Jack Harkaway: The Victorian Harry Potter

By Stephen Basdeo

The Victorians in many ways were just like us: they enjoyed a good scandal whenever it was reported in the press, they liked both trashy and high-brow entertainment, and like today, they had their popular heroes adored by both adults and children. Let me introduce you to the Harry Potter of the late-Victorian era: Mr Jack Harkaway.

Harkaway was not a real person but a fictional character, immortalised in countless novels and boys’ adventure magazines. And when I say he was popular, I am not exaggerating.

Harkaway 1
Jack Harkaway

It is hard for us at a distance of over a century to appreciate just how popular Harkaway was with younger readers; in many ways he was the Harry Potter of the late-Victorian period, a character who basked in worldwide fame. So high was demand among newsagents for the latest instalment of a Jack Harkaway, a ‘penny dreadful’ serial, that (allegedly) they battled with each other outside the Edwin J. Brett’s offices—the publisher of The Boys of England—to obtain copies which they could then sell to their younger customers.[i] Hemyng’s first Harkaway serial, entitled Jack Harkaway’s Schooldays was originally published in 1871 in the columns of Brett’s The Boys of England, a penny magazine for younger readers.

Boys England
Harkaway stories were originally serialised in The Boys of England

Within months, the publishers of The Boys of England knew that they were on to a hit: it had already appeared in the United States in several periodicals by the end of that year, and two years later it was being reprinted in both the United Kingdom and the United States in different magazines. The London-based publisher Hogarth House decided to then issue the first run of serials in clothbound library editions, while similar publishers in America decided to follow suit.

Harkaway 2
Harkaway’s adoptive father, Prof. Mole.

It should be said here that, although the original Jack Harkaway stories were serialised in The Boys of England, it was only children who read of Harkaway’s exploits. Just like Harry Potter today, both children and adults devoured his books. Newspaper and magazine advertisements publicising the release of the latest Harkaway novel, for example, declared that ‘every boy and man should read and have in their possession in a complete form Jack Harkaway’s Schooldays’.[ii]

Harkaway 4
Jack’s best friend was a man named Monday

Harkaway was still fondly remembered by some newspaper correspondents as late as the 1960s, when he was described in The Times as ‘a character dear to boyish readers’.[iii] And even in 2000, Keith Waterhouse in the Daily Mail fondly recalled reading reprints of these penny dreadfuls, although he oddly likened the-then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to Jack Harkaway.[iv]

Recent scholarship from Theresa Michals has investigated the blurred lines between those works which literary critics have traditionally thought of as children’s literature were read by many adults. The situation is further complicated by the fact that many adult novels were republished in children’s editions. Michals concludes that many late-Victorian novels were written for ‘children of all ages’, just like, as The Times’s correspondent said of Harkaway in the 1960s, that he was a figure for ‘boyish’ readers—those whose reading tastes might be considered immature—instead of just boys, much like those grown up but rather immature men today read Harry Potter.[v]

Although Hemyng originated the character, having been kept extremely busy writing four Harkaway serials between 1871 and 1874, he soon after laid down his pen and other, now anonymous, authors carried Jack’s adventures further afield. Besides, even though Harkaway’s success had allegedly managed to propel sales of The Boys of England to over 250,000 copies per issue, Hemyng would not have benefitted from this popularity due to the flat fee payment system used by Brett and many other penny publishers.[vi] In the twentieth century some American critics doubted that Hemyng was the original author of the work as it was originally published anonymously.[vii] The tales published in Britain were available for sale in the USA and those printed in the USA were available in England, so it was rather unclear, by the early 1900s, if he was a British hero or an American hero. And once the American writers took over, they were not that bothered about continuity between the various stories. Jack could be visiting Cuba in one serial and be in America in another.

Harkaway 5

While Harkaway’s success has been studied before in terms of its importance in the history of the penny dreadful publishing industry, he remains a figure whose novels are more often cited rather than actually read, usually with a view to investigating Harkaway’s place in the late nineteenth-century moral panic over penny dreadfuls.[viii] Few indeed, if any, articles have ever subjected the text of the serials to in-depth critical review; the serials are often cited but rarely read and this is something which this chapter hopes to partially remedy. After all, a serial which allegedly sold over 250,000 copies, which appealed to readers of all ages, ought not to be overlooked.

