Mystery of the Marsh

Raising a Penny Dreadful: The Case of J.F. Smith

While researching old newspaper archives for a novel set in the Victorian period, I uncovered an intriguing British serialized penny dreadful, The Mystery of the Marsh; or The Red Barn at Deerhurst, which I plan to resurrect in its entirety here on Furin Chime, chapter by chapter. The work is unattributed in the instalments, but I traced the author to one ‘J.F. Smith.’

I presume this is the once famous, now all-but-forgotten John Frederick Smith (1806–1890), whom the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes as ‘England’s most popular novelist of the mid-nineteenth century.’ I am presently at work on confirming the authorship; not a simple task, for there is little extant information about the man. More about him and the genre of the Victorian penny novel in forthcoming posts.

Further problematizing the process of editing the novel is the need to piece the work together using two quite obscure sources, because i) the copy in both is indecipherable in parts, and ii) the less legible of the two serialized copies sometimes presents chapter information that the cleaner copy lacks. The novel is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle to piece together, since the chapters are segmented according to the editorial requirements of the newspaper in which each appears.

At any rate, I do hope you develop as much affection for the story as I have. I will do my best to provide a chapter every two weeks. 

Don’t hesitate to make any comment or reply at the bottom of the blog post. I very much hope some discussions might ensue. If you like the instalment, please ‘Like’ it at the bottom of the post. Facebook Likes and Comments are also most appreciated.

There is a link to the next instalment at the bottom of the post.


The Red Barn at Deerhurst — Tramps in Search of a Lodging

Essex, one of the midland counties of England, presents almost as great diversity of inhabitants as of soil. Roman, Saxon, Dane, have all left traces of their blood. Colchester and Chelmsford, the county towns, are peopled by a well-educated, thriving class; the country round by a sturdy race of farmers, good agriculturists and skilled breeders of cattle, which bring a high price in the London markets. There is also a considerable trade carried on between Wivenhoe and the metropolis in the sale of oysters. Nowhere are these delicious bivalves found in greater perfection than in the carefully-cultivated pits of the first-named place.

Essex is intersected by long, dreary tracts of marsh lands, noted for their rank vegetation, and dotted here and there with pools of water, much frequented by flocks of wild ducks and other water-fowl, which during the shooting season attract the attention of hardy sportsmen willing to risk both health and safety in pursuit of game. To accommodate these visitors many taverns have been erected within the last fifty years. Most of the inhabitants consist of gypsies, tinkers, peddlers, and not a few fugitives from justice, who live, rent free, in huts or tents of their own erecting, setting law, order, and morality at defiance.

Essex Naturalist (1887). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Essex Naturalist (1887). Source: Wikimedia Commons

In no other country of Europe would such a state of things be permitted, but the marshes would long since have been drained and brought under cultivation the only means of civilizing and getting rid of their dangerous population; but an absurd law in England prevents this. No sooner is a patch of land reclaimed and made productive than the Established Church puts in a claim for titles.

No wonder if, under such a state of things, nothing serious has been attempted. Enterprise is paralysed, and capital made cautious.

The noble Thames — one of the greatest arteries of the world’s commerce — flows for many miles along the banks of the largest of these swamps or marshes, and probably the most dangerous one, known as Bittern’s Nest. Its proximity to London — not more than thirty miles distant — has made it a refuge for the worst of characters; in a few instances, perhaps, also of the unfortunate.

Of course, there is a line of demarcation to be drawn somewhere between what may be termed savagedom and civilisation; the difficulty would be to locate it, the frontiers being so blended together as to form a debatable land round the village of Deerhurst, whose inhabitants thought it no sin to get their brandy and tea from the smugglers of the swamp. It was whispered that the curate — for the village had both a church and a schoolhouse — shut his eyes to the dealings of his parishioners with the contrabandists.

Probably the most prosperous farmer in the place was Peter Hurst, a tall, strong-limbed, hard-working man, shrewd at a bargain, and an excellent judge of cattle. His family consisted of Peggy, his wife, Susan, their only child, and William Whiston, a nephew, residing with him. These, with an old female servant, and one or two farm hands, formed the entire household.

It was generally believed or surmised amongst the neighbours that on his coming of age he would be entitled to half the farm. Nothing positive, however, was known upon the subject, the Hursts keeping their family affairs pretty much to themselves. The only person who could have enlightened them, Richard Whiston, a paternal uncle of the boy, a lawyer, resided in London. The report of a projected marriage between the cousins, Susan and William, found general credence, although founded on mere conjecture. Both parties being young, several years would necessarily have to elapse before the doubts of the curious could be solved.

