Cheap Literature, 1837-1860

Project Charter

by Marie Léger-St-Jean
General Editor

Version: 1.1 (October 2021)
(1.0, September 2020)

Table of Contents

Description and Objectives

Price One Penny is a descriptive bibliography aimed at facilitating access to publicly held copies of literature published in penny weekly numbers between 1837 and 1860 (penny bloods), situating it at the nexus of an international, transmedial, and cross-class popular culture. It also features an electronic edition of The Mysteries of the Inquisition which serves these last two aims by providing easier access to two penny bloods and placing them in direct relation, paragraph by paragraph, with their French source text.

In addition, Price One Penny serves as a repository of information about penny blood makers (named authors, adaptors, translators, publishers, and publishers). It also documents readerships by gathering circulation figures and documenting behind the scenes ownership marks.

Main objectives

Price One Penny was always meant as a descriptive bibliography of penny bloods. Because earlier bibliographies were incomplete or unreliable, I chose not to transcribe from them but only to use them as a list of titles. Transcription was done from library catalogues, so keeping track of publicly available copies was a natural part of the workflow. Viewing penny bloods through the lens of a wider popular culture is an extension of the initial bibliographic scope.

Descriptive bibliography

Price One Penny presents accurate bibliographic information about penny bloods from their title pages, preface, drop-head titles, running titles, colophons, gutters, and wrappers. Collectors find the rigour and precision of the descriptive bibliography especially useful in a field in which false titles have circulated.

For number books (stand-alone editions as opposed to periodical serializations), the data was gathered from library catalogues and, when possible, checked against physical copies or their digital surrogates. Titles were taken from preexisting bibliographies and advertisements of known penny publishers in digitized periodicals.

Serials in periodicals were indexed from physical copies or from microfilm or digital surrogates, except for the London Journal which has been previously indexed by Andrew King.

One of the goals of Research Society for Victorian Periodicals (RSVP) Field Development Grant is to visit the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to check their holdings and finish indexing The Guide.

Access to publicly held copies

Price One Penny lists all known copies in publicly accessible collections and links to their digital surrogates when they have been digitized. Academics find it particularly useful when planning their research trips to be able to find worldwide library holdings for each work.

Copies were found searching aggregated catalogues Worldcat and COPAC (now Library Hub Discover) manually. Digital surrogates were found manually searching Google Books, HathiTrust, and Internet Archive for number books as well as British Periodicals, 19th-Century Periodicals, and 19th-Century Newspapers for periodicals. Links are provided to all digital surrogates.

One of the goals of the RSVP Field Development Grant is to automate these searches to update the lists now and in the future as well as to add the British Library platform for its own digital surrogates.

Nexus of an international, transmedial, and cross-class popular culture

Price One Penny presents the texts, plays, songs, and engravings of which penny bloods are translations, adaptations (plagiarisms or narrativizations), or reprints with links to British Fiction, 1800–1829. It also lists the dramatizations of penny bloods as their afterlife, with the classmark of the Lord Chamberlain copy and a link to the playbill in the East London Theatre Archive project (archived), if available.

These features represent extensions of Price One Penny’s initial scope, which was purely bibliographical. While searching aggregated catalogues to find the information required to build the descriptive bibliography, titles were returning documents that were clearly not penny-number issued literature, like playtexts and sheet music. More penny bloods than previously known therefore had direct sources or hypotexts, to use Gérard Genette’s terminology from Palimpsestes (1982).

Tracking titles in lists of dramas uncovered plays that were staged after the publication of the corresponding penny blood. These were therefore dramatizations of penny bloods, which were added to Price One Penny under the “Afterlife” header.

In my opinion, this extension of Price One Penny backwards into penny bloods’ sources and forwards into their dramatizations is its greatest contribution to scholarship. I draw all my research from these ties of penny bloods to other areas of literature.

One of the goals of the RSVP Field Development Grant is to migrate the data to At the Circulating Library (ATCL) and to add links to sources as listed in ATCL, Le Rez-de-Chaussée, and The Edward T. LeBlanc Dime Novel Bibliography project.


Sources were found “passively” during the aggregated catalogue search for titles. They were actively searched for in:

  • catalogues of Dickensiana;
  • bibliographies of Alexandre Dumas;
  • Allardyce Nicoll’s checklist of English Drama; and
  • the Lord Chamberlain Plays (through the British Library Manuscripts and Archives Catalogue).

Investigations using full-text search in digitized collections were conducted when a pattern was identified in a set of works indicating that all in it must have been translations or reprints.

Finally, I have tried to assert whether penny-number translations were new translations or reprints of earlier (usually American) translations, adding the latter to the chain of transmission.