But let’s have a brief overview of this lad’s life and deeds.

Unlike the heroes of the five shilling popular novels, who were usually the son of some aristocrat or upper middle class family, Harkaway’s origins were a little more humble: he was an orphan who was raised in a school for poor children. As he entered his teenage years, he grew increasingly tired of being made to learn so he ran away from school, boarded a ship, and set off on an adventure.

In time, he acquired a servant called Monday, who was obviously based on Defoe’s Man Friday from Robinson Crusoe (1719). The professor and explorer, Dr Mole, also took young Jack under his wing. The exploits of this trio took them around the world. Mole was there to provide the adult advice to Harkaway when he needed it, especially because he was fond of playing pranks on people and generally being an annoyance to those who met him, and Monday was there as the faithful servant who would give his life to save Jack in any situation.

harkaway-3-1.jpg

Sometimes Harkaway’s pranks backfired on him somewhat, such as the time he had to do battle with a 15ft python. Professor Mole, Harkaway, and Monday once joined the crew of a sailing ship in the West Indies, but Jack learns that a scientist has brought a large snake on board as a specimen to study when they return to England. Ever reckless, he decides that he will release the snake from its box and then prank his professor by telling him someone wants to see him down below. It does not go as planned for the snake was

Fully fifteen long … the snake, astonished at his unexpected freedom, raised his ugly head and glared savagely at Jack, who picked himself up and retreated to a safe distance.

“Morning, Governor,” he said, nodding his head, “how do you find yourself?”

The python’s only reply to this was to uncoil himself and glide out of his box on to the floor. Jack was rather astonished at his prodigious size; he did not think he was half so big or formidable, and was rather sorry he’d let him out.[ix]

When the crew were alerted to the fact that the snake had escaped, they were clear that it was Jack’s problem for him to sort out. So he had to go in and decapitate the poor thing.

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And they did get into some pretty hair-raising situations: Harkaway became the scourge of pirates and bandits the world over. In Italy, he ensured the apprehension of a notorious outlaw named Barboni.

Although he was a rascal, he had a good heart and would do anything for his friends. He had a deep hatred for the Boers, however, whom he regarded as racist, and when the Boer War broke out, he enthusiastically enlisted to serve his country. in Jack Harkaway in the Transvaal: or, Fighting for the Flag (1900), set during Boer War. When Jack captures a lone Boer, he does not pass up a chance to humiliate his captive by making him sing English patriotic songs:

“…Don’t get up. Keep on your knees; I like to see you that way. Now, follow me, pay attention: say ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God Save the Queen.’”

“What!” cried [the Boer] … “Here you are. ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God Save Your Queen.’ Ugh! There is a lump in my throat. You make me sick. That Queen sticks. She will choke me. I say it, but don’t mean it.”

“Now, sing it,” continued Jack, putting the rifle a few inches nearer to his head. “I set you a go. Don’t mumble, but raise it. Give us a chest note. ‘Send her Victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us, God Save the Queen.’”

With the utmost reluctance, and making as many grimaces as a monkey with the spasms, the Boer followed Jack, and then rolled on the floor, burying his face in his hands.

“Hurrah! That’s your sort. Bravo our side. ‘Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves, and the Transvaal Boers shall never make us slaves.’”[x]

Where Jack’s original adventures took him to deserted islands and mainly British colonies, American authors had him gallivanting all over China, Cuba, Greece, and of course the United States, where he meets with Native Americans and spends some time living on the prairies.[xi]

Harkaway 7

Eventually, after a long life at sea and getting into scrapes, Jack married his childhood sweetheart. They had a son together but one novelist killed off his wife and then set the stage for a series of adventures featuring both Jack Harkaway and his son.

And, if you look closely at the cover for my forthcoming book, Heroes of the British Empire (2020), you’ll see this guy has pride of place!

BEJck
Cover for my forthcoming book Heroes of the British Empire (2020), in which Jack Harkaway is given pride of place on my front cover.

