One of the most sought-after penny dreadfuls published by the Newsagents Publishing Company (NPC), The Wild Boys of London is the subject of a review by my mate John Adcock at his Yesterday's Papers blog. Having never read it, I can't comment with any authority that John's notion that Vane St. John was the (anonymous) author but I will say that he's read an awful lot of these things and is probably right more often than he is wrong.
The Wild Boys of London ran for 105 penny numbers between 1864 and 1866 and designed to be bound in two volumes of 45 and 60 numbers. Collector of penny bloods A. E. Waite would comment many years later that "The story has no plot, but it confesses from the beginning to a purpose, which is to prove that 'there is hope for those who are born in the lowest depths.' Whether it emerges is another question, but it is innocent enough at least, amidst all its murderous scenes and all its reek and stew; there are no seductions and vice is always vice."
John also notes in passing that St. John was "probably the principal writer on The Boy Detectives but halfway through the book there is a change of writers." The Boy Detective; or, The Crimes of London was another "classic" from NPC, published in 71 numbers in 1865-66. John Springhall (in Victorian Studies, Winter 1990), attributes the story to Edward Ellis but it seems something of an unconvincing stab in the dark.
Anyway, this all seems like a good excuse to dig out my notes on the amazing Vane St. John.
Born in Edmonton on 19 August 1838, the son of journalist James Augustus John and his wife Eliza Caroline Agar (nee Hansard) who were to have 11 children. Amongst his elder brothers were authors Percy St. John, Bayle St. John and Horace St. John and diplomat Sir Spenser St. John.
Vane Ireton Shaftesbury St. John worked as a clerk for the Inland Revenue before taking up writing full time. His earliest known novel, St. Eustace; or, The Hundred-and-One was published in 1857, followed by Undercurrents (1860) and The Chain of Destiny (1862). Although he would later become better known as a prolific author for boys, his early stories and serials appeared in the likes of Parlour Library, Reynolds’s Miscellany (‘William Shakespeare’ (1862), ‘The World’s Verdict’ and ‘The Lass of Richmond Hill’ (both 1863)) and Every Week (‘In Spite of the World; or, The Physician’s Secret’ (1862)).
St. John penned one of the opening serials for Edwin Brett’s The Boys of England, ‘Who Shall be Leader?’ (1866-67), and followed it in rapid succession with other popular yarns such as ‘He Would Be a Sailor’ (1867) and ‘Wait Till I’m a Man!’ (1867-68); he also penned the opening series for Brett’s second title, Young Men of Great Britain in January 1868, ‘The Night Guard; or, The Secret of the Five Masks’, plus later stories such as ‘The Rightful Heir’ (1868) and ‘By the Queen’s Command; or, The Mystery of the Seventh Stair’ (1869). Other stories from this period include ‘The King’s Terror’ and ‘The Phantom Inn’.
In the 1870s, St. John was writing for the Emmett brothers papers such as The Sons of Britannia (‘The Young Jockey’ (1872), ‘Tom, the Link Boy of Old London’ (1873), ‘Rattling Tom of Cork’ (1876)) and The Young Briton (‘The Haunted School; or, The Secret of Gayford Manor’ (1872), ‘Jack O’ the Mint; or, A Hundred Years Ago’ (1873), ‘Benjamin Badluck’s Schooldays’ (1874), ‘Astrella, the Reader of the Stars’ (1875), ‘Tom O’ the Reef; or, The Wreckers of Dead Man’s Bay’ (1875)); for The Young Englishman he wrote ‘Pat O’ the Hills; or, The Wreckers of Bantry Bay’ (1873), ‘The Queen’s Page; or, The Midnight Signal’ (1873), and ‘Tim Ne’er do Well’ (1873).
By 1879 he was writing for Ralph Rollington’s Boy’s World: ‘Disinherited’, ‘Born to Victory’ (both 1879), ‘That Larry of Ours’ and ‘Fearless and Free’ (both 1880).
Of these, his best known are probably his stories of Irish life such as 'That Lad of Ours' and 'Pat o' the Hills' and the story 'Tom, The Link Boy of Old London' which introduced Sweeney Todd as a secondary character. He was probably also the author of the grotesque fairy tale, ‘Catch-me-who-can’.
According to Rollington (James W. Allingham), Vane St. John had a large family and was constantly in debt. Along with his friend Walter Viles he once wired Rollington from Margate requesting money and, when Rollington arrived he discovered them pinned up in sheets because they had both pawned their clothes and had not left their room for two days while they churned out stories to raise enough money to get their suits back. Rollington quotes St. John as saying, “The sun always shines more brilliantly before the storm. Some people are pessimistic and go through the world as if they were looking for trouble. For my part I try to get all the happiness out of life that can be extracted from it.”
Vane St. John is said to have been an editor of Young Men of Great Britain for a time and of Shurey’s Pals (1893)
Like so many of the Victorian boys' authors, he lived carelessly and died penniless. He lived at 53 Scylla Road, Peckham South, Camberwell, London, and died on 20 December 1911. He was buried at Camberwell Old Cemetary.
St. John was married twice and had 27 children by his wives and two mistresses, although many of them died young. With Eliza Catherine Middleton (married 25 April 1857), he had Vane Ireton Hampden (1858-1898), Violet Constance (1860- ), Ethel Evangeline (1862- ), Florence Genevieve (1864- ), Henry Bolinbroke (?- ), Edwin Charles (1868?- ), Harold Edgar (1870- , later a printer’s reader and press assistant).
After Eliza’s death in 1874, St. John married Margaret Chilcott on 28 January 1875, and had 15 children: Vivian Cecil Vane (1875- ), Rupert Evelyn Bayle (1877- , later a bookseller’s assistant, sewing machine salesman and actor), Beatrice M. O. C. (1880-1881), Clarence Percy de Beaufort (?- ), Beatrice Helen Cornelia (1881- ), Algernon Sidney (1882- , later a warehouseman at a cotton factory and reader on a newspaper), Gladys Sylvia (1884-1884), Daisy Gabrielle (1885-1886?), Reginald Aubrey (1886-1889?), Daisy Gabrielle (1889-1890?), Zoe Marguerite Andree (1890-1974), Dorothy Evelyn (1892- ), Lionel Aubrey Julian (1893- ), Gabriel Esme Ireton (1896- ) and Reginald Lancelot C. (1898- ).
His four children by Mary Ann Barry (who died in 1873) were Montague Mildmay (1868- ), Millie (1870- ), Daisy (1871- ) and Mary (?- ); by Mary Jane Taylor he had Grace Jessie (1900- ).