‘Language of the most disgusting kind is uttered, and plans of robberies, no doubt, concocted’, claimed a letter to a London newspaper in 1838, urging suppression of the penny theatre ‘nuisance’. ‘Boys and girls are not only tempted to pilfer from shops, but even to rob their parents that they might have the means of attending these receptacles of vice.’ Similar accusations have been levelled in successive decades to condemn forms of entertainment chosen by children and adolescents but disapproved of by adults. Festive mockery in penny theatricals and early penny bloods of ‘industrial literacy’, or factory work-disciplines and school knowledge, argues Edward Jacobs, citing James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampyre (1847), ‘functioned as one of the dominant ideologies structuring street culture as a counterculture, and thus constituted one of the major moral threats to the hegemony of the literate, Christian, middle-class values that have come to typify Victorian culture’.1 What follows will attempt to determine the precise nature of the theatrical entertainments that merit both this recent bold evaluation and also the opening indictment, in so far as their managements, audiences and performances can be reconstructed from tenuous scraps of surviving evidence. Local newspapers, in particular, are a rich source of information that the historian of nineteenth-century popular amusements can ill afford to neglect.
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