There is now before us such a veritable mountain of pernicious trash, mostly in paper covers, and “Price One Penny”; so-called novelettes, tales, stories of adventure, mystery and crime; pictures of school life hideously unlike reality; exploits of robbers, cut-throats, prostitutes, and rogues, that, but for its actual presence, it would seem incredible.
The citation above denouncing penny dreadfuls as pernicious trash brilliantly encapsulates mid-to-late Victorian moralists’ views of popular reading matter. As previous posts on this website have shown, Robin Hood stories formed a staple of the penny dreadful publishing industry. Much like graphic novels today, penny dreadfuls were popular with both younger and more mature readers. Criminals such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and Dick Turpin (1705-1739) usually featured as their heroes. Sometimes they were issued as standalone periodicals, but more often than not a few chapters per week were featured in magazines such as The Boys of England. It was in The Boys of England that a long-running serial entitled The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood first appeared in 1883.
As the title suggests it is the story of Robin’s youth. But the influence of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) can be seen from the start. Robin and his father live on the Huntingdon estate, but the political rival of the Lord of Huntingdon is the Lord of Torilstone who lives not far from the Huntingdons. Readers familiar with Scott’s work will immediately recognise the not-so-subtle reference to Torquilstone in Ivanhoe. One of the key villains is Sir Front de Boeuf. There is also the usual Anglo-Saxon versus Norman theme that is usual in Victorian Robin Hood narratives.
The actual story is relatively unremarkable and lacks the democratic political sentiments found in Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838-40) and the anonymous Little John and Will Scarlet (1865). After Robin’s estates are confiscated by Prince John, Robin and Little John are forced to seek shelter in Sherwood Forest. They come across some outlaws and, upon learning that he is of noble birth they ask him to become their leader. Instead of being elected as leader of the outlaws in Egan’s novel, Robin is
Appointed King of Sherwood.
Robin does steal from the rich and give to the poor, but this is done by the outlaws more out of a sense of Christian charity, rather than a desire to improve the lot of the commoners of England through political activism, as he does in Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or, the Days of King John (1838).
But before we assume that this story was considered as respectable reading for youths, it should be noted that the narrative is filled with graphic descriptions and illustrations of violence. Here is an example of the cruelty of one of the Norman Barons to their own soldiers:
“Base Slave!” thundered the Baron; and then with all the force of his muscular arm, he brought down the heavy drinking cup upon the skull of the soldier who stood uncovered before him. The wretched man fell to the ground and lay senseless, bleeding from a terrible scalp wound; the tankard was crushed and bent out of shape by the force of the blow.
There is also an attempted rape upon the sweetheart of Allen-a-Dale. The outrages of the Normans are met with an equally violent response by the outlaws. Robin and his men do not hesitate to resort to violence. This is the description of Robin shooting one of Baron Torilstone’s retainers through the eye:
The missile flew true to its mark, its steel point entering the man’s eye, pierced his brain, and he fell headlong to the ground.
While the Victorians in general loved violent entertainment, it was the violence contained in The Boys of England that led to it being widely condemned in the press as an example of the pernicious reading that was used as a scapegoat for juvenile crime.
Individual stories from The Boys of England were rarely picked up on, but there were many instances in court when the magazine appeared in the dock. For example, in 1872 thirteen-year-old Samuel Hoy was indicted for poisoning his stepmother with arsenic. At his trial it was said that amongst his possessions were copies of The Boys of England. And the press usually made sure to point out whether a particular juvenile offender had on his person at the time of his arrest a copy of a penny dreadful. When thirteen-year-old Alfred Saunders was arrested for stealing £7 from his father, The Times reported that:
His pockets were crammed with copies of The Pirates League, or The Seagull, the Young Briton, Sons of Britannia and The Boys of England.
Reading The Boys of England, along with other penny dreadful tales, made youths delinquent because it corrupted their morals, according to moralists in the Victorian press. For example, a headmaster in 1874 wrote that:
The hero in these periodicals, read openly in the streets, devoured, I should say, by the thousands of errand and work boys, is he who defies his governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters, and is the leader of the most outrageous acts.
It is doubtful whether those who complained about penny dreadfuls ever actually took the time to read them, The genre as a whole was often condemned in blanket statements such as those seen above, while picking on one or two titles in particular.
It is not the intention here to discuss whether these magazines actually drove youths to crime or not. The supposed links between violent entertainment and criminal acts have raged since Victorian times. But I think the study of penny dreadfuls highlights some of the problems associated with Robin Hood scholars’ ideas of ‘gentrification’. A gentrified Robin Hood text is any text in which Robin is the Earl of Huntingdon. Scholars tend to assume, as in the case of Anthony Munday’s sixteenth-century plays, that if Robin is a lord then he is also a highly moral character. Yet surely this idea of gentrification is complicated if the vehicle in which these stories appeared was widely condemned in the press? Contemporaries did not view these tales as gentrified, and denounced them as ‘pernicious trash’. In light of this, are such tales really gentrified?
 Anon cited in Juvenile Literature and British Society: The Age of Adolescence, 1850-1950 ed. by Charles Ferrall & Anna Jackson (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 12.
 ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 9 March 1883, p.25.
 ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 13 April 1883, p.105.
 ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 11 May 1883, p.171.
 ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 20 April 1883, p.122.
 ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 8 June 1883, p.233.
 ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 23 March 1883, p.57.
 Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).
 John Springhall, ‘Pernicious Reading? The Penny Dreadful as Scapegoat for Late-Victorian Juvenile Crime’ Victorian Periodicals Review 27: 4 (1994), pp.326-349.
 Robert J. Kirkpatrick, Children’s Books History Society, Occasional Paper XI: Wild Boys in the Dock – Victorian Juvenile Literature and Juvenile Crime (London: Children’s Books History Society, 2013), p.17.
 Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p.9.
 Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p.25.