Nick Richmond runs a number of walking tour in Brighton. He has also run a number of events related to horror and steampunk and horror in the city.
You have an event coming up shortly?
The event is tracing the history of Penny Dreadfuls, and is kind of a multi-media show, with a projector and a slide-show, going back to the old ’70 style. In the show I will use melodramatic music to enhance the experience and will read extracts from the original Penny Dreadfuls to give people an idea what was so special about them.
It will be held at The Dukebox Theatre in Waterloo Street at a pub called The Southern Belle (which has a purpose-built 40-seat theatre at the back of it). The last show, which was in March, sold out, so I’ve added a new date, Monday 9th April.
What are Penny Dreadfuls?
There is an American series called ‘Penny Dreadful’ and it is all about Frankenstein, Henry Jekyll and other well-known characters, but the subject of my event will be the original Penny Dreadfuls, which were Victorian shockers. They all featured interesting characters, some of them real, some of them fictional. Some of those characters have stayed with us until the present time.
In those days there was no copyright so some of the stories were strangely familiar. One thing the penny dreadful writers did was write cheap version of Dickens – ‘Oliver Tryst’, ‘A Christmas Story’ rather than ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘David Cumperfield’ because there was no intellectual copyright. Penny Dreadfuls were often very badly written so they were very melodramatic. It was real high emotion stuff.
Could you use the term ‘bodice ripper’?
Yes lots of them were bodice rippers because sex was always important in any good story – but mostly it was horror. The Penny Dreadfuls were often about real-life murders, but then embellished, so given a melodramatic twist.
What are your favourite Penny Dreadfuls?
My favourites are the ones that have survived until the present day. Everyone knows the story of Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd started off as a Penny dreadful. Some writers have claimed that he was a real person. They have tried to say that Sweeney Todd really existed and that he was hanged at Newgate in the eighteenth century. He wasn’t real. He was a concoction of people’s fears at the time.
The basis [of the story] was actually about food practices in Victorian England. Sausages, for example, in Victorian England were called ‘bags of mystery’. One couldn’t be sure what the ingredients were. The same thing with pies. If you realised that you might have catmeat or dogmeat or rat in your pie, it was one step from there to thinking “Who knows? Maybe human?”
That’s why I like Sweeney Todd. [The Penny Dreadful writers] reinvented him for their modern audience. The recent film with Johnny Depp has given him a nice back story. There is a reason for what he does. In the original story called ‘The String of Pearls’ there was no reason.
“Mrs Lovett makes the best pies in London! They are amazingly good pies and taste vaguely of chicken … of course humans are supposed to taste of chicken.”
‘The String of Pearls’?
The ‘String of Pearls’ focuses on some stolen pearls that Sweeney Todd has acquired from murdering someone, then tried to sell them. The first half of the story is concerned with him trying to sell these pearls and people trying to track him down. The plots would carry on for a long time because the authors wanted the story to go on for as long as possible. So in ‘String of Pearls’ you have got 150 chapters, and it is not until Chapter 148 that suddenly all is revealed, although throughout the story you are given clues.
The ‘big reveal’ in ‘String of Pearls’ is that Sweeney Todd has been murdering his customers using a revolving barber’s chair. He slits their throats and they drop down into the cellar. His barber’s shop is next door to a pie shop run by a lady called Mrs Lovett, and Mrs Lovett makes the best pies in London! They are amazingly good pies and taste vaguely of chicken … of course humans are supposed to taste of chicken.
Um. People are supposed to taste of pork?
Oh really? It must just be babies that taste of chicken!
Sweeney Todd was an out an out villain. He was never given a back story. He is just bad to the bone!
Are the penny dreadful characters just bad people?
Yes. What happened was that the Penny Dreadfuls changed. They started off being very lurid, with all sorts of tales of terrible things happening to decent people. Eventually the government and society complained. They didn’t like these Penny Dreadfuls. They blamed them for a lot of teenage violence, so they became like the video nasties of their time. Like Call of Duty – responsible for the ills of teenage society.