Notes

[i] Christopher Mark Banham, ‘Boys of England and Edwin J. Brett’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2006), p. 61.

[ii] ‘Advertisements and Notices’, The Illustrated Police News, 1 February 1873, 4.

[iii] ‘The Most Exciting Boat Race: No Wonder Jack Harkaway Felt a Bit Baked After Oxford’s Win’, The Times, 31 March 1960, 14.

[iv] Keith Waterhouse, ‘Blair’s Bound to Please in Brighton’, Daily Mail, 28 September 2000, 14.

[v] Teresa Michals, Books for Children, Books for Adults: Age and the Novel from Defoe to James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 128, p. 135.

[vi] ‘Jack Harkaway’s Creator’, Daily Mail, 20 September 1901, 3.

[vii] Banham, ‘The Boys of England and Edwin J. Brett’, p. 60.

[viii] John Springhall, ‘A Life Story for the People? Edwin J. Brett and the London “Low-Life” Penny Dreadfuls of the 1860s’, Victorian Studies, 33: 2 (1990), 223–46; John Springhall, Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics Penny Gaffs to Gangsta-Rap, 1830–1996 (London: MacMillan, 1998), pp. 38–97; Louis James, Fiction for the Working Man, 1830–50: A Study of the Literature Produced for the Working Classes in Early Victorian Urban England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963) pp. 159–60;

[ix] Bracebridge Hemyng, Jack Harkaway After Schooldays (London: Publishing Office, 1873), 25–6.

[x] Bracebridge Hemyng, Jack Harkaway in the Transvaal: or, Fighting for the Flag (London: Harkaway House, 1900), p. 55

[xi] J. Randolph Cox, The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000), pp. 129–30.

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Pierce Egan’s “Robin Hood Ballads” (1840)

This post is not one of my usual essay style posts, with an introduction and conclusion, etc., but more of a research note after having got hold of a first edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood novel.

Pierce Egan the Younger was one of the most popular Victorian penny-a-liner authors. Although he was the son of the more famous Pierce Egan the Elder (1772-1849), very little is known of the son’s early life.[i] The younger Egan first came to public notice when he provided the illustrations to a work that his father had written entitled The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). In the same year that he collaborated with his father on the Pilgrims, he began writing Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. The novel is one of the best (in my opinion) Robin Hood novels published during the nineteenth century. It is also one of the longest: it was sold for a penny in weekly instalments over the course of two years, between 1838 and 1840.

Title Page
Title Page to Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood Ballads (1840)

The novel, targeted primarily towards working-class and lower middle-class adults, is filled with sex, violence, and radical politics, and is the story of Robin Hood’s life from his birth to his death. Egan is clearly acquainted with earlier Robin Hood works such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795); Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Egan’s novel went through several editions throughout the nineteenth century. As an appendix to the first edition in 1840, however, he included a collection of Robin Hood ballads.

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Egan’s collection is based upon eighteenth-century versions of Robin Hood’s Garland. These were anthologies of seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads. And it is only the early modern ballads included in Egan’s collection, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale, and Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford. The medieval poems such as A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hood and the Monk are, strangely, not included in Egan’s version.

The extent of his ‘editing’ of the texts is minimal. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that the appending of the ballad collection at the end of Egan’s novel was perhaps the publisher George Pierce’s idea. The preface included at the beginning is virtually plagiarised from Charles Johnson’s account of Robin Hood, with one or two notes from Joseph Ritson inserted towards the end, and there is no attempt to relate the ballads to the sequences and plotlines in Egan’s actual novel.

One contribution to the ballad collection that we can tell Egan did make, however, is in the illustrations he provided (he had also provided all of the illustrations to the novel in the first edition). Through his images, Egan did attempt to provide some continuity with his preceding novel. This is because the characters of Robin Hood and his men who appear in the novel look exactly the same as those which appear in this ballad collection. Furthermore, as the ballads accompany the first edition, and Egan often insisted on providing the illustrations to all of his first editions (later publishers incorporated entirely new illustrations in later editions), then there is no reason to suppose that these illustrations are not his.