Women have keen eyes and jump at conclusions, especially where matchmaking is concerned. They had noticed that when the Hursts gave their Christmas party but few girls were invited, and these the oldest or plainest in the village. This might have been accident, but, as a matter of course, the mothers of the excluded ones attributed it to design. If the latter, it is only justice to the farmer to state that he had no band in it. He attended to his work, was exceedingly fond of money, and entertained — very properly, our female readers will say — an immense opinion of his wife.

Mrs. Hurst was a different person. Nature had endowed her with a strong will, some sense, and a considerable stock of patience. Although youth is said to be a great beautifier, she could never have been good-looking, and yet she made the best match in the place. True, her husband was a mere nullity, intellectually speaking, but she saw that she could lead him by the nose.

When everything went according to her wishes Peggy Hurst was rather a pleasant person. Like the cat before the fire, she could purr very gently. It was only when thwarted that she unsheathed her claws. Even then she did not always scratch. It is not a very amiable character that we have drawn; but even in the worst some touch of goodness may be found. She loved her daughter. Nothing was too good for Susan or herself, or too expensive, considering her means. And if on rare occasions her husband ventured to hint that the account of the butter money did not seem quite clear, she would gently remind him that he had no head for figures, and that he ought to consider himself fortunate in having a wife who could calculate and manage for him

As for Susan, if she had inherited something of her mother’s strong will, it was without any of its hardness. She had a good heart, was a little selfish perhaps, but that was to be expected, and possessed a considerable amount of animal spirits.

Susan Hurst liked her cousin as she would have liked a brother if she had one, but at present nothing more. Being a girl, of course she was fond of teasing him.

William Whiston, the last member of the family whom we think it necessary at present to describe, had just entered on his sixteenth year. Nature had been liberal to him in person as well as in mind. He was tall of his age, had a well-knit frame, possessing both strength and activity, fair without being effeminate, and rather good looking; and, what was better still, both courageous and honest — in short, excellent material, which only required to be well worked up to make a man, and we shall feel disappointed it he does not live to prove himself one.

Neither the farmer nor his wife felt quite satisfied with the conduct of their nephew’s second guardian, who was also an uncle. A methodical, dry lawyer, residing in London, he was an old bachelor, too much in love with his profession to indulge in any other kind of love; no time for courtship, although he found sufficient to look keenly after the interests of his ward. The Hursts stood considerably in awe of him, possibly because they could not understand him. At their yearly settlements everything connected with the personal expenditures of the youth was scrupulously examined; clothes, pocket money — the last no very great item — carefully audited and allowed for; the balance prudently invested; from all of which our readers will come to the conclusion that the surmise of the neighbors was correct. William Whiston really owned one half of the farm.

Hence the desire of his aunt and uncle for the marriage of the cousins.

On one point alone had the man of law ever shown anything like liberality — in the education of his ward. Fortunately he was enabled to indulge it at a very moderate expense. Theophilis Blackmore, the village schoolmaster, was a ripe scholar. It was even asserted that he had received a university education, but of this the old man never spoke. After school hours he shut himself up with his books. or, if their lessons had not been quite satisfactory, with his favourite pupil, William Whiston, and his son, Benoni, for he had been married. The old pedagogue was resolved to make scholars of them, and up to the commencement of our tale the prospect of success was highly satisfactory.

In haying and harvest time it was quite useless for farmer Hurst to insist on a holiday for his nephew, whose services would have been useful in the fields. Theophilis Blackmore would not listen to him, and when pressed too hardly, threatened to appeal to the lawyer in London. This generally settled the question.

From pursuing the same studies, it is not surprising that William and Benoni became close friends. They fished and shot together. At the time the intimacy commenced both were so young that Mrs. Hurst had not seen the slightest danger to her projects in permitting the son of the schoolmaster to be almost a daily visitor at the farm. In fact, he half lived there. The boy was not only shy and reserved, but somewhat uncouth in his ways. In person there appeared little to object to.

Behind his back Susan used to laugh and turn him into ridicule. Of course her mother was right. There could be nothing to fear. There was one person, however, in the village whom Mrs. Hurst really did feel a little uneasy about — a young giant named Goliah Gob, the son of a respectable widow in the village. He had already acquired as much education, perhaps, as he was capable of receiving — that is to say, he could read, write, and do a little ciphering as far as the rule of three, but spelling had presented insurmountable difficulties. He never could be brought to see the connection between signs and sounds, so gave it up at last in despair.

