The Work Girls of London is a cautionary melodrama about the innocence of young women and the corrupting influence of the urban environment – including, but not limited to, the deviousness of men. Work Girls is generally classed as a ‘penny dreadful’ – which is to say it was published in instalments for a penny a time, and dwelt on the violent and seamy side of contemporary life – but it’s one of a number of works that shows a development in the form and content of penny dreadfuls since cheap printing first made them possible in the 1830s. Where earlier books of the type had tended to revel in the wickedness and depravity of the criminal classes, these new works used crime and corruption to illustrate moral points to readers.
Relatedly, and perhaps more significantly, books like Work Girls were aimed explicitly at the young. The penny dreadfuls of previous decades had been intended for the grown-up (and growing) urban commuter class, but by the mid-1860s publishers and authors alike had begun to recognise a new market: adolescent boys and girls.