Dramatizations were actively searched for in:

  • Allardyce Nicoll’s checklist of English Drama;
  • the playbills digitized and catalogued as part of the East London Theatre Archive project (archived); and
  • the Lord Chamberlain Plays (through the British Library Manuscripts and Archives Catalogue).

Later stages of research could add to the afterlife of penny bloods reprints in the United States and in Australia, translations (especially of George W. M. Reynolds), and scholarly editions.

Secondary objectives

The initial intent of the doctoral project that led to Price One Penny was to understand who produced penny bloods and how as well as who read them and through what reading experiences. The second part of the equation —readership— proved too anecdotale or elusive for a medium data project. The first part is answered, albeit superficially, on the website.

This traditional book history approach is somewhat insular insofar as it only ties into the interests of some members of RSVP. Placing penny bloods in relation to cultural productions on the stage, across the Channel, and across the Atlantic offers greater opportunities for collaboration and impact.

Repository of information about penny blood makers

Through its browsing options, Price One Penny provides author- and publisher-specific pages which includes links to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as well as to the Literary Encyclopedia and to Royal Literary Fund case file numbers for authors and the British Book Trade Index for publishers.

No distinction is made as a whole between the authors of penny bloods and those of their sources or dramatizations except of the page listing all authors by category. This editorial choice in the data model reflects the fact that George Dibdin Pitt wrote a play which he adapted into a penny blood, authored a penny blood with no identifiable source, and dramatized The String of Pearls written James Malcolm Rymer, securing its survival into the 21st century in which it is now known as Sweeney Todd.

Like earlier penny blood bibliographies and At the Circulating Library, Price One Penny sidesteps printers, though their imprints are recorded in the database. The information could therefore be feasibly added to the website, should there be demand for it.

One of the goals of RSVP Field Development Grant is to add references to Robert Kirkpatrick’s biographical research into a number of penny authors and publishers in Pennies, Profits and Poverty: A Biographical Directory of Wealth and Want in Bohemian Fleet Street and well as visualizations of the data gathered, including a map of publishers’ offices and the social networks linking authors, publishers, and periodicals.

Others are better placed than me to do further attribution and biographical research into the makers of penny bloods. I remain happy to link to it on Price One Penny.

Circulation figures

A hidden page on Price One Penny provides tables with links to titles in the database for “Newspapers found in the Coffee Public, and Eating houses” (1838), “Newspapers Read by the Families visited” (1848) and circulation figures from five different sources spanning from 1849 to 1862.

  • The page could be referenced in the “Penny bloods” introductory page and added to the navigation bar for the database part of the site.
  • The information could be cross-referenced in the individual works’ and periodicals’ pages.

Ownership marks

Information about ownership marks and traceable owners (including circulating libraries) is recorded in the database.

The information is not presented publicly on the website because it is too fragmentary. It is being used however by the Penny Blood Collecting Google Group.

Out of scope

Price limitations

The database is limited to works published in penny weekly numbers. I have no intention of adding more expensive works.

Geographical limitations

The database is limited to works published in London and I have no intention of adding works from the provincial press, Scotland, or Ireland. I have not been made aware of penny number books published outside of London, but newspapers outside of the metropolis carried serial fiction. One would assume this finding would also apply to penny weeklies.

Temporal limitations

The database is limited to works published between 1836 and 1860. No novels were published in penny numbers before that date, only compilations. Furthermore, only four publishers carry over past 1860.

A rich literature, increasingly targeted to youth, appeared in penny weekly numbers afterwards: penny dreadfuls. Since cataloguing them would require equal if not greater work than building Price One Penny in its current form, I will not broaden the temporal scope.

Woodcuts, illustrators, and engravers

Illustrations are an integral part of many penny bloods and the way many readers “read” them. As a testament to the long-time division between image and text in literary studies, I am untrained to research woodcuts and the (wo?)men behind them. I have nonetheless noticed that woodcuts can travel with reprints or be redone for translations.

I also know only of bibliographic projects about broadside ballads that combine information about both text and image, and do not therefore have a good template for fitting the information in my more standard descriptive bibliography. I am not prepared to embark on such a new research avenue, but am more than willing to open up the Price One Penny infrastructure to allow it if others want to collaborate.

Project Significance

Currently, the database contains 1,035 work entries, published in 334 periodical serializations and 584 editions. Out of these works, 268 are individual tales within a part-issued collection or novels published in parts in a series like the Novel Newspaper. The database also contains 65 publisher entries and 379 author entries.

The database references 336 libraries throughout the world in which these works can be found. By listing not only bibliographic information but individual copies, Price One Penny allows scholars to find digital surrogates and plan research in physical archives.

Half of the works in the database (564) have not been referenced in other bibliographies. They can be forgotten part-issue editions recovered through advertisements or serials in periodicals, tales in collections or novels in series brought to the fore by indexing.