First editions of Egan’s Robin Hood with the ballads are rare: more common is the 1850 edition, published by W. S. Johnson, which will still fetch approximately £100.


[i] To learn more about some of the facts I have managed to reconstruct about his early life from archival records clink this link.

E. L. Blanchard’s “The Mysteries of London” (1849-50)

My previous post was about Thomas Miller’s continuation of G. W. M. Reynolds’ penny blood The Mysteries of London (Reynolds and Miller’s series were published between 1844 – 1848 and 1848 – 1849 respectively). I managed to track down a copy of it from a second-hand book store. But when I was busy scanning through the images I realised that it also contained Edward L. Blanchard’s The Mysteries of London which was serialised between 1849 and 1850. Two rare books for the price of one is a good bargain.[i]

Blanchard (1820 – 1889) was a journalist and a playwright. He is not particularly distinguished in the annals of Victorian literature, and I had only heard of him in passing before becoming acquainted with his book. The magazines he contributed to include Fun, The Illustrated Times, The Era Almanack and Annual, The Observer, and The Era. He also served as the editor of Chambers’ London Journal (1841) and the New London Magazine (1845). The plays that he wrote include unremarkable pieces such as See Saw Margery Daw, or, Harlequin Holiday and the Island of Ups and Downs (1856). Of the literary works he penned, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that they were mostly ‘unmemorable novels’.[ii]

The ODNB further records that he was pretty inoffensive, and there is nothing to suggest that he shared either Reynolds’ republican sympathies or Miller’s Chartist sentiments. Indeed, the illustrations accompanying Blanchard’s Mysteries are not as violent or as racy as those of Reynolds, and there is certainly no nudity in any of them unlike there was in Reynolds’ first series. In fact, the illustrations seem a lot more ‘domesticated’ than the previous serials. Perhaps the series had been running so long by the time Blanchard was writing that it had ceased to be sensational.

There are actually two books in Blanchard’s version of the Mysteries, and each tells a different story (having only got the books a week ago, I have only skim read the books thus far). The first follows Reynolds and Miller by telling a story of vice and crime in Victorian high and low life. So I’m guessing that The Mysteries of London was like the modern day television show American Horror Story: an anthology series which with different cast and characters in each series, as evident in the introduction:

Again the curtain has descended on the characters that have figured in our former histories, and again we raise it to disclose others that have yet to appear before the eyes of those who watch our onward progress

Curiously, the second book is actually set during the late eighteenth century and the Regency. As you will see from the gallery below, the second set of images depicts men and women in eighteenth-century and Regency style clothing.

Enjoy the images – as far as I can ascertain this version of The Mysteries of London has not yet been digitised by any university library.

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References

[i] To find out which public and scholarly libraries hold this book, see the listings on the Price One Penny Database: http://www.priceonepenny.info/database/show_title.php?work_id=276.

[ii] Jane W. Stedman, ‘Blanchard, Edward Litt Leman (1820–1889)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. Jan 2011) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2602 Accessed 16 Dec 2016]. Other biographical works on Blanchard include Scott Clement and Cecil Howard, The Life and Reminisces of E. L. Blanchard (London: Hutchison, 1891).

Thomas Miller’s “The Mysteries of London; or, Lights and Shadows of London Life” (1849)

Thomas Miller’s The Mysteries of London; or, The Lights and Shadows of London Life (1849) is a continuation of G. W. M. Reynolds’ eponymous penny blood serialised novel published between 1844 and 1848 (Reynolds had been inspired by an earlier French serial entitled The Mysteries of Paris published in 1844 by Eugene Sue). Reynolds decided to quit writing the Mysteries for two reasons: he had not only grown tired of writing it but had also fallen out with his publisher.[i] Miller, who was a skilled novelist, was chosen by the publisher, George Vickers, to continue the very popular serial. The Mysteries of London, in fact, was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era.

I have only recently tracked down a copy of Miller’s continuation of the Mysteries and have not had time to read it as yet. Like Reynolds’ first and second volume of the Mysteries, it does not yet appear to have been digitised by Nineteenth-Century Collections Online or the British Library, and is quite rare.[ii] Furthermore, it has not, thus far, been subjected to critical analysis.