So they were forced to change the stories in the Penny Dreadfuls and make people more respectable. But one character blurred the line between fact and fiction – my other favourite character is Spring Heeled Jack.
Spring Heeled Jack?
The Spring Heeled Jack story started in 1837 when a young servant girl was walking on her own in Clapham Park when she was attacked by a strange character. This character had razor sharp claws and burning yellow eyes, and breathed blue fire. That wasn’t even the strangest thing about him. The strangest thing is that when people came to help her this figure broke free from her – ripping her dress with his long sharp claws – and jumped six feet over the nearest wall, so he was called ‘Spring Heeled Jack’, which was the name the press gave to him.
The Penny Dreadfuls got hold of the story and they thought “Yeah! We can go with this.” So they called him ‘Spring Heeled Jack – The Terror Of London’. Over the years he was seen all over the place, so lots of people saw him. These were respectable ladies, middle class ladies, people that you might believe. They all claimed to have been attacked by Spring Heeled Jack.
What was Spring Heeled Jack doing when he was attacking people?
Well. There’s the question. When he attacked people there was no molestation involved. He would rip their clothes (it was always young women who he attacked). When they screamed for help he would disappear. He would leap to safety so he was never caught.
People didn’t quite know why he was doing this. There were a number of theories. The Lord Mayor at the time, John Cowan, was sent an anonymous letter, which said that Spring Heeled Jack was really an aristocrat who was doing it to see if he could scare young women by dressing up in an outlandish costume.
The depictions of him at the time vary hugely. Sometimes he is a half-naked werewolf type creature. Sometimes he is a rather dapper gentleman with a top hat, still breathing fire but with horns, like a satanic creature.
In the Penny Dreadfuls what does Spring Heeled Jack get up to?
In the Penny Dreadfuls he starts off as this bad guy, so it is lurid tales of him ripping of ladies’ clothes, getting into mischief and scaring people, but eventually they ran out of steam.
They ran out of storyline and thought “Right, ok. We need to create something else.” This is also the time when penny dreadfuls were becoming more respectable, so they gave Spring Heeled Jack a back story and turned him into a hero.
“Spring Heeled Jack was seen in Brighton! One of the people who saw him was a gardener at Rosehill …”
Like a sort of early superhero?
Yeah he was! A superhero with a bad reputation. His back story, which has been used many many times in literature, was that Spring Heeled Jack was actually the heir to a vast fortune and had been cruelly disinherited and imprisoned by his wicked cousins. He had broken free and had found a way to take his revenge.
How did they explain his amazing super powers? He breathed fire and jumped over buildings?
They didn’t! This is the main point about Dreadfuls. They weren’t high literature. They were written often very quickly. People were more concerned with quantity than quality. For your penny very week you could buy an instalment and the authors wanted the instalments to last as long as possible. The biggest Penny Dreadful, called The Mysteries of London, had 227 chapters, so well over two years of reading.
In terms of Spring Heeled Jack they just wanted him to be a hero. They never quite explained why he could jump over buildings.
What kind of circulation would these things have?
They were huge, because part of the attraction was the price. A penny – 1d a week. So for a penny every week you could buy a publication, you could follow the story you could become involved. There was the heightened anticipation. Obviously we use the same technique with ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Sherlock’. You are going to wait until the next instalment comes out and the anticipation rises as you wait for the next issue.
It is important to understand that a lot of the readership of the Penny Dreadfuls would have believed them. Not exactly the height of literacy. There was no parental guidance certificate so children would read these and this is one of the thing that led to them being banned. However – and this is a point I make in the show – we think of the Victorian working class as being poorly educated but the amount of words they knew makes us look uneducated by contrast. Even in the poor schools the children would know words we would barely know today.
There was a case in which a child, 12 years old [Robert Coombes] murdered his own mother, stabbed her to death in her own bed, after conspiring with his brother. At the trial the prosecutor said that he was a regular reader of Penny Dreadfuls and of course this was why he had committed the crime.
Who would write these things?
