Thursday, 3 December 2015

Innocent Criminals of the Nineteenth Century

Innocent Criminals of the Nineteenth Century

Musical number from Carol Reed's Oliver! (1968)

Rightly so, as an orphan growing-up in nineteenth century London, you might have to "pick a pocket or two" in order to survive. For a majority of the nineteenth century, there were virtually no laws protecting children from poverty and homeless, which had lead many to turn to a life of crime. On one hand, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist romanticises the lives of the Fagin's youthful gang of thieves but on a much deeper level it is a critique on the social injustice that many were faced with at this time.

In the transition from the late eighteenth century to the nineteenth, Britain experienced drastic economical growth as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Around the same time, there were social rifts between the lower class and the middle/ upper class due to disagreements with the Poor Law act. The concept of the act is similar to today's benefit system as the money raised from taxes are given to those that cannot work, which many of the middle/ upper class were against as the demand for taxes were ever increasing; by 1830 it was costing seven million pounds in total. The government's solution was The Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which is more famously known as the 'New Poor Law'. This meant that those relying on financial aid were cut off completely and so were driven to live in the Workhouses whereby they worked and lived as prisoners. Families were split apart and many children were sold by their own parents out of desperation. 

With increasingly difficult living conditions, the rate of crime rose dramatically and children became more involved in organised crime. The most common form of juvenile crime at this time was thievery i.e. Pick pocketing. One of the most profitable items that children could steal were silk handkerchiefs as it was thought that nearly five thousand were handled in the 'Flash-Houses' of Field Lane, the same place that Dickens used as the setting of Fagin's den. Figure 2. reflects Dickens' description of London in Oliver Twist as:                                           "The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours (...) there appeared to be heaps of children (...) crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside (...) amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main."(p.58)                                                  This sets up the general atmosphere of London being an urban dystopia for children as it is a world without/ lack of parental care.

Some believed that for children to be able to go into this kind of work, they had to have a particular mindset. Social researcher, Henry Mayhew stated in his work - London Labour and the London Poor - that children educated in the way of the streets had "a precious acuteness - in all that concerns their immediate wants, business, or gratifications; a patient endurance of cold and hunger; a desire to obtain without working for it; a craving for excitement of gambling"(p.24). These are not characteristics one would associate with children as it has an unnatural hardness to the description.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          
Although perhaps it is not so strange to relate it to the children of this time as Dickens clearly had inspiration for the character of Jack Dawkins, more famously known as 'The Artful Dodger'. When we think of the Victorian pick pocket, we think of the Artful Dodger. In the text he is described "as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man."(p. 55) Despite being roughly the same age as Oliver, he has adopted an adult-like persona. Through his character, we are given the sense that Dawkins has missed out on his childhood and instead skipped straight to being an adult. As a work of fiction, we find his rascally cunning ways as charming; it is one of the many reasons as to why he is one of the most popular characters from Dickens' works. Yet his portrayal should not be taken too lightly as many feel he is represents a fallen character. As Marah Gubar puts in her book the Artful Dodger "that we should regard him as yet another casualty of a corrupt society"(p.3). In chapter 43 of Oliver Twist, after having been caught stealing, Dawkins is put on trial and is then sentenced to transportation. Punishments like these were common for pickpockets, normally after the trials flogging and/ or whipping would occur. The reality of the Artful Dodger would've been a cruel one as children were sent to penal colonies in Australia to serve sentences that could range from seven to fourteen years.

Activists like Dickens recognised the victimization of children within society where options were limited to them due to class constraints. For instance, a case in Flower and Dean Street (1851) the Hart brothers aged twelve, thirteen and fifteen were convicted for theft and were imprisoned together in the Westminster House of Correction under the basis that they had "no other resource but to thieve or starve" (London in the 19th Century. p.326). Children were taught that there are no other options when living in poverty. 

Dickens displays this corrupt ideology through the interactions between Fagin and Oliver in chapter 16. He lectures Oliver that the only way to cope in this world is through nefarious means and through Fagin's words he has "prepared his [Oliver's] mind by solitude and gloom to prefer any society to the companionship of his own sad thoughts in such a dreary place, was now instilling into his soul the poison which he hoped would blacken it and change its hue forever." (141) From this we come to understand that being a criminal means giving into loneliness and having a depressing sense of self-reliance. As opposed to Jack Dawkins, Oliver is pure in the sense that he continues to resist the temptation of stealing and entering that sort of existence. Even though he is naive, he has a secure sense of right and wrong whilst lacking the instincts to survive in the dark back streets of London. However, Oliver manages to have his happy ending and by doing so Dickens stated that he wanted to show "the principle of the good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last" (Preface to John Forster's Life of Dickens). This may have also reflected Dickens’ hopes for children in the future as social reforms happened at the end of the nineteenth century due to campaigns raised by activists such as him. For example, Child protection laws were put in place and more free forms of education were spreading throughout England ('Ragged Schools'). 

Works cited:

 White, Matthew. "Juvenile Crime in the Nineteenth Century." British Library - Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Puffin Classics. London. 2008

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. Penguin Classics. London. 1985

Gubar, Marah. Artful Dodgers. Oxford University Press. New York. 2010

Richardson, Ruth. "Oliver Twist and The Workhouse." British Library - Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

White, Jerry. London in the 19th Century. Vintage. London. 2008

Horne, Philip. "Crime in Oliver Twist". British Library - Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Images cited:

Fig. 1:

Fig. 2:

Fig. 3:

Fig. 4:

Fig. 5:


  1. Hi Louisa,

    I love this blog post! Especially how you incorporate both Oliver Twist the novel and Oliver Twist the movie/musical adaptation. Furthermore, I like how your blog goes against Dickens' presentation of the poor and argues with the facts.

    Overall I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog,


  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hello Louisa,

    I liked the way you chose to also write on children, orphans included and Dickens.

    I also liked the way you referred to the Poor Law Act and how this could relate to present times and the benefit system.

    I enjoyed your blog,


    1. High-five to Dickens! I saw you talked about Great Expectations, I love that book!!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hi Louisa :),

    I liked how you compared the Poor Law Act and our benefit system. I also liked how you focused on Dicken's and Oliver Twist in particular.

    Your YouTube video was cute.

    1. Thanks!! I was worried about including the music video but now I'm glad I did :)