Miller will be familiar to readers of this blog as the man who authored the Robin Hood novel, Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John (1838). Interestingly, from my own position as a Robin Hood researcher, the principal aristocratic villains of Miller’s Mysteries has the same surname of De Marchmont, the same name as one of the cruel Norman antagonists in Miller’s Robin Hood story. Furthermore, one of the principal female protagonists in Miller’s novel is named Marian, and she has travelled from a village near Sherwood to seek her fortune in London. Given that Miller’s Mysteries was written partially to highlight the abuses and corruption of the aristocracy, perhaps he was trying to incorporate the world of the Mysteries into the Robin Hood universe, in order to show that, even from the medieval period, aristocrats are villainous, self-serving, and corrupt.[iii]

Once I have read the novel in full an analysis and commentary will follow. This post is only to highlight some of the pictures that appeared in the serial. Permission is freely granted to use the pictures, should anybody wish to do so – a citation to the website is all that is asked as it does take a lot of time to scan these images in and upload them on the website (I had a recent twitter spat with a certain popular history magazine after they used one of my images).

See also my post on E L Blanchard’s Mysteries sequel.


References

[i] Anne Humpherys, ‘An Introduction to G. W. M. Reynolds’ “Encyclopedia of Tales”’ in G. W. M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press ed. by Anne Humpherys & Louis James (Ashgate, 2008), p.125.

[ii] See listings on Price One Penny database: copies are available in Bishopsgate Library, British Library, Bodleian Library, Cambridge University Library, Kansas University Library, Uni. California, Senate House, and Minneapolis Central Library www.priceonepenny.info

[iii] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), p.155; Knight says that Miller was ‘a serious radical’ and ‘a dedicated Chartist’. While there is sympathy for the Chartist cause in his work, I can find no overt reference in either Miller’s writings or those of Chartist historians to suggest that he played a role in the movement. His main association with Chartism seems to have come from the fact that he was friends with Thomas Cooper throughout his life.

George Emmett’s “Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood” (1868-69)

[All images taken from books in my personal collection – feel free to use]


Further to my recent postings on Robin Hood in Victorian penny dreadfuls, this post sheds light upon another Robin Hood serial written by George Emmett entitled Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood which was serialised between 1868 and 1869. The Emmett brothers owned a busy but financially insecure publishing business. Constantly in financial difficulty, Emmett perhaps mistook his true vocation for none of his novels sold well enough. Emmett’s tale is a very defective historical romance which, had it been undertaken by a more talented writer, might have passed for a good novel.[1]

robin-titel
Title Page to Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (1873)

Following Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), the novel is framed as an antiquary’s research into the old ballads of Robin Hood. But unlike the antiquarian research of Joseph Ritson (1752-1803) or Thomas Percy (1729-1811), the study of old ballads that Emmett undertakes (or says that he has done, at least) has a tint of nationalism to it. He says that the old Robin Hood ballads were

Rude in composition […but] suited our sturdy Saxon ancestors […] expressing all that was manly and brave […] appealed to the hearts of the freeborn youth of England, and taught them to aid the oppressed.[2]

Although the idea of Social Darwinism had yet to emerge, one can detect the first seeds of the sense that Robin, a Saxon, is racially superior to the Normans. And Robin’s Saxon heritage is constantly played up in the novel. In one of many instances, Emmett writes that Robin was

The indomitable leader of the Saxon archers.[3]

robin-1
Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merry Sherwood (London: Hogarth, 1870)

While Ritson, Pierce Egan the Younger, Thomas Miller, and the anonymous author of Little John and Will Scarlet (1865) had cast Robin as a radical and anti-establishment figure in their works, it is in Emmett’s work that Robin truly becomes the loyal servant of the King and nation in Victorian literature.

The novel begins promisingly by setting the story of Robin Hood, not during the times of King Richard and Prince John, but during the rebellion of Simon de Montfort, or ‘The Second Barons War’ (1264-67). This had been done before in G. P. R. James’ novel Forest Days (1843). But Emmett was not as talented as James and lacks the talent for weaving together a complicated tale of exciting battles and political intrigue. In fact, both in its text and images, the novel is barely historicised. Robin is always dressed more as a seventeenth-century highwayman than a medieval outlaw.

