19th Century

Youthful consumption and conservative visions: Robin Hood and Wat Tyler in late Victorian penny periodicals | Stephen Basdeo

The following is the pre-publication draft of a chapter (the PDF of the chapter is linked) written for Barbara Gribling and Rachael Bryant Davies (ed.) Pasts at Play: Childhood encounters with history in British culture, 1750-1914 (Manchester University Press, 2020). Copyright agreements and author self-archiving rules mean that I am now free to post this here for the benefit of others.

All images herein are my own and may be reused as long as appropriate credit is given.

Title page to George Emmett’s Robin Hood (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)


Since his first appearance in a Yorkshire Assize roll in 1225, the story of the outlaw Robin Hood, who is said to have stolen from the rich to give to the poor, has stood for truth, justice and resistance to oppression.[1] Second only to Robin Hood among medieval heroes is Wat Tyler who, along with Jack Straw and John Ball, heroically led an army of up to 50,000 to London in the summer of 1381 to demand an end to the poll tax, the abolition of serfdom and the freedom for all men to buy and sell in the marketplace.[2]

As the centuries wore on, stories of the lives and deeds of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler were continually adapted in literary works in order to serve a variety of political agendas. While stories about the two men originally represented a challenge to local and kingly authority, their post-medieval stories followed different ideological trajectories: Robin Hood was gradually ‘gentrified’, according to Stephen Knight, while Wat Tyler became an inspirational symbol for radicals and revolutionaries, from the English Revolution down to the Chartist period.

Much has been written on portrayals of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. Both men’s stories were retold in expensive literary works which presented a conservative view of the medieval past, which corroborates Clare A. Simmons’s assertion that, after c. 1830, medievalism became conservative and expensive.[3] However, this chapter analyses portrayals of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler in boys’ magazines and penny dreadfuls which invite a more nuanced reading. As this chapter argues, medievalism could be cheap and conservative, and both men’s stories even appeared in respectable boys’ penny magazines, but they were often received as subversive by reviewers. The lines between respectable cheap reading matter and controversial penny dreadful were often blurred and the former came in for censure just as much as the latter. The ideological position of the actual stories rarely mattered to reviewers when judging the respectability of the text.

Robin Hood by George Emmett (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

Robin Hood

Shortly before the beginning of the Victorian era, in the Quarterly Review in 1832, Robert Southey, an author who wrote about both Wat Tyler and Robin Hood,[4] defined conservatism as an ideology that was supportive of the Protestant ascendancy, being patriotic, having a paternalistic attitude to the poor, a respect for hierarchy and favouring gradual political reform over violent revolution.[5] A definition of conservatism from a man such as Southey is useful because he famously became a staunch conservative after having abandoned the radical ideology of his youth and was, therefore, familiar with debates from across the political spectrum. A similar conservative ideology is conveyed in George Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (1868–1869), which was sold in monthly penny parts. In contrast, Pierce Egan the Younger’s earlier Robin Hood and Little John (1838–1840), which Emmett drew heavily upon, depicted Sherwood Forest as a democratic space in which Robin has to be elected by his fellow outlaws as their leader.[6] The forest community of Sherwood in Emmett’s tale, however, is separated into classes and is a mirror of Victorian social strata, divided as it is into masters and servants. Robin Hood is the Earl of Huntingdon and Little John is his servant, whom Robin disciplines frequently and in a condescending manner, as the following typical exchange indicates:

‘Thou wilt keep that prating tongue o’ thine quiet,’ said Robin …

‘I am quiet, good master,’ said John hastily, – ‘as quiet as a chauntry of monks when the superior is away. Body o’me, I would sooner be cooped up with forty devils than one sleek monk. Quiet, by Saint Hubert! I’ll not speak for seven long days!’[7]

In every late Victorian Robin Hood story, the outlaw is always the Earl of Huntingdon and there is little need to go into the undemocratic and hierarchical depiction of Sherwood Forest in each text. (It should be said, however, that Robin Hood does treat his men with more respect in other stories.) In Emmett’s tale, ranked below Earl Robin are his yeomen, Little John and Will Scarlet. Finally, at the bottom of Sherwood society are a number of rank-and-file men who are assigned no special social status.

