A Life of John Medcraft (1895-1951)

“The penny numbers romances of the spacious days of Queen Victoria present an absorbing field of study to all who love these quaint old books,” wrote John Medcraft, of Ilford, Essex, in 1949 (Medcraft, “Lure” 247). No one knew this truth better than Medcraft. He was entranced by the body of literature that he called both “penny bloods” and “dreadfuls”: terms coined in the 1870s for cheap, usually lurid, often illustrated Victorian serial fictions written for working class readers. Born in the decade when moral panic against "penny dreadfuls" peaked, Medcraft reveled in the bibliographic details: the “fierce titles, the grimly suggestive sub-titles, and the wide range of illustrations” (247). There are few critics who write with such exuberant enthusiasm.

Naturally, during his long career of passionate collecting and scholarship, Medcraft set out to compile a bibliography of the Victorian publishing magnate Edward Lloyd’s bloods. The result, privately published in 1945, represents only a small fragment of Lloyd’s prodigious output and Medcraft often attributes titles to the wrong author, but remains a landmark. In it, Lloyd emphatically represents penny fiction as literature worthy of remembrance, reading, and scholarship. He also established Edward Lloyd (1810-1890) as the primary creative force behind the 1840s cheap fiction phenomenon. 

Most early scholars of penny fiction consulted Medcraft’s bibliography, but little has been written about Medcraft’s life. In 2020, Robert Kirkpatrick pieced together a rudimentary biography, largely from records published by Ancestry.com, and circulated it via a listserve dedicated to the early collectors of penny fiction. Building upon Kirkpatrick’s revelations, I will try to shed light on the experiences and perspectives that Medcraft brought to the nascent study of penny fiction.

A London Child

John Medcraft was born on 26 December, 1895, in Shoreditch. His immediate family were Londoners who lived in Victorian poverty. One of his grandfathers died in the Mile End Road. In the year of Medcraft’s birth, his other grandfather died in a workhouse (Ancestry.com). His father, a horsekeeper, died when John was five years old (Kirkpatrick). By 1911, Medcraft’s mother had taken him and two of his four siblings out of London—barely: they settled in Ilford, Essex (Kirkpatrick). Early twentieth-century Ilford was a mid-size town, In 1910, it was home to some 78,000 people (Ilford History). There, Medcraft would spend the rest of his life.  


In some ways, Medcraft’s adult existence was incredibly mundane. At age sixteen, he was employed as a clerk for a leather merchant (Kirkpatrick). Three years later, the First World War broke out. Medcraft seems not to have served in it, though this is not positively clear. One of his younger brothers, Private Charles Albert Medcraft, did indeed serve, and, at age thirty-nine, was killed in France on 4 April 1918. Charles Medcraft is buried at Ribemont Communal Cemetery, Somme (Morley). After the war, John Medcraft married, had one child (Heather, born 1933), and remained in the leather industry. By 1939, he co-owned Medcraft and Brothers, Ltd., a hydraulic leather manufacturer (Kirkpatrick). In other words, he and his surviving brothers made the leather belts that enabled hydraulic machines to run.

Financially, the Medcraft brothers seem to have done very well. According to the Australian penny fiction collector and dealer J.P Quaine, their leather concern was “in a large way of business,” enabling Medcraft to acquire “thousands” of penny bloods, including “runs of all the old journals, and practically everything that was issued that was issued in the penny weekly numbers between 1828 and 1900” (Quaine, quoted in Doig, “Brothers”). Quaine is an ambivalent figure, known to have corrupted bibliography with fabricated titles, but he had no logical reason to lie about Medcraft’s fortune or collection.

The Book Collector

Meanwhile, Medcraft pursued his passion for collecting books written, as he often emphasized, for working-class readers. Perhaps, in his collecting of exclusively Victorian literature, he tried to preserve and inhabit the Victorian world that the war obliterated. He may also have turned to the terrors of his bloods as insulation from the horrors of his daily life. During the Blitz, many Nazi bombs fell in Ilford. Medcraft's wife and daughter were evacuated to the West Country (Nesvet 149). Remaining in Ilford, he customised his home to fireproof his collection. He and his books survived the Blitz, but hundreds of  Ilford residents were killed (Wyatt). In 1941, Medcraft’s friend Barry Ono, of whom more will shortly be said, died of a heart attack provoked by an air raid.

