Criminality in The New Newgate Calendar

Stephen Basdeo
Leeds Trinity University

Penny dreadfuls are currently an under-researched area of study.
Researchers such as John Springhall have examined these pieces of
literature as ‘products,’ examining their reception and the
subsequent moral panic centred around their consumption by Victorian
youths. On the other hand, Rosalind Crone has argued that penny
dreadfuls were examples of violent entertainment; a form of
entertainment which emerged when the prevalence of actual violence in
society was in decline. This paper focuses on one penny dreadful title
that has not yet been subjected to critical analysis; “The New Newgate
Calendar” (1863-1865), and it takes a criminological approach to the
study of this penny dreadful. Inspired by the eighteenth-century
publication of the same name, this serialisation took the accounts of
the lives and trials of criminals therein and expanded them, turning
the stories of individual criminals into lengthy prose accounts.
Published in the 1860s, these stories appeared when the notion of a
‘criminal class’ had become firmly established within the public
mind. According to writers such as Henry Mayhew, there existed a
dangerous class of people that existed underneath respectable society
which subsisted entirely from the proceeds of crime. Victorian readers
would have encountered members of this criminal class in criminal
characters such as Bill Sykes in “Oliver Twist” (1838). Yet “The New
Newgate Calendar” took a different approach in its conceptualisation
of criminality; in this publication it was original sin, and not
social class, which was the determinant of criminality. In effect,
anyone, of any social status, could become a criminal, because all men
were guilty of original sin. Thus it will be argued that “The New
Newgate Calendar” challenged the evolving sociological
conceptualisation of criminality at a time when crime was increasingly
viewed as something which happened in the slum districts, and was
allegedly perpetrated only by members of this same ‘criminal

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900