Thus, the message from these Robin Hood penny dreadfuls was clear: because a hero such as Robin Hood keeps existing social hierarchies in place in Sherwood Forest, so too should hierarchies be respected. This did not, however, preclude Robin and his men being kind to the poor. The most famous trope to emerge from the post-medieval Robin Hood tradition is that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor: a tradition that started in John Major’s Historia Maioris Britanniae (1521), which states that Robin Hood

‘would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he spoil the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from the abbots. The robberies of this man I condemn, but of all robbers he was the humanest and the chief.’[8]

While for the most part, Robin Hood penny dreadfuls are not overtly religious, his activities in supplying the wants of the poor with plundered booty are presented often as an extension of Christian charity.

Furthermore, there is no hint that the Robin Hood of penny dreadfuls wishes to overturn the existing hierarchy or even fight for political rights for the poor. He is charitable to them, but that is all. His usual enemies in every penny dreadful are Prince John and invariably either members of the Knights Templar, which is an obvious hangover from Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), or the Sheriff of Nottingham’s henchmen. Other enemies include characters from the usual repertoire of villains from the Robin Hood canon such as Guy of Gisborne. A story of Robin’s rivalry with Gisborne was serialised in Boys of England in 1887 and it features a rather gruesome image of Robin decapitating Guy.[9] While Boys of England is not immediately identifiable as a Victorian penny dreadful to modern scholars – often being thought of as one of the more ‘wholesome’ magazines available – it frequently received similar criticisms to those levelled at the more salacious periodicals, and in court records was often included in the list of ‘dangerous’ magazines, a point also raised by John Springhall.[10] And there was, of course, Robin Hood’s arch-enemy, the Sheriff of Nottingham. All of the villains usually act under the direction of Prince John. When Robin Hood stories are set against the backdrop of the 1190s, they are inherently conservative. Robin is usually outlawed because he has stayed loyal to King Richard and has refused to side with John in attempting to seize his throne. As Stephen Knight argues, therefore, in such settings Robin Hood becomes nothing less than an upholder of the true political order.[11]

Above all, Robin Hood’s loyalty to the king means that, more often than not, he was depicted as a deeply patriotic and nationalist figure and held up as an example of the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon ‘race’. It was easy for late Victorian writers to superimpose late Victorian Anglo-Saxonism on to the story of Robin Hood: Walter Scott had, of course, initiated the trope of the outlaw’s Anglo-Saxon heritage in Ivanhoe. Scott’s vision of medieval English society as being divided into two races, Saxon and Norman, was racialist; social, cultural and linguistic differences existed between the Normans and the Saxons, yet there was no sense in Ivanhoe that those of Saxon heritage were biologically superior to other races. In fact, in Ivanhoe, Scott argues that the English nation will be at its best when Normans and Saxons put aside their differences and work together for the good of the nation.

However, in late Victorian stories, there was a glorification of Anglo-Saxon heritage. Readers of the Boy’s Own Magazine were counselled to seek out medieval and early modern Robin Hood ballads because

‘if the study of Latin is likely to make a scholar expert in the use of polished language, the study of old English ballads is highly conducive to the acquisition of that best of all English – strong, simple Saxon-English’.[12]

Robin Hood ballads were reprinted in numerous books in the late Victorian period; reprints of Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) appeared in 1820, 1823, 1860 and in 1884. Other late Victorian editors sought to emulate Ritson’s work in a number of cheap collections of Robin Hood ballads as well, and some were even reprinted in boys’ magazines. In reality, early Robin Hood poems are not written in Old English but in Middle English, and there is very little that is Saxon about them. In Will Williams’s ‘Bold Robin Hood and his merry, merry men’, which appeared in the supposedly respectable penny magazine Our Young Folks in 1873, the Saxon Robin Hood is

‘the bold and dauntless hero – the hero of a valiant thousand deeds’.[13]

While he is outlawed due to the machinations of Prince John and his henchmen, he remains unwaveringly loyal to the king, and at the close of the story the reader is told that

‘Robin Hood was a true patriot, as his career, so often portrayed, shows – a great-hearted man in an age when great-hearted men were few.’[14]

Cultivating an admiration for the allegedly Saxon Robin Hood, as well as an interest in studying Middle English and early modern texts would, in the opinion of late Victorian penny authors, inculcate a love of their country and pride in it.