Medcraft remained in Ilford and kept collecting. In the Dundee-based printer J. A. Birkbeck's Collector’s Miscellany, a privately circulated newsletter founded in 1917 and dedicated to the collecting of penny bloods, dreadfuls, boys’ books, and ephemera, Medcraft contributed research articles and other short pieces. One of his more frequently cited contributions is “The Rivalry of Brett and Emmett,” which appeared in the Collector’s Miscellany in 1947. In the same pages, he advertised his interest in buying bloods and dreadfuls from sellers around the United Kingdom and the world. An indicative advertisement of his, from the February 1842 number, reads:

ALWAYS WANTED---Penny dreadfuls, bloods, and old boys' journals published by Lloyd, Newsagents' Publishing Co., Fox, Harrison, Vickers, Lea, Emmett, Henderson, Temple Publishing Co., Aldine Co., etc. Single items to whole collections purchased. -- J. Medcraft, 64 Woodlands Road, Ilford, Essex. (n.p.)

Medcraft also utilized the classifieds of the Collector’s Miscellany to sell items from his collection. Some that he offered were obviously rare and valuable, such as Varney, the Vampyre and the “[Jack] Harkaway series complete” (Medcraft, “For Sale,” Sep. 1949, 242). He deployed his collection to grow the collector community, claiming in another advertisement that penny blood and dreadful collecting is “an inexpensive hobby” and offering 6 shillings sixpence “per dozen” of the penny parts that he was willing to give up (242).

His beloved collecting community was global, virtual, and yet tightly interconnected. The men who belonged to it—and the members were, nearly entirely, male—corresponded with each other, in and out of its pages, from across the current and former British Empire. Prominent collectors from this community whom Medcraft befriended include Frank Jay (d. 1934) and Barry Ono (1876-1941). Jay’s bibliographic series ‘Peeps into the Past’ circulated the incorrect speculation that The String of Pearls (‘Sweeney Todd’) was written by Thomas Peckett Prest. Medcraft wrote a beautiful eulogy for Ono, a music-hall star whose offstage name was Frederick Valentine Harrison, whose collection of penny bloods was donated by his widow to the British Library. Among these collectors, Medcraft was another undisputed leader. According to the Leeds Evening Post, in 1950, his collection was the “finest in the country” and also extremely valuable even by Philistine standards: it was insured for ₤2000 (“Billy Bunter” 3), or, in twenty-first-century currency, over ₤62,000: not bad for “penny” literature.

Lloyd’s Bibliographer

Medcraft’s major scholarly accomplishment is his bibliography of the penny bloods published by Edward Lloyd, penny press magnate and convenor of the notorious ‘Salisbury Square School’ (Frost 92) from which issued the two best-known and most influential bloods: James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampyre, or, the Feast of Blood and The String of Pearls (‘Sweeney Todd’). A slim, pocket-sized pamphlet simply bound in a blue paper wrapper, A Bibliography of the Penny Bloods of Edward Lloyd was privately printed for Medcraft by Birkbeck, publisher of the Collector’s Miscellany. The run numbered two hundred copies. Despite its scarcity, this publication informs nearly all mid-twentieth-century serious scholarship on Lloyd and penny bloods. Stanley Lorin Larnach, curator of the University of Sydney’s Shellshear Museum, possessed a complete uncorrected proof copy of Medcraft’s bibliography of Lloyd and consulted it while compiling his own bibliography, which remains unpublished today (Doig, “Collectors”). Medcraft’s bibliography continues to be cited in both scholarship and antiquarian book catalogues.

Why did Medcraft publish his bibliography privately, but not seek commercial dissemination of it? I suspect the answer to this question has much to do with a competing work, A Gothic Bibliography by Montague Summers (1880-1948). Published by Fortune Press in 1941, Summers’s bibliography built on his popularity as a historian of the Gothic and the occult. A disreputable character, Summers was an exceptionally sloppy scholar who committed numerous bibliographic errors, including attributing The String of Pearls to an author, George Macfarren, who had died before it was first published. Did Medcraft obtain this volume and recognize its inaccuracy, then decide to publish his own bibliography? Did he think that Lloyd needed to be singled out from the sprawling crowd of Gothic authors? And did he suspect or learn that his short bibliography would not be marketable so soon after the appearance of Summers’s monumental one? Another penny blood collector, Arthur E. Waite, had been writing a bibliography, The Quest for Bloods, since approximately 1928, and intended to publish it, but in gave up the project when Summers beat him to publication (Gilbert xii). That setback occurred only a few years before Medcraft privately published his bibliography of Lloyd. If commercial publishers were uninterested in a competing bibliography of penny fiction, Medcraft found readers in the collecting community.