There were two main successful writers of Penny Dreadfuls. James Malcolm Rymer wrote both ‘String of Pearls’ and ‘Varney the Vampire’, written many years before ‘Dracula’. The other one was G.W.M Reynolds who wrote the best-selling Penny Dreadful of its time ‘Mysteries of London’. He was also wrote ‘Wagner the Werewolf”, featuring another of these horror staples, the werewolf. When you come to characters like Spring Heeled Jack, everyone was doing him because there was no intellectual copyright.
‘Wagner the Werewolf’?
Wagner is a licentious chap who enjoys all manner of lustful activities. One day he is confronted by the devil. The devil offers him a deal. He says “Come around the world with me and I’ll give you the power to do what you want. You can live a life of abandon and lust. The only condition I make is that every so often you will have to turn into a wolf and you will have to slake your hunger on the flesh of humans.” Obviously he takes the deal! It is a no-brainer really.
So Wagner goes around the world doing horrible things to bad people. Eventually he destroys himself – in a nod to Tolkien (and this was written one hundred years before Lord of the Rings), he realises that the only way he can destroy himself completely is by jumping into a live volcano! He goes to Mount Vesuvius and throws himself in. By this time G. W. M Reynolds had written something like 250 chapters of Wagner the Werewolf so he had probably run out of steam.
Are these important formative texts for the vampire and werewolf stories we have today?
Yes to a certain extent, although Varney the Vampire was no ordinary vampire. This was written eighty years before ‘Dracula’, who is the defining vampire for many people and a famous literary character. Varney the Vampire was slightly different to Dracula. He liked to chew on the necks of the odd virgin, had the fangs and everything, but Varney the Vampire could walk about in daylight. He could eat and drink like anybody else. He lived a fairly normal life apart from being a vampire and biting the necks of virgins.
There was no cross that could ward Varney the Vampire off. He actually disguised himself as a monk in one of the episodes, so religion didn’t work. A stake in the heart wasn’t going to stop him. He would always come back to life through the power of moonlight, so he could never be killed. It was a family curse. If he didn’t get the blood of virgins he would age, a bit like the picture of Dorian Gray. It just happened to be the blood of young, beautiful virgins that he needed. There were upsides to the job!
The closest thing we have had to penny dreadfuls in the modern era would be Hammer Horror films, which are the modern equivalents with the same kind of formulaic plots and the same love of gore.
Where did G. W. M Reynolds find his material?
The earliest recent stories were written by Polidori who wrote ‘The Vampire’, which was based on Byron, then Sheridan La Fanu with ‘Carmilla’.
The vampire story itself had been written hundreds of years before. There had always been legends of nosferatu. These were based on fact as many legends are. In this case the legend of vampires comes mainly from the affliction catalepsy. When someone suffers from catalepsy their breathing slows down, their limbs seize up and you think they are dead. They were pronounced dead by reputable medical practitioners, but of course they weren’t. Sometimes they would wake up under the mortician’s knife. Sometimes they would wake up in their own coffin. Then what happened is that people would be walking through the graveyard and they would hear strange scratching sounds from under the ground. They would think it was an evil spirit. Of course it wasn’t. They would dig up the graves and sometimes they would find the corpse lying there with bloody fingernails, long beard, long hair because they had been in the coffin for several days trying to claw their way out. This is where the legends of vampires came from …
Lovely. Are there any Penny Dreadfuls linked to Brighton?
Well Spring Heeled Jack was seen in Brighton! One of the people who saw him was a gardener at Rosehill, which was a large stately home near Brighton. The gardener claimed to have been frightened by a large bear with glowing yellow eyes that also jumped over a wall to escape – so of course it had to be Spring Heeled Jack dressed up as a bear for his own purposes.
“The only condition I make is that every so often you will have to turn into a wolf and you will have to slake your hunger on the flesh of humans.” Obviously he takes the deal! It is a no-brainer really.”
What got you interested in Penny Dreadfuls?
I have always had an interest in horror. Not just classic horror but “shlock horror”. I used to read the Graham Masterton and James Herbert series of books, that had very formulaic plots. They always featured some sort of monster. There are many similarities.