The Sword of Freedom (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

Wat Tyler

In contrast to Robin Hood, it was difficult for late Victorian children’s fiction writers to imbue Wat Tyler with a conservative ideology. The historical Tyler was, after all, a man who led a crowd of discontented people to demand redress from the king. His comrade, John Ball, uttered the famous lines yearning for equality, asking ‘Whan Adam dalf, and Eve span, Wo was thanne a gentilman?’ [When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?].[15] As far as the political leanings of penny dreadful Wat Tyler stories are concerned, only a few are avowedly radical or contain anti-establishment sentiments. A story entitled ‘The death of Wat Tyler’, which appeared in the Boys’ Comic Journal in 1892, told the story of Tyler’s death at Walworth’s hand and the subsequent revocation of the royal charters by Richard II, before counselling its readers to ‘put not your faith in princes’.[16] The anonymous author followed up this injunction by saying,

[After the revolt] all pardons were revoked by parliament, the people ground again under the yoke of slavery, and hundreds of men who expected to hear no more of the rebellion were dragged from their homes and executed. Right or wrong, Wat Tyler set a seal on the liberties of the people. Doubtless, he was a ruffian, but in those days the arrogance and cruelty of the nobility manufactured ruffians wholesale.[17]

This passage justifies the historical Wat Tyler’s actions, as well as those of the crowd, to those reading it. He is still a ‘ruffian’, however, which puts him on a par with the newly identified ‘hooligan’ of the late nineteenth century. Most of the Wat Tyler stories considered here, though, present his actions in an extremely negative light, or disavow them completely. An effort is made in these stories to neuter any subversive elements that may be present in its retelling of Wat Tyler’s life story.

The Death of the historical Wat Tyler as pictured in The Boys’ Froissart (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

In The Sword of Freedom; or, The Boyhood Days of Jack Straw (c. 1870) the eponymous rebel is actually the son of a nobleman, as many heroes of Victorian fiction turn out to be. The novel is similar to a Robin Hood novel: having been outlawed for a petty misdemeanour, Straw, and some of his associates, flee to the forest and begin living the life of outlaws. Jack Straw and his comrades are in fact indistinguishable from contemporary depictions of Robin Hood which accompanied this serial’s first two issues; they are dressed in the same types of outfits – feathered hats and tunics – and the background in the opening numbers of both The Sword of Freedom and George Emmett’s Robin Hood is a forest (see Figures 5.1 and 5.2). Judging by its appearance, the author and publisher clearly meant for The Sword of Freedom to be received as a Robin Hood story to draw on the popularity of such tales published in a variety of outlets. Straw’s moral compass is similar to that of Robin Hood’s, for Straw and his men are unwaveringly loyal to King Edward III in spite of being an outlaw. At one point in the novel, Edward’s courtiers conspire against him to overthrow him by imprisoning him in the Tower of London and hiring assassins to murder him. Jack Straw learns of the plot and offers his services for the task. However, because he is loyal to the king, Jack betrays the traitors by saving the king’s life instead of killing him in the tower. The king immediately wishes to grant Jack a reward. Jack does not ask for any favours himself, however, but says,

I would ask you, Sire, to dissolve the infamous yearly tax upon their persons; to give them liberty of speech; to let every man hire his ground at State valuation, and not at the price nobles put upon it – for, by doing so, they crush the loyal and honest man and often make him a rebel and a thief … the serfs are more to you than your nobles – and for this reason, Sire: they are the builders-up of the fortunes of the nobles; they are the men who, when the peace of the country is threatened by foreigners, fly to arms; and, on the battlefield, they prove that they have as much, and more, courage than those who tread upon them with iron heels, and contemptuously call them slaves and hounds.[18]

