into a “Penny Gaff” in the Euston-Road. The money was doubtless stolen on purpose to visit that place. He (the father) had often beaten his boy with a strap for going to the place, which was the resort of thieves and bad girls. - Mr. Vaughan said, that a similar case to the one now before him, the “Penny Gaff” in the Euston-Road, had been alluded to. He should request Mr. Balding (the inspector on duty at the court), to report the frequent complaints that had been made concerning the latter place to the Chief Commissioner of Police immediately. - Mr. Vaughan (to the prisoner) : Who told you to go to that place ? - The prisoner : No one, Sir, I went with another boy, a cripple. I have been there about six times. - Mr. Vaughan : Were there many people there when you went ? - The prisoner : Yes, Sir, it was always crowded. - Mr. Vaughan : And what do you see there, little boy ? - The prisoner : “Oh, they give us about three songs; then there’s some actin’, then they puts down the blind, and that’s all you see.” (Laughter.)- Mr. Vaughan : What kind of acting was it ? - The prisoner : Eh ? Mr. Vaughan : What kind of acting was it ? - The prisoner : Oh ; murdering and that. - Mr. Vaughan at this stage remanded the prisoner for a week.
Thomas Beggs blamed poverty and drunkeness for juvenile depravity but also took note of the young thieves cultural amusements :
“The amusements of these youths are the low theatres, the dancing saloons, and entertainments of a like description. Many of the penny theatres are frequented only by boys and girls who are already thieves and prostitutes. “Jack Sheppard,” “Dick Turpin,” Claude Duval,” and other exhibitions of dexterous and daring crime attract the attention and ambition of these boys, and each one endeavours to emulate the conduct of his favourite hero. In fact, what the stage representations of a former period have done to excite the imagination of the vulgar for military and naval glory, these wretched places effect for the unhappy youths brought within the sphere of their influence. In a continual whirl of excitement and intoxication, the boy learns the lessons which finish the candidates for the Penal settlements, if disease or death does not arrest his career. Few who traverse the gay streets of the Metropolis, have any conception of the number of pitfalls, showily and artfully covered over, but full of misery and wickedness, “of rottenness and dead men’s bones.” - An Inquiry into the Extent and causes of Juvenile Depravity, By Thomas Beggs, 1849.
To be fair, my favourite Victorian essayist, Charles Manby Smith (1804-1880), an author who came up from the working-class, had a differing opinion of demoralizing effects of the penny gaffs;
“Please to observe- here is no drunkenness, no riot, no fighting, squabbling, not even discourtesy; while there are evident watchfulness and precaution to prevent anything of the kind. Note also, that in the representations given there is nothing more morally objectionable than meets you on the boards of the licensed theatre; and that, with the exception of the swell-mobsman’s song, parallels to which are heard every night at the regular theatres, the performances here are purity itself compared with such dramas as Jack Sheppard and Robert Macaire. Would you root out the Penny Gaff, and compel the penny-paying public, who ‘must be amused,’ remember, to find amusement elsewhere ?”
Charles Manby Smith described the typical industrious “Newsboy’s Day” in Chambers’s Journal No. 489, May 14, 1853. Charley is poor but honest and we can be sure that, while he may enjoy Jack Sheppard and similar romances, the effect on him will be negligible.
“Saturday night is the bright spot in Charley’s week. Then he gets his wages, which go to his mother; and then he can sit up as late as he likes, because he can get up as late as he likes on the morrow; and because he can do both, he will go to the play if he can manage to raise the necessary sixpence. He looks upon the drama, which he calls the ‘drawmer,’ as the grandest of all our institutions, and he has very original ideas on the subject of plays and acting. He knows, as he says, lots of tragic speeches, and spouts them to Billy as they lay in bed, sometimes dropping off to sleep in the middle of a soliloquy. He has doubts whether the pantomime is quite legitimate, but wonders, with Billy, why it isn’t played all the year round- is sure it would draw. He knows of course, that Hamlet is ‘first-rate,’ and Macbeth the same; but his sympathies go with that little pig-tailed tar in the shiny hat at the Victoria, who, hitching up his canvas trousers with one hand, and shaking a short dumpy cutlass in the other, hacks and hews his way through a whole regiment of red-coats, who surprise him in the smugglers cave, and gets clear off, leaving half his adversaries dead on the stage. The valiant smuggler is Charley’s hero, and he admires him amazingly, never giving a thought to the why and the wherefore, or suspecting for a moment that it is far more honourable to work hard, as he does, in helping to provide an honest crust for those who are dear to him, than to be the boldest smuggler that ever had a valid claim to the gallows.”
