Crime in Oliver Twist
From childhood, Charles Dickens had an intense, even nightmarish sense of the looming threat of crime – the possibility of being its victim, but even worse that of becoming one of its perpetrators, its addicts, its devotees. Oliver Twist (1837-39) has been adapted many times for various forms, and famously turned into a musical (Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (1960)). Indeed, some of its criminal characters – Fagin, Bill Sikes, the Artful Dodger – have become legends. But for Dickens it wasn’t so jolly: even if dark humour and an acute sense of the grotesque never left him, the lure of crime was a matter of life and death, the saved and the damned. Dickens saw the pull of crime as a literary genre – his novels benefited from the topic’s wide appeal. And yet he insisted on crime’s seriousness, and saw that thrilling, enticing literature was part of the same world as the misery of real, blighting wrongdoing. In an era of public executions, which he more than once attended, Dickens saw the shadow of the gallows fall over a whole society
Dickens’s childhoodAs we know from his fragment of a memoir, printed in John Forster’s Life of Dickens (1872-4), after his father was imprisoned for debt, the 12-year-old Charles was sent to work in Warren’s blacking factory pasting labels on blacking bottles. Dickens remembered the experience both as a humiliation, and as a descent into the amoral world of London lowlife. ‘But for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond’. Like the ‘young vagabond’ Oliver, that is, only narrowly avoiding adoption by a sinister Fagin (ch. 11). Dickens sees the possible other path his life might have taken: when he declares in his 1841 Preface that ‘I wished to show, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last’, he needn’t be taken as suggesting Oliver could resist any temptation, but rather that he was also lucky, maybe protected by Providence.
Advertisement for Warren's Blacking Warehouse with cat crest
Advertisement for Warren’s Blacking factory where Charles Dickens was set to work as a 12 year old, collected c. 1872 by John Forster for The Life of Dickens.View images from this item (1)
Engraving of the Marshalsea Prison, where Dickens's father was imprisoned
The Marshalsea Prison where Charles Dickens’ father was imprisoned for debt with his family, excluding Charles who lodged nearby.View images from this item (1)
The romance of crimeDickens felt too, of course, the romantic attraction of crime. John Forster famously wrote of the glamour and excitement that drew Dickens even as a 10-year-old boy to the criminal parts of London know as ‘rookeries’, recording that he was both fascinated and repulsed by the worlds he found there.
The Rookeries of London, a survey of London's poorest quality housing
A report written to explain the poor quality of living conditions in London and to suggest how they might be improved.View images from this item (7)
Criminal slang and hanging metaphors
Dickens, who as a former reporter believed in active research and direct experience as well as exercising his astonishing imagination, consciously fills his novel with what is known as ‘Thieves’ Cant and Slang’ – of which there were many popular dictionaries and lexicons in print (e.g. ‘A new and comprehensive vocabulary of the flash language’ (1812) by James Hardy Vaux, himself an ex-convict). For example, Toby Crackit says encouragingly to the Dodger: ‘You’ll be a fine young cracksman afore the old file now’ (cracksman = house-breaker; old file = old fraud) (ch. 25). The small Oliver himself is taken on the Chertsey burglary to carry out an authentic ‘rig’ or trick, his role being exactly as defined in Francis Grose’s 1796 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: ‘LITTLE SNAKESMAN. A little boy who gets into a house through the sink-hole, and then opens the door for his accomplices; he is so called, from writhing and twisting like a snake, in order to work himself through the narrow passage.’ But before that he finds himself being initiated to the traditional first step in a criminal career – pickpocketing, which can lead all to insidiously to the gallows.
A Dictionary of the Slang and Cant Languages
This dictionary of criminal slang includes the word 'twisted' meaning ‘hanged’ – the usage comes from the idea of the executed criminal twisting as he swings on the rope.View images from this item (6)
Newspaper report on Newgate executions from the Illustrated London News
Depiction of a child pickpocket, far right, at a public execution, February 1848.View images from this item (2)
Copyright: © British Library Board
Fagin, who harrowingly faces the gallows at the end, is early on overheard by Oliver muttering to himself, ‘What a fine thing capital punishment is!’ (ch. 9). He likes it because it’s useful to him – as a threat he holds over his gang, and even a means of profit (he informs on his colleagues for money). He spells it out to Noah Claypole that if he breathes a word against the gang, then Fagin will have to blow upon him, (the thieves’ cant phrase for informing on him), for his crime is a capital one. Stealing from Sowerberry ‘would put the cravat round your throat that’s so very easily tied, and so very difficult to unloosen, – in plain English, the halter!’ (ch. 43). In fact, the novel ties together symbolically handkerchiefs criminally picked from pockets, those sported as neckwear, the hempen ‘cravat’ of the hangman and all the various associations with throats or ‘windpipes’ - choking, strangling, clasping, tearing and cutting.
The attraction of repulsionAs this profusion of metaphors shows, Dickens was preoccupied with capital punishment (and changed his mind about it over time): the gallows – which was a punishment not only for murder but for all sorts of smaller felonies – looms large in many of his works (e.g. Barnaby Rudge, Great Expectations). This wasn’t just a personal quirk. The thirty-five years up to Oliver Twist saw 103 death-sentences passed on children under 14 for theft (this was controversial, and happily none were carried out). In 1830 18,017 felony prosecutions were brought under the capital (‘bloody’) code. It was a time of reaction and repression, social unrest and anxiety among the propertied class, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Thus twice as many people were hanged in the first 30 years of the 19th century as in the last half of the 18th century. Two-thirds of the 671 hangings in the 1820s were for property crime, only one fifth for murder.
