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Sunday, April 03, 2016

Pennies, Profits and Poverty

Before we begin, I should note that some of the preliminary work Robert Kirkpatrick did for this volume appeared on Bear Alley and on John Adcock's Yesterday's Papers blog.

For an example of the depth of research Robert put into the dozen or so pieces published here at Bear Alley, I can't point to a finer example than his two-part piece on Edwin Harrison (you'll have to scroll down to reach part 1). I choose this particular piece because it's long and detailed... and even with the addition of footnotes, it takes up only just over eight pages of Robert's new book.

Even excluding the appendixes and index, Pennies, Profits and Poverty runs to 500 pages and covers 46 publishers and double that number of authors who contributed to the days of the penny dreadful. Each of the roughly 150 essays is thoroughly researched and entertainingly written.

Like a jigsaw, when combined they reveal the astonishing story of penny publishing which ran roughly from the 1830s to the 1890s, when the penny dreadful was replaced—in A A Milne's words—by the halfpenny dreadfuller. The stories of publishers and authors overlap and entwine to build a picture of the disparity in the good fortunes of some—mostly the publishers—and the poverty endured by others through failed ventures, changing tastes or the crisis brought on by cheap American imports which all but destroyed the market for original work in boys' papers.

This is a side of Fleet Street that has been sparsely covered and many of the names will be unfamiliar to the average reader. Take, as a for instance, William Strange, who published a successful satirical paper, Figaro in London, but who spent much of his career in and out of debter's prison and was even taken to court by Prince Albert—husband of Queen Victoria—to prevent the publication of a catalogue of etchings produced by the royal couple. Or the persistent George Maddick who was thoroughly unsuccessful in most ventures but also founded the paper that was to become The Sporting Life, although he had to be forced by the courts to change the original, forgetable title.

The book isn't all about the utterly obscure, as there are pieces on the success stories of publishers Edward Lloyd, John Dicks and Alfred Harmsworth, and biographies of authors whose names have managed to survive the cloaking mists of time: G. W. M. Reynold, Bracebridge Hemyng, E. Harcourt Burrage, W. H. G. Kingston, G. A. Henry and the famous printer and engraver, Henry Vizetelly.

There are some minor mysteries remaining. We don't, for instance, know when wild-eyed Charlie Stevens or John Cecil Stagg died (although my own suspicions about the former can be found here and I believe the latter died in 1903 or 1906, but it'll take some speculative purchasing of death certificates to prove it).

There are also going to be a few very minor errors in a book of this size, but they are minor, e.g.William Emmett had seven children, not five—Cecilia Margaret "Caila" Emmett, 1860-1864?) and Kathleen (c.1874- ) should be added. As I said, very minor and of little consequence to the main narrative.

The sheer weight of information in the book is astonishing. The stories told about each of the players in those days of Bohemian Fleet Street is at various times incredible, funny and tragic... but always interesting to even a novice collector of the penny dreadful era.

Pennies, Profits and Poverty. A biographical directory of wealth and want in Bohemian Fleet Street by Robert J. Kirkpatrick. Hanwell, published by the author, 2016. Available from and

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