Most readers will be familiar with Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (or at least with one of the many film versions of the story). The young runaway Oliver arrives in London, tired, hungry and homeless, and is befriended by the Artful Dodger and inveigled into a (brief) life of crime. Dickens probably based his characters on real people; he was a court reporter before he became a successful novelist and attended these same Police Courts.
Oliver was fortunate that Mr Brownlow rescued him (twice in fact) or he may have suffered the same fate as so many young boys and men in the first half of the 1800s, to be transported to Australia or locked up in prison and set to hard labour.
Dickens based his story on seeing or reading about real life characters like Ikey Solomons or Bill Sheen either of whom could have been Fagin the receiver. And when we look at the pages of the newspapers for the 1820s it is possible to see the sketchy beginnings of the Dodger and his crew, as in this case from 1821.
Three boys, teenagers barely 14 years old, were brought before the City magistrate at the Guildhall. James Morgan, Henry Moir and George Singleton were accused of taking handkerchiefs in St Swithin’s Lane (a long winding road that runs between Cannon Street and King William Street and emerges by the Bank of England).
Mr Sandford, who was walking up the lane, missed his handkerchief and looking round saw a small boy (named Davison) who informed him some other lads had been attempting to pick his pocket. Sandford followed the boy to Lombard Street where he pointed out one of the culprits, Morgan, who was wearing a brown coat.
A constable was called and Morgan was dragged to the Compter (the holding gaol for the city in Poultry, a street nearby). Here Morgan loudly declared his innocence although his face was well known to the watch and the City constables. While he continued to protest, saying he had ‘never been in custody before’, Singleton arrived with a black coat over his arm which he said he’d brought along as it belonged to his chum Morgan.
The officer he spoke to was suspicious however, and looking around he noticed another, smaller boy (Moir), who had no coat on. Moir was recognized as being released from Newgate prison only the day before, having ‘had the good fortune to be acquitted on an indictment for picking pockets’. Young Davison now swore that he had also seen Moir with Morgan in St Swithin’s Lane and so he (and Singleton) were quickly arrested.Singleton’s ploy was to have switched coats with Morgan to make the process of identification that much harder – on this occasion it hadn’t worked.
Moir’s parents appeared in court and were described as ‘respectable working people’ who lamented the fact that they could do nothing to keep their son on the straight and narrow. They told the beak that ‘they were desirous that he might be disposed of in any that might prevent his destruction’. No one appeared for Morgan, his friends having apparently ‘given him up as incorrigible’; Singleton said he had an employer who would speak for him All three ‘dodgers’ were remanded for re-examination at later date, when Mr Sandford could appear to prosecute them. Their likely fate if found guilty? Probably prison and possibly transportation to New South Wales. Who know, they may even and benefited from the latter and emerged unscathed to become citizens of the new Australian nation.
[from The Morning Chronicle , Friday, May 23, 1823]