As is usual in the later Victorian penny dreadfuls, Robin is the Earl of Huntingdon. In other places, Emmett also calls Robin a yeoman, which is quite puzzling.[4] There is unlikely to be a ‘deep’ explanation for this inconsistency of the account of Robin’s birth, in all likelihood it was probably the case that, in a novel which was written on a weekly basis, Emmett simply forgot that he had made Robin an Earl. But he is not the type of outlaw that a person would want to meet. By that, I do not mean that he is a cruel and murderous outlaw as he is in eighteenth-century criminal biography. Rather it is to say that he treats his fellow outlaws, especially Little John, with a harshness that borders upon contempt. In all fairness, Little John is portrayed as an annoying fellow, and somewhat dim and constantly utters the annoying phrase ‘Body o’me’ when he’s astounded by something. Thus Little John, the sturdy giant of earlier tales is degraded in Emmett’s novel into a buffoon.

Furthermore, the Forest Society of Sherwood lacks the free-spirited and democratic ideals of Egan’s novel and Ritson’s ballad anthology. There is the sense that Robin, the Earl, is very much the undisputed leader of the outlaw band. And it is very hierarchical. Robin calls Will Scarlet his lieutenant’.[5] In addition, Robin is repeatedly called ‘King of the Outlaws’, and Robin draws his men up in military array.[6]

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Robin Hood and the Wood Demon from Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (London: Hogarth, 1873)

The one interesting insertion into the narrative is that of the Forest Demon. When Robin and his men are outlawed for joining Simon De Montfort in his rebellion, they make their home in Sherwood Forest. It is here that Robin meets the strange woodland creature. Forest spirits would make their way into further Robin Hood adaptations such as Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures (1917) and in the television series Robin of Sherwood (1984-86). The association between Robin Hood and woodland spirits comes from a now-discredited theory from 1830s (which was never taken seriously at the time anyway) that supposed Robin to be the manifestation of the Teutonic Spirit Hodekin, and which subsequently made it into The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography when Sir Sidney Lee was editing it during the nineteenth century.

What is clear from Emmett’s tale is that the quality of Robin Hood novels has begun to decline by the 1870s. Further evidence of the poor quality is The Prince of Archers (1883) which appeared in The Boys of England. They are very much for a juvenile audience and cease to be targeted in any way towards adults. Still, just like the late-Victorian children’s books, they were undoubtedly popular with the young lads who read them avidly.


References

[1] Robert Kirkpatrick, Pennies, Profits and Poverty: A Biographical Directory of Wealth and Want in Bohemian Fleet Street (London: CreateSpace, 2016), pp.417-422.
[2] George Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (London: Hogarth House [n.d.]), p.2.
[3] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.19.
[4] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.2.
[5] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.24.
[6] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.25.

Pernicious Trash? “The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood”(1883)

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.[1]

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.

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Illustration from The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood (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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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).

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Illustration from The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood (1883)

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.[5]

There is also an attempted rape upon the sweetheart of Allen-a-Dale.[6] 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.[7]

While the Victorians in general loved violent entertainment,[8] 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.[9]

victorian-children-in-trouble-with-the-law-source-1
One of the many Victorian Juvenile Criminals who passed through the Courts. This one was named Joseph Lewis, and was indicted for stealing 28lb of iron in 1873. Sentenced to 12 months hard labour. (c) National Archives 5348 (PCOM 2/291)

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.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12]

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?


References

[1] 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.
[2] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 9 March 1883, p.25.
[3] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 13 April 1883, p.105.
[4] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 11 May 1883, p.171.
[5] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 20 April 1883, p.122.
[6] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 8 June 1883, p.233.
[7] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 23 March 1883, p.57.
[8] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).
[9] John Springhall, ‘Pernicious Reading? The Penny Dreadful as Scapegoat for Late-Victorian Juvenile Crime’ Victorian Periodicals Review 27: 4 (1994), pp.326-349.
[10] 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.
[11] Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p.9.
[12] Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p.25.