Saturday, November 04, 2006

Vane St. John

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- ).


  1. I am a descendant of Vane St John -as it seems, are many people. The bibliographical information in your blog is useful.
    Michael Middleton
    my e.mail is

  2. Good to hear from you, Michael, and glad that these notes have proved useful. Vane St John was certainly a colourful character and it would be wonderful to know more about him.



  3. I am thegreat grandson of Percy Bolingbroke St John, brother of Vane. I was intrested in th detail of his journalistic efforts I have dleved faoriy deeply into his "affairs", but you have obviouly discovered quite a lot about mary Ann Barry, who is shown as Mary Ann St John on the birthcertificates of two of their children 'Also. I have some more details about Mary Jane Taylor an he descendants, which I would be happy to mail to you if you are interested.
    Every good wish. Oliver St John

    1. To Mr Oliver St John
      My name is Gerardine Pang( nee de Souza). I live in Singapore and my great grandmother Mary McIntyre ( nee St John) was described in the newspapers in November 1922 as the cousin of the late Blanche Sarah St John,wife of Oliver Cromwell St John. This particukar Mary St John was my great great grandmother. Have you any ingormation about her? She died in Singapore ( or Labuan i’m not sure) in 1942 and is buried in Singapore. Thank you.

  4. Oliver,

    Thanks for the offer of further information, which I'll be more than happy to have. My e-mail address is somewhere over in the right hand column. There isn't a vast amount of information available on penny dreadful writers like Vane and Percy St John so anything you can add would be very welcome.

  5. Hi yet again i am to a decendant of Vane and Margret (Ma) Chilcott they are my great grand parents via Reginald St john the more I find the more i get wow thank you for the info on him i was wondering weather you knew weather you knew of any images of either Vane or his father James exsisted
    Sharon hill

  6. The St John descendents seem to be gathering in force in my comments box!

    Sharon, as far as I'm aware no picture of Vane St John has turned up, but if I do find one you can be sure that it will be posted here.

    Further information about Vane, Percy and all the other St. Johns can be found at the Middleton-St Johns website here (I've converted it to a tiny URL because the original address is too long for Blogger!):

  7. Hi, I'm another direct descendant of Vane St John! His son by his first marriage, Harold St John, was my great-grandfather....

    This is a thoroughly fascinating story, and I've only just found out about this yesterday, when I stumbled across that useful site on the Middleton-St Johns.

    Michael Siva

  8. Those interested in Vane Ireton Shaftesbury St John may be interested in my novella-ette, 'The Time Traveller, Smith', which makes some mention of the great man:

    JC McLaughlin (another great, great grandson)

  9. I am also a descendent of Vane (he is my great grandfather). My dad was born at 53 Scylla Road, about two years of Vane died.

    Julian Gabriel St.John Ware-Lane

  10. That last comment should have read: about two years AFTER Vane died.

  11. Hi, i am also a decendant for Vane, my line is through clarence percy de beaufort, - son william ernest, thank you the middletons for all the work you have put on your site, it's been wonderful emailing long lost relatives. photos of vane seem to have gone, what a shame.

  12. I am also a descendant of Vane St John, my grandfather was Lionel Aubrey Julian St John who died on May 2nd 1965, his daughter Phyllis was my mother who sadly died 2 weeks ago.Regards Lynne

  13. Thanks a million for this information about my colourful great great grandfather. Each snippet of information I get brings to life what it was like back in those days. Unfortunately, the middleton-st john site via Wikipedia seems lost was a great tool in family history research. Once again many thank. Geoff Jones

    1. Vane St John was my great grandfather his son Lionel was my grandfather

  14. Dear Steve

    Thank you so much for this informarion on Vane Ireton S St John. I am from Singapore and am looking for information on my great great grandmother Mary St John described as cousin to Blanche Sarah St John wife of Oliver Cromwell St John and daughter of Dr Fred Hansard.
    Have you any information that might throw light on this?
    Thanks so much

  15. Vane Ireton was my great grandfather. Algernon Sidney St.John was my grandfather and Algernon Vane St.John my father. I have never met a single relative from my Father's side of the family, so this is all very interesting.
    Sally Elizabeth Nullmeyers (nee St.John)

  16. Vane Ireton was also my great grandfather. Reginald St John, who you mention and was one of the children he had, was my grandfather. Reginald had a daughter Renee St John who married Alexander Broomfield and I am their son. Sharon who has already placed a message with you is my cousin.
    Gerald Broomfield

  17. Vane was my great great grandfather I believe.



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