Lord Northcliffe Killed the Penny Dreadful by the Simple Process of Producing a Ha’Penny Dreadfuller

A. A. Milne? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: “Penny Dreadful” was the name given to a class of literature which emerged in the nineteenth century and was designed to appeal to young men and boys. I am trying to trace a comical saying about the eclipse of these serials. A publisher created a new lower-priced collection of booklets and periodicals that some believed was more lurid and sensational. The following quip described the situation:

He killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha’penny dreadfuller.

Can you determine the identity of the publisher and the person who crafted this remark?

Quote Investigator: In 1948 the famous children’s author A.A. Milne wrote a review of a book titled “Boys Will Be Boys” in “The Sunday Times” of London. The book surveyed and discussed the “Penny Dreadful” literature, and Milne noted some of the complaints aimed at these works:[ref] 1948 October 10, The Sunday Times (UK), Blood and Thunder by A. A. Milne, (Review of “Boys Will Be Boys” by E. S. Turner), Quote Page 2, Column 8, London, England. (Sunday Times Digital Archive; Gale NewsVault)[/ref]

“Penny dreadfuls” have been the target of a good deal of wild shooting: from the leftish prig who condemned their snobbishness and patriotism to the righteous prig who condemned their idealisation of crime. Somewhere in between came the literary prig, who complained of their illiteracy.

In the review Milne also made the humorous observation which is under investigation. He named Lord Northcliffe as the inexpensive sensationalist publisher. Boldface has been added to excerpts:

It was Lord Northcliffe who killed the penny dreadful: by the simple process of producing a ha’penny dreadfuller. Rioting in its success, the editor of “The Marvel” quoted a letter “from a personal friend who has a son at Harrow. He informs me that at all the public schools there is a great rush for ‘The Halfpenny Marvel.'” I am afraid that I missed it; the rush must have been confined to Harrow. At my private school I read “The Boy’s Own Paper.”

Lord Northcliffe who was born Alfred Harmsworth was the founder of the popular British newspaper “The Daily Mail”. He acquired several important papers and became one of the most powerful publishing magnates in the English-speaking world.

Below is one additional selected citation together with the conclusion.

Harmsworth stated that he wanted to raise the quality of the popular periodicals available for young people. But A.A. Milne, the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, still criticized his efforts. A 1983 article in “The Times” of London reprinted the remark made by Milne in 1948:[ref] 1983 June 15, The Times (UK), Galleries: Penny Dreadfuls and Comics: Museum of Childhood by Brian Alderson, (Review of Exhibition at Museum of Childhood), Quote Page 17, London, England. (Electronic archive of The Times UK)[/ref]

Not everyone was like Harmsworth, who claimed with Pluck and the Marvel Library to do away with “bad books for boys”, but who, in A. A. Milne’s words, “killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha’penny dreadfuller”.

In conclusion, A.A. Milne did write the remark with the clever term “ha’penny dreadfuller” in a 1948 article in “The Sunday Times”. Milne was discussing the publisher Alfred Harmsworth who was elevated to the peerage and ultimately raised to Viscount Northcliffe. Hence, he was sometimes referred to as Lord Northcliffe.

Image Notes: Picture of A. A. Milne in 1922 from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Cover image of Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road which was published in the 1860’s. Portrait of Alfred Harmsworth from The World’s Work, 1909; Author: Gertrude Kasebier. All three images were obtained via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been retouched, cropped, and resized.

(Great thanks to Jacob whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Jacob knew that the remark was made by Milne about Harmsworth, but he wished to have a precise citation. Special thanks to Dan J. Bye of Sheffield Hallam University for accessing the key 1948 citation.)

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