Hangings were public, and their audiences frequently vast (crowds of up to 100,000 were claimed). Even before writing Oliver Twist, Dickens already felt their gruesome fascination – as he wrote in an 1835 letter: ‘You cannot throw the interest over a year’s imprisonment, however severe, that you can cast around the punishment of death. The Tread-Mill will not take the hold on men’s feelings that the Gallows does’.
We see such a ‘hold on men’s feelings’ in Oliver Twist – it permeates the novel: Fagin’s conviction at the Old Bailey is met with ‘a peal of joy from the populace outside, greeting the news that he would die on Monday’ – the usual day for executions. When Oliver leaves the maddened Fagin in the death-cell, he sees no ‘suitable emotion’ outside: ‘the crowd were pushing, quarrelling and joking’ (ch. 52).
Letters about Newgate from Charles Dickens to his wife Catherine, 1835
Letters written by Charles Dickens to his wife, following a visit to London’s Newgate Prison in 1835.View images from this item (7)
Images of the Gallows
Dickens simply says the walls at Fagin’s ‘were perfectly black with age and dirt’ (ch. 8), but in the illustration to this passage by the great George Cruikshank there is a broadsheet above the fire – the tabloid-style single-sheet poster popular at the time, purveying prurient, moralistic ballads with brutal woodcuts and lurid details thrown in. It depicts three hanged criminals on the gallows. In the illustration, a potent diagonal leads from the handkerchief filled with belongings in Oliver’s hand to the kerchief round the Dodger’s neck, then to the one knotted on Fagin’s head, and finally to the triple noose on the wall. This composition displays the path to the gallows Oliver is in danger of treading. Cruikshank sometimes worked from a verbal summary without actually seeing the text; so Dickens could be inspired by his collaborator’s images. When Dickens has Fagin soliloquize approvingly about capital punishment in Chapter 9, he has him mention that there were ‘Five of them strung up in a row’ – picking up Cruikshank’s broadsheet (and adding two more for luck).
Colour illustrations from 1911 edition of Oliver Twist
George Cruikshank’s illustration of Fagin and the group of children under his ‘care’, from a 1911 colour edition of Oliver Twist. Note the execution broadside depicting three hanged men pinned to the wall, left.View images from this item (24)
Depictions of the urban underworldThe glamorous mythography of London crime had already a rich literature. For instance, Pierce Egan’s bestselling Life in London of 1821, illustrated like Oliver Twist by the great George Cruikshank, had made the underworld a site for urban tourism – a fashionable, thrilling but cosy image of the unrespectable. Egan’s heroes Tom and Jerry go slumming in the ‘flash’ world of the criminal and sporting fraternities on comic ‘Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis’, but in a comic spirit and always with a safe escape route back to the comforts of the rich West End.
There were also numerous guidebooks to urban lowlife, aimed at potential victims, like The Stranger’s Guide, or Frauds of London Detected, Being a faithful Discovery of all the Cheats, Stratagems, Impositions, Artifices, Frauds, and Deceptions, which are daily practised in the Metropolis (1808). The title page of this alluring work offers a long list of London’s lowlife predators, including swindlers, shoplifters, pickpockets, kidnappers, house-breakers and women of pleasure. Its frontispiece shows the image of a metropolitan den of vice – a prostitute embracing her unsuspecting client, behind whom her ‘Bully’ lurks, ready to extort money by blackmail and if necessary violence. The appetite for images and narratives of crime, corruption and violence has deep roots – which Dickens explores in Oliver Twist – but Egan and The Stranger’s Guide offer sanitized, wishful versions of something Dickens recognised was dark and ugly.
Oliver Twist and the ‘Newgate Novel’The particular tradition Dickens was confronting was at least a century old. When he is first locked up by Fagin, Oliver is left with a book – ‘a history of the lives and trials of great criminals’. The ‘terrible descriptions were so vivid and real, that the sallow pages seemed to turn red with gore’. This is the Newgate Calendar, dating from 1728 but much reprinted, the great book of English crime, and it sends Oliver into ‘a paroxysm of fear’ (ch. 20). With the vogue for criminal subjects that Oliver Twist was an attempt to deglamorise (but which its success mostly boosted), there was in the late 1830s a controversy over the sensationalisation of crime in the literary genre known as the ‘Newgate Novel’.
The Newgate Calender
Gruesome illustration and account of a murder from The Newgate Calendar, 1824-26. This edition is among numerous reprints from the 18th and 19th centuries.View images from this item (9)
Pocket Newgate Calender
Illustration of the famous thief Jack Sheppard from an edition of the Newgate Calendar, 1840.View images from this item (1)
Broadside: The Execution of Francis Courvoisier
Broadside describing the trial and execution of murderer Francis Courvoisier, 1840. The song names Jack Sheppard as an influence on Courvoisier.View images from this item (1)
From the moment of my arrival, when there were but a few score boys in the street, and those all young thieves... – down to the time when I saw the body with its dangling head, being carried on a wooden bier into the gaol – I did not see one token in all the immense crowd; at the windows, in the streets, on the house-tops, anywhere; of any one emotion suitable to the occasion. No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes. I should have deemed it impossible that I could have ever felt any large assemblage of my fellow-creatures to be so odious.
His conclusion is profound:
The attraction of repulsion being as much a law of our moral nature, as gravitation is in the structure of the visible world, operates in no case (I believe) so powerfully, as in this case of the punishment of death.
It does not seem a coincidence that when he wrote this Dickens was revising Oliver Twist, perhaps his greatest evocation of ‘the attraction of repulsion’.
 James Hardy Vaux, A New and comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash language (1819)
 Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London, S.Hooper, 1788)
 These figures come from V.A.C. Gatrell’s superb study, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 4, 19, 7.
Some rights reservedCrime in Oliver Twist by Professor Philip Horne ©Philip Horne. This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.