The success of highwaymen and gothic talesThe bloods were astonishingly successful, creating a vast new readership. Between 1830 and 1850 there were up to 100 publishers of penny-fiction, as well as the many magazines which now wholeheartedly embraced the genre. At first the bloods copied popular cheap fiction’s love of late 18th-century gothic tales, the more sensational the better, ‘a world,’ said one writer, ‘of dormant peerages, of murderous baronets, and ladies of title addicted to the study of toxicology [the study of poison], of gipsies and brigand-chiefs, men with masks and women with daggers, of stolen children, withered hags, heartless gamesters, nefarious roués, foreign princesses’.
Penny dreadful, The Flying Dutchman
Early penny dreadful The Flying Dutchman, or, The Demon Ship is distinctly influenced by 18th century Gothic, 1839.View images from this item (18)
Penny dreadful, Ela the Outcast
Ela the Outcast; or, The Gipsy of Rosemary Dell. A romance of thrilling interest, a typical example of an early penny dreadful, 1841.View images from this item (14)
The illustrations were an essential element, as much an advertising tool as art. One regular reader said, ‘You see’s an engraving of a man hung up, burning over a fire, and some…go mad if they couldn’t learn what he’d been doing, who he was, and all about him.’ It is not surprising, therefore, that one publisher’s standing instruction to his illustrators was, ‘more blood – much more blood!’
Slums, true crime and detectivesThe most successful penny-blood, and what might possibly be the most successful series the world has ever seen, Mysteries of London, first appeared in 1844, written by G W M Reynolds. He based it on a French book, but it soon took on a life of its own, spanning 12 years, 624 numbers and nearly 4.5 million words . Instead of highwaymen, this series was much closer its readers’ own lives, contrasting the dreadful world of the slums with the decadent life of the careless rich.
Penny dreadful, The Mysteries of London
The Mysteries of London, the most successful penny dreadful, drew inspiration from the streets of London, 1849.View images from this item (8)
The String of Pearls; or, the Barber of Fleet Street
Mrs Lovett’s pie shop from The String of Pearls, the original story of Sweeney Todd, estimated 1850.View images from this item (16)
Penny-bloods had originally had a broad readership, but in the 1860s the focus narrowed, and children became the main target. There were dozens of titles – The Wild Boys of London (1864–66), The Poor Boys of London (c.1866), even The Work Girls of London (1865).
The beginning of authors’ careers and a new genreSeveral authors who later published more respectable popular fiction began their careers in penny-bloods, including the journalist G. A. Sala, a protégé of Dickens, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, later the author of the bestselling Lady Audley’s Secret, who began as the (pseudonymous) author of The Black Band, or, The Mysteries of Midnight, complete with lady-murderess who organises a European-wide network of criminals.
As Mrs Braddon herself said, ‘the amount of crime, treachery, murder and slow poisoning, & general infamy required [by my readers]...is something terrible’. Yet it was precisely these ingredients that led the way to the ‘sensation’ novel. Mrs Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, or Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White picked up on the high melodrama of the penny dreadful scenarios, but instead of highwaymen, or pirates, or gothic dungeons, tucked them all neatly away under a tidy domestic façade that reflected those of its middle-class readers, creating a new genre out of an old form.
Penny dreadful, The Black Band
The lady-murderess from The Black Band, or, The Mysteries of Midnight by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, 1876-77.View images from this item (9)
 George Augustus Sala, The Seven Sons of Mammon: a story, 3 vols. (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1862), ii, p. 22-3.