Laissez-faire capitalist policies of the 1830s saw the development of a “profit-oriented” pop culture. Penny theatres or ‘gaffs’ began to spring up across Britain. Penny theatres showed variety shows including melodrama, pantomime, and singing and dance. They are comparable to modern-day MTV.
The Victorian Era is best known for its prudishness as exemplified by Queen Victoria’s famous “We are not amused” line. However, few realise that while upper-crust, well-to-do Victorians valued morality and decency, prostitution thrived and juvenile crime skyrocketed.
To-day it is assumed that juvenile crime is influenced by the violence of pop culture; the depiction of graphic violence in cinema and video games as well as the glorification of criminals in film and on television. Likewise, in the Victorian era, the rise of juvenile crime rates was blamed on the depiction of crime and glorification of criminals in literature and theatre.
Penny gaffs were packed nightly by children, who enjoyed plays about a thief anti-hero called Jack Sheppard, based on the novel by William Harrison Ainsworth. Several other plays and writings exhibited and glamorised ideas that where held with moral disdain at the time. To combat these issues, parents wrote scathing letters to publishers, public officials, and theatre owners. Eventually the government began to crack down on non-licensed theatres in hopes of shutting down several penny gaffs which they believed would help resolve the issue of juvenile crime.