Although a year older and almost a head taller than the two friends, even whilst at school he had pertinaciously attached himself to them; and proved rather an invaluable acquaintance, for he knew not only every stream within ten miles round in which trout were to be found, but the best points for rabbit shooting. From merely tolerating his society at first, William and Benoni gradually began to like him, and if they still laughed occasionally at his odd ways and quaint sayings, it was laughter without ridicule; they had discovered the particles of sterling ore buried in the rough quartz, and did their best to extract it.

If, like his namesake of Gath, Goliah was a giant in strength, in disposition he was peaceable as a child, and rarely or ever exerted it unless in defence of those he loved, and then woe to those who assailed them.

It will appear strange, no doubt, to such of our readers as are unacquainted with the peculiar Saxon type so common in the eastern counties of England, when we assure them that the complexion of this youthful Hercules was fair, delicate and creamy as that of a girl of seven or eight. It would have required excellent eyes to discover the light down just beginning to show itself upon his chin and upper lip; in regarding the face only, one would have pronounced its owner all gentleness; in feeling the grip of his hand, a conviction that he might become dangerous presented itself.

We trust our readers will not accuse us of indulging too much in description. When once the action of a tale commences there is but little time to photograph portraits.

The Hurst homestead was a plain, substantial building, situated on a gentle slope about a mile distant from the debatable land of the Bittern’s Marsh. The greatest peculiarity about it was its strength; strong oaken shutters guarded every window, and the doors were of the same solid material. To the security of the latter the farmer saw every night himself, the last thing before going to rest.

Forty rods from the house, just where four cross-roads met, stood the red barn, evidently of much older construction than the farm building. In fact, there was something semi-ecclesiastical in its appearance, explained, if tradition is to be relied upon, by its having been the Bury, or place for the collection of tithes paid before the Reformation to the abbots of Wivenhoe.

Another peculiarity which it may be as well to mention. Not only was the building fireproof, but it had a small chamber constructed for the watchers who at certain seasons of the year had to see to the safety both of grain and cattle liable to be carried off by the inhabitants of the neighbouring marsh.

At the south end of the barn four crossroads met, one, leading to Chelmsford and the seats of several of the county gentry, being exceedingly well kept. Traces of handsomely-appointed carriages might be seen traversed by deep ruts caused by farmers’ waggons, or lighter ones made by pedlers’ carts and the humbler barrows of the tinker and scissors-grinder, whose homes were in the swamps. An epitome of the world-poverty and wealth intersecting each other, yet rarely coming in actual contact. When they did, the collision generally proved a rough one.

The night threatened to be stormy; in fact, several drops of heavy rain had already fallen, giving the three friends a hint to accelerate their pace towards the house, when Goliah suddenly stopped.

‘Hurry up!’ exclaimed William.

‘I beant a goin’ no further,’ replied the young giant.

This caused the first speaker and the schoolmaster’s son to stop.

‘And why not?’ demanded the former.

‘Cos thee aunt doesn’t like I.’

‘Nonsense, Goliah. I am sure she is always civil to you.’

He would like to have said cordial, but love of truth forbade it.

Goliah shook his head.

‘Civil enough,’ he replied. ‘I don’t complain o’ that, but it be all upon the tongue. A plaguey long way from dame Hurst’s tongue to her heart.’

‘This is all fancy.’

‘No, it beant. I aint got no fancy. Have I, Benoni?’

The schoolmaster’s son smiled.

‘That be right,’ added the speaker. ‘Thee do never lie.’

‘Thank you,’ said the farmer’s nephew.

‘Nor thee either,’ replied the rustic, ‘unless to prevent the feelin’s of a friend from being hurt, and I don’t call them lies. Now my feelin’s aint a bit hurt, but somehow I don’t like to sit down at thee aunt’s table and eat her bread and butter I feel as if it would choke me like; she do look as thof she grudged it.’

‘I tell you no,’ exclaimed William, impatiently. ‘She has no such thoughts.’

‘What be it, then?’

‘Well,’ answered his friend, with a half-amused smile, ‘you are almost a young man.’

‘Pretty near it.’

‘And are very good-looking.’

‘Ah! Now I see thee be making fun of I.’

‘Not in the least. All the girls in the village say so.’

‘And my cousin Susan will soon be a young woman,’ continued the speaker. ‘Now her mother is a very prudent woman.’

The color flushed the countenance of Goliah, even to the roots of his light curly hair; it seemed as if some new revelation had suddenly struck him. It faded almost as soon it came, and he shook his head.

‘I tell ’ee, Willie,’ he said, ‘that it beant that. She do know as well as I do that I should have but a poor chance agin thee.’

William Whiston laughed.

‘And if I had a good un,’ added the rustic, ‘I wouldn’t try it.’

‘Why, you don’t imagine that I am in love with my cousin?’

‘Folks in Deerhurst say thee are to be married.’