True to his word, and completely out of keeping with the historical record, the king in this story complies with young Jack’s request. The reason why a man such as Jack Straw, who is so unwaveringly loyal to the monarch, would then go on to associate with rebels like Wat Tyler and John Ball and take a leading role in the Peasants’ Revolt, is not explained until the end of the novel. It is revealed that in 1381, Jack Straw is an old man who, by virtue of his service to the king, has inherited vast estates. He is admired by the people at large and known as ‘the Friend of the People’. He then dies peacefully in his bed just before the revolt and exclaims:

‘the name under which, for so long I fought, is, to all of us, dead; let us hope and trust that he who, for his own purpose, is pleased to revive it, will keep from disgrace the name of Jack Straw’.[19]

Unfortunately for this fictional Jack Straw, it transpires that a disreputable fellow assumed his name afterwards. It was the imposter who would go on to associate with Tyler and the mob in the rebellion. It is unlikely that the honourable, patriotic, and ultimately fictional, Jack Straw of The Sword of Freedom would have approved of the actions of the historical Jack Straw, who was executed in 1381 and whose head was placed atop London Bridge to serve as a warning for other would-be rebels.

Some writers simply ignored the revolt. A story entitled ‘Wat Tyler; or, The King and the Apprentice’ appeared in the Young Englishman in 1867 over thirty-five issues. This was one of the longer serials to have appeared in the columns of this magazine, which is perhaps an indication of the serial’s popularity. It depicts the eponymous young rebel as the son of a working-class family. Known as ‘the honest Wat Tyler’, he is a good-natured but headstrong young lad who wants nothing more than to please his parents by making his way in the world through learning a trade.[20] He is sent by his parents to be an apprentice blacksmith under the stewardship of his uncle, Dick (who, for a medieval man, lives a curiously Victorian lifestyle). Wat tires of this life and becomes an outlaw for a short time. However, he is pardoned by King Edward III and eventually marries the daughter of a nobleman, who bears him a son. Not a single word is said in reference to the revolt, and the publishers were merely using Wat Tyler to present a generic medieval story of a lad becoming an outlaw before reforming himself and making his way in the world.

There is definitely a focus upon young characters in other stories which was likely intended to have greater appeal for younger readers. For example, ‘Gentle deeds; or, serfdom to knighthood’, which was serialised in Our Young Folks Paper in May 1886, follows the adventures of a village boy called Simon who meets an outlaw named Wat Tyler and his band called ‘the men in green’. They are not benevolent outlaws of the Robin Hood variety but, rather, are depicted as brutal cut-throats (this is a very similar plot point to that which appears in William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1874 Wat Tyler novel entitled Merry England; or, Nobles and Serfs, in which Tyler and his band are cut-throat outlaws). Tyler appears only briefly in this serial, however, and the story, as its title suggests, follows young Simon’s rise through society to serve the Black Prince and become a knight. Service to the nation is evidently presented as a means of social mobility.

There were, of course, some conservative and expensive portrayals of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler presented to children. G. A. Henty perhaps drew inspiration from this obscure serial when he wrote A March on London (1896), which retells the story of the 1381 rebellion. In this story, a young village boy named Albert is offered the opportunity to serve in the Hundred Years War (1337–1453). Albert and his father, Edgar, travel to London, not as part of the revolt but to sort out some family affairs. His father has little admiration or sympathy with the rebels:

‘Is there any chance of trouble in the city, father?’ Albert asked.

‘I know not, lad. The better class of citizens are assuredly opposed to those who make these troubles … Would that Lancaster was here with a thousand or so of men-at-arms,’ [Edgar] went on, gloomily; ‘there is no one at the Court who can take command.’[21]

Edgar takes Albert into Kent where a chance meeting with Wat Tyler occurs. The father proves to be a formidable political debater:

‘You are the son of the man at St. Alwyth,’ [said Wat Tyler]. ‘I have seen you in the streets before. What think you of what we are doing? I have heard of you attending meetings there.’

‘I think that you have been cruelly wronged,’ Edgar answered, quietly, ‘and that the four points that you demand are just and right. I wish you good fortune in obtaining them, and I trust that it will be done peacefully and without opposition.’

‘Whether peacefully or not, we are determined that they shall be obtained. If it be needful, we will burn down London and kill every man of rank who falls into our hands, and force our way into the king’s presence. We will have justice!’

