Consisting of loosely linked stories about a gang of juvenile criminals, The Wild Boys of London was only moderately successful when it was first published as a serial between 1864 and 1866. However, when it was republished as a single volume almost a decade later it became one of the most notorious books of the age. Dozens of newsagents and booksellers across Britain were prosecuted under the Obscene Publication Act just for stocking it, and all but a few private copies were suppressed or destroyed.
Precisely why The Wild Boys caused such a stir is difficult to determine, not least because contemporary news reports are vague about which of its plot-strands the high court considered ‘a very immoral story’. The Wild Boys contains violence, mentions of nudity and a flagellation (torture) scene, but these were quite common in the serialised crime stories of the 1860s and 70s.
Despite being suppressed by the police, copies ofThe Wild Boys of London continued to circulate. The book was extremely influential on the notorious surrealist writer William Burroughs (1914-1997), who called a 1971 novel The Wild Boys in tribute to the original, and who reused the characters of The Wild Boys in many other works.