Significance for digital humanities book history

The information is stored in a relational database using a very elaborate data model customized for the unusualness of serial literature, in two formats to boot (number books and serials in periodicals). Furthermore, the fact that many works are anonymous and undated provided further incentive to record the information available in all peritextual locations, especially the number-issue specific locations that are gutters and wrappers.

From the onset, Price One Penny integrated in the same database periodicals and the lesser-studied part publications because they are inextricably linked in penny publishing. For novels in shilling parts, Troy Bassett’s At the Circulating Library (ATCL) is now taking the same route with the help of Jessica Terekhov. Since I have also joined the ATCL team, the titles in POP will need to be exported into the larger database of Victorian fiction. Both remain distinct projects with different aims: ATCL is a quantitative bibliography while POP is a descriptive bibliography. However, the data they store does overlap.

Significance for periodical studies

By taking a bibliographic rather than a narratological approach to genre, Price One Penny has revealed just how enmeshed penny bloods were in the wider British print culture and a vector for the circulation of stories performed on stage, crossing both the Channel and the Atlantic.

The database underscores the presence of plagiarizations of British middle-class novels (a previously well-known fact) and adaptations of plays from both the West End and the East End (a lesser known fact). By including periodicals —beyond the London Journal—, it expands Louis James and Andrew King’s findings that translations of French romans-feuilletons and German Romantic novels, as well as pirated works from America were published in penny numbers in Britain.

Since 2014, the website also hosts the electronic edition of two versions of The Mysteries of the Inquisition (1845), both translations of Les Mystères de l’Inquisition (1844-1845). The presentation side-by-side of the three texts (the French source and two competing translations) showcases the winning editing and translating strategies of popular Chartist author George W.M. Reynolds in the London Journal.

In addition to providing a complete view of what was published in penny numbers in the first two and half decades of the Victorian period, Price One Penny branches out to consider the impact on at least two other areas of the nineteenth-century English-speaking periodical press: the inter-connections of the American antebellum periodical press and its British counterpart, and the lingering influence of Romantic-era serial and periodical publishing.

Anglo-American reprinting

Price One Penny ties into transatlantic print by disentangling the English ‘re-productions’ of serial novels by E.D.E.N. Southworth and Mrs. Stephens which appeared in the New York and Philadelphia periodical press. They appeared in penny periodicals under new titles, their stories transplanted to Britain with characters renamed. The texts were therefore heavily edited, masking for the British public and today’s researchers their original source.

In addition to these 1850s middle-class serials written by American women, I followed Louis James’s lead and traced the sources of mid-1840s short penny bloods, issued by prolific penny publisher Edward Lloyd and his partners, to cheap publishers and male authors from Boston.

Continuity from the Romantic to the Victorian period

Price One Penny also draws attention to continuity with the British periodical and part publishing of the first three decades of the nineteenth century. It presents what veterans of the War of the Unstamped, well documented by Joel Wiener, went on to publish in the late 1830s, as young newcomer Lloyd joined them in the penny plagiarism market.

Price One Penny also reveals endurance through links to Peter Garside, Jacqueline Belanger, and Sharon Ragaz’s British Fiction, 1800–1829: A Database of Production, Circulation, and Reception. Indeed, some British source texts published between 1800 and 1836, thus listed in the British Fiction database, were reprinted in penny numbers.

Among them, popular novels by Hannah Maria Jones initially issued in sixpenny parts were reissued in penny numbers alongside her new works published in the same format. Price One Penny therefore tells part of the story of the afterlife of sixpenny publishing, a little studied area which Gary Kelly is currently turning his attention to in his project ‘Sixpenny Romanticism’.

Publishing history

Overall, Price One Penny enhances the understanding of early Victorian periodicals by providing a thorough descriptive bibliography of some of the cheapest literary forms and leads for deeper dives into bio-bibliographical research.

Price One Penny shows that some authors, like Thomas Frost, shopped around novels to various publishers while other writers, like Gabriel Alexander, appeared wedded to a single publisher (John Dicks in his case). It therefore allows for the study of at least two models of author-publisher relationship in cheap Victorian serial publication: the freelancing author versus the publisher and his stable of authors.


Victorianist scholars and collectors alike should find the database very helpful. It will also prove of use to those researching reception and transmission of French and American popular culture.

Project Team

I curate Price One Penny on my own. I created, designed, programmed, and have been curating the website on my own, with the exception of library copy search and data entry help from Elizabeth Stearns and primary research assistance from Sarah Lill in 2012. I also collaborate with Troy Bassett as part of the editorial team of At the Circulating Library. I receive conceptual and technical help from Demian Katz.

Funding and Sustainability

Price One Penny has proven its sustainability by being maintained over the course of an entire decade, first through doctoral grants, then through sheer love of research, as I was a self-funded independent researcher before I received the RSVP Field Development Grant in 2020.