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Cover page of 27 October 1832 edition
Wikimedia Commons

The Penny Magazine was an illustrated British publication aimed at a working-class readership, published every Saturday from 31 March 1832 to 31 October 1845, and described by the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) as a “ramble-scramble” of literary, artistic and scientific knowledge. It was created by Charles Knight for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful KnowledgeSociety founded in London in 1826 to publish cheap and accessible works on scientific and artistic subjects. , the purpose of which was to publish cheap and accessible works on science and the arts.[1]

The magazine was initially extremely successful, achieving sales of 200,000 copies per week shortly after its launch,[1] with an estimated one million readers.[2] In 1841 the format of the magazine was changed to make it less of a “ramble-scramble”, and “to present to a public which had been advancing in education, a Miscellany of a higher character than the first series”. A major innovation was a 45-part series on a tour of Victorian factories, published from 1841 until 1844.[1]

A significant factor in the magazine’s early success was its extensive use of illustrations, as in 1841 more 30 per cent of males and almost 50 per cent of females were illiterate.[3] But the cost of producing these woodcut illustrations soon began to have a negative impact on the publication’s finances; by 1833 the magazine was spending more than £20,000 a year for its illustrations, and as a result the price of the magazine was raised to 4d.[4]

But ultimately The Penny Magazine failed because it was seen as being too dry, as unlike its competitors it did not carry any fiction. Knight believed that the working-class thirst for fiction was “unimproving”, unlike his contemporary the novelist Charles Dickens, who wrote to Knight in 1854 that:

The English are, so far as I know, the hardest worked people on whom the sun shines. Be content if in their wretched intervals of leisure they read for amusement and do no worse. They are born to the oar and live and die at it.[4]