The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VI. Caricature and the Literature of Sport

§ 12. James Catnach

It is significant that, within twelve hours of the appearance of Life in London, the title, the names and the story were seized upon by James Catnach, who put forth, from his printing-house in Monmouth court, Seven Dials, a twopenny broadside, entitled Life in London; or, the Sprees of Tom and Jerry; attempted in cuts and verse, with twelve plates very roughly imitated from the Cruikshanks’. James Catnach had long been doing for the poor what Egan attempted to do for the rich—provide them with highly seasoned literature. The son of a north-country printer who, at Alnwick, had issued volumes illustrated by the woodcuts of Bewick and Clennell, James Catnach set up as a printer of popular literature in Seven Dials in the year 1813. He was the most eminent and successful of his class, though the rivalry of the older business of Pitts, in Great St. Andrew street hard by, was at first severe. In those days, when newspapers cost 7d. or 8 1/2d., and good cheap literature was all but unknown, Catnach performed an important service for the working classes. He printed and sold illustrated books for children, some at a farthing, some at a halfpenny, some at a few pence; and very good, in their way, they were, with their simple renderings of famous fairy stories, their moral lessons and improving or amusing verses. He wrote, or procured for so much as 2s. 6d. apiece from the street poets, ballads on passing events—the battle of Waterloo, the death of princess Charlotte, the attempt to rid Covent garden theatre of what Tom and Jerry called “gay Cyprians,” while Tom Dashall and Bob Tallyho knew them as “dashing.” Catnach sold history at one penny a sheet; he mourned the death of Jack Randall, the eminent pugilist; he published very interesting cuts of the cries of London; he gave, from day to day, a vivid and various picture of the life of his times; and in his broadsheets and flysheets may be found the mind of the labouring and the criminal classes of his period. To Catnach one may turn for information about coaching, about omnibuses, about Sir Robert Peel’s new and derided police—about all the turbulent life of the London streets. He dealt, also, largely in fiction disguised as truth—much as a modern newspaper does. Part of the handsome fortune that he made must have arisen from the dreadful scandals, the duels between ladies of fashion, the elopements and so forth, that he invented for the delectation of his readers’ hearty appetites. But chiefly he was known for his works on crime. Those were the days of highwaymen; and about highwaymen, whom the educated classes knew to be pitiful scoundrels, there is practically no contemporary literature except that of the kind published by Catnach or Pitts. Those were the days of public executions, when not only a gay demeanour but a confession and “last words” were expected of the criminal. The ordinary of Newgate usually published a paper; but his accounts were jejune, compared with those that Catnach or Pitts could produce. There was a safe and brisk market for “Last Sorrowful Lamentations,” with portrait, confession and a woeful ballad, all on one sheet. In the description of murders Catnach excelled. On the occasion of the famous “Red Barn” murder, in 1828, Catnach sold, it is said, more than one million copies of the murderer Corder’s confession and a ballad. Previously, he had done very well with the yet more famous murder of Weare by Thurtell, in 1823.

Catnach, however, did not enjoy the field of murder all to himself. At this period, the interest in brutal crime and more brutal punishment was, perhaps, even livelier in all classes than it is to-day. On the Cato street conspiracy of 1820 The Observer newspaper sailed to triumph. Clement, the proprietor, not only gave pictures of the stable and hayloft in Cato street where the conspirators were captured, but defied the law by publishing a full account of the trial before the verdict was given. On the occasion of the murder of Weare by Thurtell, he was yet more lavish, and was, indeed, held to have overstepped the mark of propriety. The objections, which were levelled chiefly at the illustrations, may be held to have been captious, and even inspired, to some extent, by the envy of less enterprising newspapers; for these were days when no reputable journal was ashamed to give great prominence to reports of crime: even The Annual Register published the evidence and the verdict in important cases.