During the show I trace the history of Penny Dreadfuls and I show (I hope) how they have influenced films of today. The formulaic plots, for example. You know where you are with a Penny Dreadful just as you you know where you are with a Hammer Horror film. The monster is going to get killed. There is going to be a gratuitous sex scene. You are going to have a hero and heroine thrown together through adversity. People like predictable plots.
I was always interested in horror and Penny Dreadfuls, so I knew about them, and then over the last few months I went deeper into it. I have done the research to put together this show. I have done extensive research to put together this show (its amazing what you can find on Wikipedia)!
Can you collect Penny Dreadfuls?
Oh definitely. Especially the illustrations, which were an important part of the story They were extremely lurid and meant to show exactly what you were going to get if you read the content.
There were different artists, and they all had to come up with new illustrations. These were important because in early Victorian times when these things became popular, many children and young adults had a very low level of literacy. They weren’t going to read Dickens, so the illustrations were to cater for that audience.
You also do walking tours?
I do them every other weekend. I do three murder tours of Brighton, talking about real-life murders. I do a cemetery tour (I’m not a morbid person really)! I do my murder tour on Halloween, which is kind of a time for morbid things. I do a tour of Lewes – all about the protestant martyrs and Tudor history. I do a tour of Chichester talking about Roman history. I do a Sherlock Holmes tour at East Dene near Eastbourne [because] Sherlock Holmes is supposed to have retired to East Dene to keep bees.
I wear my history boots for those. They show a renaissance artist’s take on The Anunciation. They usually get a lot of attention – I am known by my boots!
How did you become interested in history tours?
I started off with just a generic Brighton tour [talking about the origins of Brighton as a spa town]. I talked about the Prince Regent and Richard Russell. Richard Russell claimed that Brighton water could cure leprosy, Kings’s Evil (Scrofula). Maria Fitzherbert was also a big drinker of the water at St Anne’s Well, in Hove, which was one of the centres of spa town culture. The water there is a kind of a yellow colour and the locals said that it was really good for your health. Russell built a park around it and that park is St Anne’s Well.
The water did have mildly curative properties because it is chalybeate water, which has lots of iron deposits which gave it its yellow colour. If you were anemic for instance it would probably be quite good for you – but if you drank too much it would bung you up!
What is your favourite bit of Brighton history?
I like stories about the Prince Regent (who became George IV), and as portrayed in Blackadder. I know he has been done to death but he was just such a character! He came here when he was only 21 as a handsome young chap. When he was crowned in 1820 he was about 20 stone and he was so big he needed to be hoisted onto his horse. He was (literally) a larger than life character. There were rumours of a tunnel under Brighton Pavilion, which led up George Street to a pub called The George Inn in Kemp Town, which was rumoured to be the prince’s private whorehouse. There was only one tunnel discovered in The Pavilion though, and that went to The Dome.
“The Old Steine was used as a private racecourse by the Prince Regent. The Prince Regent didn’t mess about with horses. He asked some of his male friends to be the jockeys and his females friends were the horses!”
The Prince Regent is my favourite character in Brighton, because he is the one who kick started it [the town]. People wanted to know where this decadent lifestyle came from. You can trace it back to the Prince Regent. Brighton Pavilion is the quintessential statement of the decadent lifestyle which he pursued. After The Naploeonic Wars The Old Steine was used as a private racecourse by the Prince Regent. The Prince Regent didn’t mess about with horses. He asked some of his male friends to be the jockeys and his female friends were the horses! Shocking good fun…
Has it all gone down hill a bit since those days?
Well look at Brighton’s busking laws. You can busk anywhere. The origin of that is that when Brighton opened up to the paying public in 1843 when the railway came to Brighton and suddenly Brighton stopped being an exclusive health resort for friends of the prince, and anyone could go there. People paid to travel to Brighton by train. It wasn’t exactly luxury travel – the third class compartments had no roofs, but because so many people came to Brighton they needed entertaining. This is when the piers took their place as entertainment centres and buskers and entertainers started turning up in Brighton.