‘If you do so you will be wrong,’ Edgar said, calmly; ‘and moreover, instead of benefiting your cause you will damage it … you would set the nobles throughout the land against you, you would defeat your own good objects, and would in the end bring destruction upon yourselves; so that instead of bettering your position you would be worse than before.’[22]

Even though there is very little difference in terms of plot and political ideology between Henty’s story and Our Young Folk’s Paper and some of the other Wat Tyler penny serials mentioned above, it was Henty’s tale which drew praise from the conservative press.[23] Henty’s book would have cost a purchaser a total of 6 shillings when first published.[24] In 1898, according to one report from 1905, the average urban labourer earned 16s 9d per week, with a higher average rate of 22s 2d per week being recorded in northern industrial towns.[25] This is more than two days’ work for a single volume; historical romances by the likes of Henty are unlikely to have been purchased by working-class labourers even on the higher end of the average income. Of course, Henty’s brand of conservative medievalism, as displayed not only in A March on London, but also in his A Knight of the White Cross, as well as conservative tales by other writers, such as Edward Gilliatt’s In Lincoln Green (1897) and Escot Lynn’s When Lionheart was King (1908), were sometimes available for free for working-class children.[26] During the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras, many of these books were given out as school or Sunday School prizes: historical tales were especially popular choices for prize-givers.[27] Not all prize books were fiction, however: for example, books such as Henry Newbolt’s Froissart in Britain (1902) and M. Edgar’s The Boys’ Froissart (1912), which were abridged and translated editions of Froissart’s chronicles and preserved his disdain for the rebels, were also awarded as prizes. Each book would probably have been too expensive for average labourers to purchase outright for one of their children: Newbolt’s book sold for 2s 6d,[28] and, depending upon the binding used, prices for the latter ranged from 5 shillings for a cloth-bound edition to 10s 6d for velvet Persian yapp binding.[29]As far as portrayals of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler go, not only were there conservative and cheap medievalist tales but also conservative and expensive medieval novels which were often awarded free of charge.

Readers’ reception of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler

Thus far, as we have seen, there was little that was controversial in the actual text of these penny dreadfuls. The texts of the Robin Hood stories are conservative, stressing the values of patriotism, the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon ‘race’, a paternalist attitude towards those who are less fortunate, and loyalty to the political and social order. Wat Tyler penny dreadfuls – with one exception, that of The Sword of Freedom – depict him more often than not as a brute, and they usually condemn his actions in the revolt. This perhaps suggests that the name of Jack Straw was not as famous in the annals of Victorian popular history, and that his story was more easily moulded to suit a conservative agenda. Yet reviewers did not read these periodicals as conservative but viewed them as subversive, and as providing an addictive entry point into a life of crime. John Springhall argues that penny dreadfuls, particularly those which recounted stories of historical thieves such as Jack Sheppard (1702–1724) and Dick Turpin (1705–1739), or fictional ones such as The Wild Boys of London (c. 1866), were a scapegoat for late Victorian fears surrounding the rise of juvenile crime.[30] Such anxieties seemed to be confirmed when juvenile delinquents, standing before magistrates in the dock, confessed that their crimes were due to the fact that they had been led into their evil course of life through reading such literature. For example, Stephen Easton, an eighteen-year-old burglar, said at his trial that

‘it was all owing to reading books – the Boys of England, Young Men of Great Britain, and others’.[31]

It will be noted in that passage that even the supposedly respectable penny papers attracted censure and that what was needed, so some commentators thought, was a wholesale reform of working-class children’s reading matter. This reformation was viewed as especially urgent since the implementation of the Education Act (1870), which made it compulsory for all children to receive schooling in the basics of the ‘three Rs’. The problem and the solution were made clear in a pamphlet written by Charlotte Yonge in What Books to Lend and What Books to Give (1877):

Wholesome and amusing literature has become almost a necessity among the appliances of parish work. The power of reading leads, in most cases, to the craving for books. If good not be provided, evil will only too easily be found … If the boy is not to betake himself to ‘Jack Sheppard’ literature, he must be beguiled by wholesome adventure. If the girl is not to study the ‘penny dreadful,’ her notions must be refined by the tale of high romance or pure pathos.[32]

There is no doubt that Henty’s Wat Tyler story would have fallen into the category of one of Yonge’s approved books. The controversy surrounding stories of Jack Sheppard stemmed from the moral panic over William Harrison Ainsworth’s eponymous novel published in 1839, which allegedly inspired the valet Benjamin Courvoisier to murder his master Lord William Russell. Ainsworth’s novel led to a proliferation of cheap Jack Sheppard novels throughout the century.