‘Foolish gossip,’ replied the youth. ‘True, I do love Susan dearly, but only as a sister. I shall never think of her as a wife, nor she of me as a husband.’

Again the face of the young giant flushed.

‘Be thee serious?’

‘O, perfectly ‘

‘By gory, then,’ exclaimed Goliah, ‘ I will go with thee to the farm. Mrs. Hurt’s black looks shan’t scare I a bit; I allays felt more at Susan’s laughing at me.’

The conversation was interrupted by the appearance of two youths. The eldest who carried a bundle at the end of a stick over his shoulder, appeared about eighteen; his companion, several years younger. Although travel-stained, and evidently sinking with fatigue, there was an air of respectability in their appearance, and their clothes were something more than decent.

Both the boys sank upon a rustic bench which some charitable hands had erected on the road-side.

The three previous speakers regarded them attentively.

‘You seem tired,’ observed William Whiston. ‘Have you walked far?’

‘A very long distance,’ replied the eldest of the two tramps, for such the inquirer concluded in his own mind they were. ‘Can you inform us of any respectable house where we could lodge for the night?’

‘And where we should be quite safe,’ added his companion.

‘Safe!’ repeated Goliah. ‘Why, thee don’t look as if thee had much to lose.’

‘Just sufficient,’ observed the eldest, a little nervously, ‘to take us to London on foot. We have friends there. How far distant is it?’

‘Thirty miles, at the least.’

At this information the youngest boy burst into tears.

‘I shall never live to get there,’ he sobbed.

‘For shame, Charley,’ said his comrade, soothingly. ‘Is this your courage? Be more of a man. Remember how many miles we have walked already.’

‘Not get there?’ repeated Goliah Gob. ‘Why I have footed it many a time afore breakfast by the side of mother’s waggon, and thought naught on it.’

‘Ah, yes,’ replied the tired lad, contemplating the stout frame and limbs of the speaker. ‘I can understand your doing it. I wish,’ he added, despondingly, ‘we could find some safe shelter for the night. I should not care how humble.’

William Whiston felt touched. He noticed the delicate features and small white hands of the boy, which he clasped hopelessly, and resolved to assist him.

‘If you don’t mind roughing it a little,’ he observed, ‘ I can at least provide you with a shelter. The night threatens to be a stormy one; but you will be quite safe there,’ he added, pointing to the red barn, a few rods distant.

The young wanderers regarded the dreary-looking building, and shuddered.

‘It does not look very inviting, I confess,’ continued the speaker, ‘but it is better than it looks. There is a small chamber at the north end used by the caretakers — when there is anything to watch. The place is quite empty now, and you can lock yourselves in.’

The last assurance seemed to decide the boys, and the offer was gratefully accepted. William led the way, accompanied by his two friends. Everything appeared as he stated — the barn quite empty, and the key of the chamber in the door. He took it out, and placed it in the hand of the eldest youth.

‘Why, a king might sleep here,’ observed Goliah, looking round the room. ‘Not as I ever seed one. There be a good flock bed, wi’ sheep-skins to keep ’ee both warm.’

‘And here,’ added the schoolmaster’s son, giving them a canvas satchel, ‘are the remains of our dinner. It was well filled when we started this morning fishing. You will find half a bottle of currant wine in it.’

The boys were profuse in their thanks. ‘Make yourselves as comfortable as you can,’ observed William Whiston, as he bade them good-night. ‘Not at all likely that you will be disturbed; but if any tramps should seek shelter in the barn, keep silent, and your presence will not be suspected.

The three friends quitted the red barn, carefully closing the great doors after them, and resumed their walk towards the house. Somehow they did not seem inclined to talk. Each one appeared to have something to think of. Goliah was the first to break silence.

‘Lord! Lord!’ he muttered, half aloud, what a lot of poor frimicating critters there are in the world! What be the use of em? They do look more like gals than boys. Did you see their hands? They ha’ never done a day’s hard work, and never will!’ he added.

A similar thought had struck his companions.

‘Play-actors,’ suggested William.

‘Their language was too simple for that,’ observed Benoni. ‘Mountebanks, perhaps.’

‘Naught o’ the kind; they be only tramps,’ said Goliah.

This edition © 2019 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

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5 replies »

  1. You were kind enough to comment on a post (Waterway, Eleanor Dark) on my blog TheAustralianLegend. Old newspapers in Australia have all been digitized by the National Library- look for NLA Trove – using OCR, which may be corrected by any amateur with the time. Students from Melbourne Uni rescued at least two C19th murder mystery serials and published them as books. One I remember is Force and Fraud by Ellen Davitt.


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