Victorian Britain experienced social changes that resulted in increased literacy rates.
With the rise of capitalism and industrialisation, people began to spend more money on entertainment, contributing to the popularisation of the novel. Improvements in printing resulted in newspapers such as Joseph Addison’s The Spectator and Richard Steele’s The Tatler, and England’s more fully recognizing the singular concept of reading as a form of leisure; it was, of itself, a new industry.
Other significant changes included industrialization and an increased capacity for travel via the invention of tracks, engines, and the corresponding railway distribution.
In accordance with these changes, the demand for literature in the mid-nineteenth century intensified dramatically.
The penny dreadfuls, named for both their cheap nature, and poor, sensational quality, erupted into existence and met the desires of the poor class.
The penny dreadfuls “became by far the most alluring and low-priced form of escapist reading available to ordinary youth, until the advent in the early 1890s of future newspaper magnate Alfred Harmsworth’s price-cutting ‘halfpenny dreadfuller’ (Springhall 568).”
The term “dreadful” was originally assumed to express societal anxiety or moral alarm over the new profitable innovation directed at the youth. In reality, the serial novels were overdramatic and sensational, but generally harmless.
If anything, the penny dreadfuls, although obviously not the most enlightening or inspiring of literary selections, resulted in increasingly literate youth in the Industrial period.
The wide circulation of this sensationalist literature, however, contributed to an ever greater fear of crime in mid-Victorian Britain.
These serials started in the 1830s, originally as a cheaper alternative to mainstream fictional part-works, such as those by Charles Dickens (which cost a shilling [twelve pennies]) for working class adults, but by the 1850s the serial stories were aimed exclusively at teenagers.
The stories themselves were reprints, or sometimes rewrites, of Gothic thrillers such as The Monk or The Castle of Otranto, as well as new stories about famous criminals.
Some of the most famous of these penny part-stories were The String of Pearls: A Romance (introducing Sweeney Todd), The Mysteries of London (inspired by the French serial The Mysteries of Paris), and Varney the Vampire. Highwaymen were popular heroes; Black Bess or the Knight of the Road, outlining the largely imaginary exploits of real-life English highwayman Dick Turpin, continued for 254 episodes.
Working class boys who could not afford a penny a week often formed clubs that would share the cost, passing the flimsy booklets from reader to reader.
Other enterprising youngsters would collect a number of consecutive parts, then rent the volume out to friends.
In 1866, Boys of England was introduced as a new type of publication, an eight-page magazine that featured serial stories as well as articles and shorts of interest.
It was printed on the same cheap paper, though it sported a larger format than the penny parts
Numerous competitors quickly followed, with such titles as Boys’ Leisure Hour, Boys’ Standard, Young Men of Great Britain, etc.
As the price and quality of other types of fiction works were the same, these also fell under the general definition of penny dreadfuls.
Read on further via Penny dreadful – Wikipedia.