The young offenders cited the names of magazines rather than individual stories’ titles and rarely mentioned Robin Hood by name. Only occasionally did moralists in the press connect stories specifically about Robin Hood and Little John to contemporary tales of crime:

Talk of Robin Hood and Little John, and their dingy imitators in this metropolis described by Dickens and Ainsworth … The same man passes from one form into another – developing, according to the changes in society, from a forester to a mountaineer, thence to a highwayman, thence to an instructor of pickpockets and the receiver of their day’s work in St. Giles.[33]

Young readers themselves on occasion often connected Robin Hood with more dubious types of criminals such as Sheppard and Turpin. For example, when recalling his childhood in the 1870s, a Calvinist minister from South Wales who grew up in a working-class household revealed, ‘Robin Hood was our patron saint or ideal. We sincerely believed in robbing the rich to help the poor … Our real heroes were robbers like Jack Sheppard, Dick Turpin, and Charles Peace, whose “Penny dreadful” biographies we knew by heart.’[34] This minister evidently recalled his youthful readings of such tales with fondness, and of course some contemporary commentators had a more balanced assessment of penny dreadfuls. Arthur Quiller-Couch, in an essay entitled The Poor Little Penny Dreadful (1896), remarked that often penny dreadfuls ‘were even rather ostentatiously on the side of virtue. As for the bloodshed in them, it would not compare with that in many of the five-shilling adventure stories at that time read so eagerly by boys of the middle and upper classes.’[35] The fact that Victorian moralists never bothered actually to read the stories that they were condemning explains why Robin Hood and Wat Tyler rarely appeared by name; instead the magazines as a whole, the publishers of the stories, were condemned.


Further studies are needed on the affordability of medievalism in the late Victorian period to clarify intent and audience. Paradoxically it was usually radical appropriations of the medieval past that were expensive. At the same time as these more conservative visions circulated in the penny dreadfuls they competed with socialist appropriations and interpretations of the period in the latter half of the nineteenth century. One of the first socialist historiographical works was Charles Edmund Maurice’s Lives of English Popular Leaders in the Middle Ages: Tyler, Ball, and Oldcastle (1875), which would have set a would-be reader back 7s 6d.[36] William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball (1888), in which a time-traveller goes back to 1381 and meets John Ball, cost 4s. 6d. upon its first publication.[37] The Kelmscott edition of this text, as one would expect, was even more expensive, retailing at £1 10s.[38] As a movement that is ostensibly about bettering the condition of the working classes, it is curious to see that Morris’s influential socialist texts were among the most expensive that people could buy. This should not surprise many scholars who work on late Victorian socialism, for it was a ‘very middle-class affair’ at this point.[39] In fairness to Morris, however, his and E. Belfort Bax’s ‘Socialism from the root up’, which provides a history of medieval socialism, could be had for a penny in Commonweal, and an earlier version of A Dream of John Ball was circulated in the same magazine in 1886. Nevertheless, it would surely have made more sense for socialists to target the cheaper end of the literary market – but they did not, which allowed conservative portrayals of the medieval past to dominate the marketplace.

First edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

Cheap and conservative accounts of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler during the late Victorian period did indeed dominate the lower end of the literary marketplace. Authors strove to give a respectable slant to their stories; Sherwood Forest society in the penny novels discussed here is decidedly undemocratic, in contrast to earlier Robin Hood works by the likes of Pierce Egan the Younger; Wat Tyler is rarely the hero of the story, as such, but depicted as a ruffian or, in other cases, he is a hero but the revolt is simply ignored by authors. In spite of these authors’ ‘conservatising’ efforts, reviewers did not read their stories as conservative but regarded them as dangerous and potentially subversive. There was a tension between the ideology of the text and its reception, and if scholars are to gain a more comprehensive understanding of such texts then this needs to be taken into account. It did not matter, furthermore, whether the stories were published in so-called penny dreadful magazines or in the more respectable periodicals; if they were cited by a juvenile criminal in the dock in front of a judge then they were dangerous and there was no division in contemporaries’ minds between so-called ‘Jack Sheppard’ literature and the likes of the Boys of England. This shows that the division between respectable reading matter and dangerous literature has been stated more frequently and forcefully by modern scholars than it ever was by the Victorians themselves.