Penny dreadfuls were also responsible for many boys running away from home in search of adventure.*** Two boys, fifteen and sixteen set out to walk from Manchester to Liverpool but feeling homesick turned back toward home. They were detained by a police-officer in Warrington who confiscated “a couple of loaded and capped pistols and ammunition, and a list of books, including Jack Sheppard, Paul Girard the Cabin-boy, Hard Times, and Life in the Wilds. Two more boys, heavily armed were stopped in Liverpool trying to stowaway on a ship, and another couple robbed their employers cash-boxes and spent the money on “those dangerously fascinating toys, revolvers and cartridges, the usual ‘penny dreadful’ serials, watches and jewellery,” and still had thirteen pounds cash when arrested.
In America these romantically inclined runaways were known as “dime novel brigands,” and their destination was usually the Wild West. Three boys were brought before a police magistrate and shown to have formed themselves into a gang and established themselves in the hills where they hoped to “carry off and hold to ransom beautiful maidens and wealthy tourists.” They ran out of money and stole some food, then were captured and sent home.
Travelling Wild West shows such as Buffalo Bill and Texas Joe brought to London and Liverpool proved very effective at firing the brains of juvenile miscreants.
“To be a cowboy became the rage, and every lad who could get hold of his mother’s clothesline for a lariat or his father’s wide-awake for a sombrero practise throwing the lasso, till not a dog could prowl the streets without a good chance of being suddenly ‘yanked’ off its legs by a flying rope. The shrill yells of these lads and the loud cracks of their toy-pistols, making day and night hideous, acted as a continual advertisement for the wild west show.”
Many boys wrote letters to Buffalo Bill begging to be employed and listing their qualifications. Failing that they would head for Liverpool with high hopes of making it to Texas. Again they carried knives, revolvers and plenty of ammunition.
“But it is the sea-adventures that are naturally more attractive to the youths of this country than the exploits of hunters, scouts, or cowboys. Few young would-be Crusoes show such determination in running away to sea as the Birkenhead boy, who, when only five years old, hid himself away on a Dublin steamer, and since then had stowed away to Ireland five times. He had also been caught on board the Isle of man steamers. He then disappeared, and it was found that he had stowed away upon the City of Chester, and had gone to new York. There he was captured and sent home. Although only eight years old, his mother is in constant fear he will run away again.”
On a foggy night four boys in a small boat were pulled over by the Thames police. They were well-equipped with a pistol, bullets, powder, percussion caps, biscuits, stationary, candles, matches, a tea-pot, a tea-kettle, a lock with fittings, a bullet-mould, a compass, a song-book, and (you knew it) several copies of boys serials. They faced a long trip; a letter was found ready for posting to one child’s parents, telling them the plan was to sail to Australia, on the other side of the world.
“The penny-dreadful’ portion of the boat’s equipment probably accounted for this attempted voyage; but one would think that boy’s of their ages, however ignorant, could scarcely imagine that Australia was to be reached in a small open row-boat.” - Quotes from ‘Boyish Freaks,’ Chambers’s Journal. April 21, 1888.
It does seem that penny dreadfuls and penny dramas did have a bad influence on the poor and the children of the honest working class. Not everyone was affected but enough evidence remains to suggest that while they were not a direct cause they did provide would-be boy-burglars, boy-pirates, and boy highwaymen with the appropriate chap-book heroes to emulate. Poverty, drink and fractured family life were more direct causes of juvenile crime. A report in the Times of December 30, 1847 is a startling example of the fatalistic attitudes carried about London by neglected children :
Mansion House.- A boy of about twelve years of age named William Lipley, was brought before the Lord mayor on the charge of stealing a piece of beef. From the statement of the officer it appeared that the prisoner belonged to a most dangerous gang of little boys, who were very much practised in robbing women in Bishopsgate-street and Leadenhall-market, and whose diminutive size gave them facilities unknown to children of larger growth. The charge was proved.
The Lord Mayor.- Do you say that this boy is an old hand at thieving ?
The Officer.- Certainly, my lord. He has been often in custody. When I caught him, I asked him where he supposed he should at last get to ?
“Go to,” said he, “why to the gallows, to be sure.”
The Lord Mayor.- Did you say so, prisoner ?
The Boy.- Yes; the man’s right enough. I did say so.
The prisoner was then committed to trial.
The same attitude can be found in young Captain Trunkey. Caught red-handed on a Saturday night with his hands in a till he was arrested and kept until Monday morning when he was conveyed in a Black Maria to the court.
“The usual crowd that witnesses the departure of the van was duly assembled, and the captain, knowing that numbers of those composing it were his friends and admirers, rose to the occasion. As he had to move at a jog-trot to keep up with the stalwart constable who held him by the arm, he emerged from the station-gate in a rather Jack-in-the-box fashion. When fully in sight, however, he steadied himself, put his free arm “akimbo,” set back his head, and assuming- as well as he could- the manner of a “Lion Comique,” trolled out, as he was scuffled along :
O ain’t I having a day,
Enjoying myself this way !
O it’s proper, you know,
And I do like it so,
O ain’t I having a day.
Still singing, he was literally “chucked” into the van, its door closed upon him, and he had looked his last on liberty for some years to come. Within the hour, the order for his detention, till the age of sixteen, upon an industrial-school training-ship was made.”