‘The mid-nineteenth century witnessed an extraordinary literary and social revolution with the birth and enormous popularity of the Penny Dreadful’, declared George Speaight, historian of the English toy theatre, as long ago as 1946. ‘It is much to be hoped that this fantastic episode in our literature will soon receive the historical study it deserves.’ Not long after, E. S. Turner, in his classic work on generations of British boys’ periodicals, Boys Will Be Boys (1948), devoted several chapters to an engaging overview of ‘penny dreadfuls’, acknowledging it would have been possible to fill his book with an account of them alone.1 The temptation was resisted, partly because the number of his readers who could remember following the adventures of such as Jack Harkaway, Turnpike Dick and Cheerful Ching-Ching had by 1948 become rather finite. Turner’s infectious humour, compelling use of quotation, and underlying affection for these old storypapers, makes these chapters as readable now as when they first appeared in print nearly 50 years ago.
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