[1] These sources were originally discussed, and a similar argument made, in my thesis: Stephen Basdeo, ‘The Changing Faces of Robin Hood, ch. 5. For general discussions of Robin Hood in Victorian penny literature see Carpenter, ‘Robin Hood in Boy’s Weeklies to 1914’, pp. 47–68 and Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism’, pp. 48–64. These are both works whose findings have informed the chapter presented here, as has the work of Barczewski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain. For a discussion of the ‘gentrification’ of the Robin Hood legend see Knight, Reading Robin Hood and Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw.

[2] Unfortunately for Tyler, William Walworth killed him after the former was rude to the king during a meeting between Tyler and the king at Smithfield. John Ball and Jack Straw were also later executed on the king’s orders. For an overview of the historical sources relating the events of 1381 see Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

[3] Simmons, Popular Medievalism, p. 191.

[4] The following texts were written by Robert Southey: ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’; Wat Tyler. See also Robert and Caroline Southey, Robin Hood.

[5] Eastwood, ‘Robert Southey’.

[6] Egan, Robin Hood and Little John, 1851, p. 158. The depiction of Robin Hood as an elected leader also occurs in the anonymous Little John and Will Scarlet.

[7] Emmett, Robin Hood, p. 42.

[8] Major, ‘Historia Maioris Britanniae’.

[9] Anon., ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’.

[10] Springhall, ‘Healthy Papers for Manly Boys’, p. 108.

[11] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, p. 63.

[12] Anon., ‘A ballad of Robin Hood’.

[13] Williams, ‘Bold Robin Hood’, 1873, p. 617. The magazine in question changed its name several times. Titles included Our Young Folks, Our Young Folks Paper, Our Young Folk’s Paper, Our Young Folks’ Weekly Budget. This accounts for the inconsistency in later records.

[14] Williams, ‘Bold Robin Hood’, 1874, p. 108.

[15] Ball, ‘John Ball’s Sermon Theme’.

[16] Anon., ‘The death of Wat Tyler’.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Lambe, The Sword of Freedom, pp. 148–149.

[19] Ibid., p. 185.

[20] Anon., ‘Wat Tyler; or, the king and the apprentice’, p. 338.

[21] Henty, A March on London, pp. 64–65.

[22] Ibid., pp. 54–55.

[23] Anon., ‘A march on London’.

[24] Henty, A March on London, p. ii.

[25] Anon., [‘Book advertisement’], 1905.

[26] For a discussion of Henty’s Wat Tyler novel and its relation to those Wat Tyler novels which came before see Basdeo, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler, ch. 5.

[27] Simon Goldhill, Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity, p. 229.

[28] Anon., [‘Book advertisement’], 1902, p. 7.

[29] ‘Yapped’ means that the leather covers overlap the text block, thereby preserving the gilded page edges from the elements, and this style of binding was common in nineteenth-century Bibles.

[30] Springhall, ‘“Pernicious reading”?’.

[31] Anon., ‘A boy burglar’.

[32] Yonge, What Books to Lend, pp. 5–6.

[33] Anon., ‘Talk of Robin Hood and Little John’.

[34] Rose, Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, p. 368. Original reference: Howard, Winding Lanes, pp. 27–30.

[35] Quiller-Couch, Adventures in Criticism, cited in Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p. 28.

[36] Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders, p. 2.

[37] Anon., ‘Advertisement’, p. 710.

[38] Anon., ‘Book sales for 1893’, p. 17. For more information on the history of the Kelmscott Press, see: Peterson, Kelmscott Press.

[39] Bevir, Making of British Socialism, p. 37.