He is the archetypal crook for modern writers with his cheeky Cockney charm and oversized coat, think Arthur Daley or ‘Del Boy’ Trotter, but the original was first penned over 150 years ago by Charles Dickens.
For many years Jack Dawkins aka the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist has been one of literature’s most seminal and original characters or so it has been thought until now.
Researching child convicts sent to Australia during the Victorian era historian Cameron Nunn came across an account of 13-year-old thief Samuel Holmes.
Dated 1836 two years before Dickens’ novel was published a report was written by magistrate William Augustus Miles who had interviewed among others habitual criminal Holmes for a Special Parliamentary Committee looking at juvenile crime in London while Holmes was incarcerated on the prison ship HMS Euryalus.
Young master Samuel Holmes’ life appears to mirror that of his fictional counterpart. Trained as a pickpocket in an East London hideout almost identical to bearded villain Fagin’s criminal den, he told the magistrate how he had already served four prison sentences. He would describe in detail his criminal life:
Two boys took me to a house in Stepney, kept by a Jew, and he agreed to board and lodge me for 2/6 a week provided I bought and sold to him all that I might steal. He has about 13 boys in the house on the same terms.
The landlord has also the adjoining house and the back kitchen is fitted with a trap door to help escape and in one corner of one of the back kitchens is a sliding floor underneath which property is hid.
It has always been accepted the Artful Dodger came from Dickens’ imagination, but at the time of the report he was working as a political correspondent for a newspaper and could easily have come across the report before writing his most famous story. In Oliver Twist the Jewish villain Fagin’s house is described as having a trap door to evade capture and the training his ragamuffins in the art of being pickpockets.
In Holmes’ account he described how he would oversee the teenage crooks under the watchful eye of his cruel gang master.
I was about a fortnight in training and afterwards went out to assist and screen the boys where they picked pockets.
According to Old Bailey court records young Samuel Holmes was arrested for stealing a bullock’s tongue, three doves and a pigeon. After spending time on a prison hulk he was sentenced to seven years transportation to Point Puer – the first juvenile jail in Tasmania, Australia. He was released aged 27 and then faded into obscurity.