Death and Afterlife

Six years after Medcraft published his Lloyd bibliography, on September 25, 1951, he died. He was only fifty-six years old. I have not been able to determine his cause of death. Eerily, it took place exactly a year after part of his collection was shown at the Leeds Public Library as part of an exhibition on penny dreadfuls curated by the local Old Boys’ Book Club (“Billy Bunter” 3). 

Intellectual Property
According to United Kingdom copyright law, in 2021, Medcraft’s work entered the public domain. It is also in the public domain in the United States because Medcraft's daughter, his only known child, died without issue and his estate has gone unclaimed for several decades. I have performed due diligence in attempting to locate a Medcraft next-of-kin. His corpus constitutes orphaned works. 

Medcraft's bibliography covers only a very small part of Lloyd’s publications and is riddled with errors, particularly errors of attribution. Still, is an important text in penny fiction scholarship and so ought to be available in an open-access edition. Finally, it is.


Works Cited

Adcock, John. “Old Boys’ Book Collectors: Part Five.” Yesterday’s Papers, Feb. 16, 2009. http://john-adcock.blogspot.com/2009/02/old-boys-book-collectors.html

“Billy Bunter, ‘yarooh, leggo,’ comes to Leeds Book Club Show." Evening Post Reporter [Yorkshire] (25 Sep. 1950): 3.

Doig, James. “Brothers of the Blood by J.P. Quaine.” Wormwoodiana, Apr. 16, 2011. http://wormwoodiana.blogspot.com/2014/07/stanley-larnach-and-jp-quaine-forgotten.html

—. “Stanley Larnach and J.P. Quaine: Forgotten Australian Collectors of ‘Penny Bloods’.” Wormwoodiana, Jul. 11, 2014. http://wormwoodiana.blogspot.com/2014/07/stanley-larnach-and-jp-quaine-forgotten.html

Frost, Thomas. Forty Years' Recollections: Literary and Political. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1880.

Gilbert, R.A. “Introduction.” In Waite, Arthur E., The Quest for Bloods: A Study of the Victorian Penny Dreadful, 78-108. London: Privately published by Ayresome John, 1997.

“History of Ilford.” Welcome to Ilford. 1992-2002. https://www.ilford.org.uk/history.php

Kerr, Louella. Louella Kerr Old and Fine Books: Catalogue, no. 112. Oct. 2008. https://louellakerrbooks.com.au/cat112-w.pdf

Kirkpatrick, Robert. Email to the “Penny Bloods” Yahoo group. Jul. 22, 2020.

McIntosh, Ann. ‘Mr. Stanley Lorin Larnach’. Archaeology & Physical Anthropology in Oceania, vol. 13, no. 2-3 (1978): pp. 167-176.

Medcraft, John. “Barry Ono.” Collector’s Miscellany, 4th series, no. 3 (Feb. 1942): 1.

—. “The Lure of the Fearsome Title.” The Collector’s Miscellany, vol. 16, no. 102 (Sep. 1949): 247-50.

—. “The Rivalry of Brett and Emmett.” The Collector’s Miscellany, vol. 14, no. 2 (Sep. 1947): 103-5.

Morley, James. ‘Private Charles Albert Medcraft’. A Street Near You. N.d. https://astreetnearyou.org/person/43591/Private-Charles-Albert-Medcraft

Nesvet, Rebecca. James Malcolm Rymer, Penny Fiction, and the Family. London: Routledge, 2025. 

Wyatt, Beth. “The Blitz Survivor who hid under a Table to Escape a Landmine which hit his Ilford Garden.” The Ilford Recorder, May 18, 2014. https://www.ilfordrecorder.co.uk/news/the-blitz-survivor-who-hid-under-a-table-to-escape-2991322

Published @ COVE

November 2021