As for gangs and violence later, well that has been blown out of all proportion by the press. Take the mods and rockers. Brighton was one of the main places where this happened but history and personal accounts say that it really wasn’t all that bad. The press were just very good at finding the right photos to take. You wonder how much of it was staged (“if you could just hold that deckchair up a bit higher”)…
In Victorian times there were reports in the local papers about the collapse of modern society in Britain. The evidence for this was that young people were not wearing hats. Shocking! It is always the teenagers…
Do you have a favourite ghost?
My favourite ghost is the ghost of St Nicholas’s Church, which is the oldest church in Brighton. It has stood there since the eleventh century. There is a ghost that haunts the graveyard. Ghosts are meant to inhabit the places that they die and not many people die in graveyards, but this ghost did die in the graveyard.
She was a noblewoman called Lady Eldona. She was waiting for her husband to come back from the wars. This was in the sixteenth century when you could see all the way down to the sea, and there was no i360 in the way. A storm blows up and the ship gets shipwrecked and everybody on it is killed. So Lady Eldona throws herself from the top of St Nicholas’s Church. Then she becomes the resident ghost. She is seen quite a lot, often by Japanese tourists.
I don’t want to step on too many toes though! There is already a ghost tour of Brighton, and occasionally our paths do cross. But it’s ok – I am doing murder tours. They’re doing ghost tours.
What kind of morbid stories resonate best with people in Brighton?
The Brighton murder tours are usually pretty successful. I did one on Halloween last year and the year before. The story that people seem to like the most is a collection of stories called The Brighton Trunk Murders. They were three separate murders. In every case the victim was chopped into small pieces and put into a trunk or suitcase. The first one was in 1837. Two were very close together in 1934. A trunk was found up at Brighton Station in the Lost Luggage which contained a pair of human legs. Another trunk was later found containing arms and a torso. They put the two together like a sort of jigsaw puzzle. Just after that another murder occurred, unrelated to the first one, where again the victim was put inside a trunk. These became known as The Trunk Murders. The victims were women in every case. It is one of those stories of the terrible things that men can do to women.
I actually do this tour on Valentine’s Day. I call it ‘Love Gone Wrong’. You would be surprised how many people come to a kind of anti-Valentine’s tour!
This is all a bit steampunk?
Yes [Brighton] is home to The Yellow Book [steampunk pub] and my interest in steampunk is almost as great as my interest in the macabre and horror. Part of that stems from going to The Yellow Book, one of the only steampunk pubs in the world. I used to run the pub quiz there. I had questions on Jules Verne, Herman Melville and questions on early Victorian inventions – and also questions based on Spring Heeled Jack. They answered those questions without difficulty. They have esoteric interests at The Yellow Book. They know about those things and anime. I made a point of saying at the beginning of each round “There will be no questions on sport…”.
Spring Heeled Jack is often thought to be a steampunk creation (it’s the glowing eyes and blue fire). There are several modern steampunk novels. The legend of Spring Heeled Jack has been reinvented for the modern age!
Professor Elemental or Mr B?
Oh that IS a good question. It has got to be Professor E for me, just for ‘Fighting Trousers’ if nothing else. I saw him at The Yellow Book with 50 other people in 2016. It was like seeing someone before they become famous. I am going to show my age now. I saw Iron Maiden before they became famous. I saw them at Derby Assembly Rooms. There were 100 people in the audience …
What is your message for the people of Brighton?
Look up! On all my tours, whether it was for children or adults, I tell people to look up. The shopfronts change all the time, but if you look up you will see more history which is still there and hasn’t changed. The eaves, the roofs, the upper halves of buildings … or come on my tours!
Nick Richmond’s event ‘Penny Dreadful! The Murky World of Victorian Horror’ will be held at The Southern Belle on 9th April at 8pm. Tickets available via Paypal. https://www.facebook.com/events/405333663248256/
Nick Richmond was interviewed at Presuming Ed’s Cafe on 26th March 2018.