Oliver Twist revisited

By Veronica Peek

I came across the following story while trawling through newspaper microfilms of 19th-century London newspapers about 25 years ago and passed the printout around for others to read. “This court case is the inspiration for Charles Dicken’s novel Oliver Twist,” I exclaimed with the usual excitement of amateur sleuths who imagine they have discovered something really, really, really important. I mean, we are talking Charles Dickens here, right? The reaction I got didn’t even make it to lukewarm.

Back it went into the bottom drawer for about 18 years or so, until 2012 when I published it as a WordPress blog, which probably tells you all you need to know. Maybe there was a reaction to it but it was so minuscule I concluded it was probably just me creating my own readership statistic of one. In the end I labelled it ‘Private’ and forgot about it.

Well here I am again, back for another attempt because hey, WordPress.com blogs are free so what have I got to lose? Now that the Gale News Vault online has made those old newspaper microfilms a thing of the past, many readers can check out the original newspaper accounts. The State Library of Victoria offers access to the Gale News Vault through its free library membership and it would be available at other Australian libraries as well. I think you will agree that this is one 19th-century story that inspired Charles Dickens to give up reporting on court cases and launch his stellar literary career but there is only one way for you to know. You will have to read on and check it out for yourself.

The Times, Tuesday January 14, 1834

BOW-STREET.—Yesterday Henry Murphy, a black man, aged about 60, with a countenance in which cunning and ferocity were strongly blended, and John Murphy, his son, a copper-coloured lad apparently about 13 years old, were placed at the bar before Mr. HALLS and Dr. ROBINSON, charged with keeping a place of reception for runaway children, for the purpose of compelling them to rob and beg for their support.

The case excited an extraordinary degree of interest in the office, which was crowded to excess during the examination of the prisoners.

We have to pause here for a moment because the Times journalist got their names wrong; it was John who was the father and Henry was the son. As for ages, John was 45 and not 60 as claimed, and 14 was about right for Henry. In the Morning Chronicle of the same day, John was described as being “of most disgusting and filthy appearance”, while in the Morning Post he was described as “a most disgusting-looking man of colour, of gigantic stature”. His origin is never given but the fact that he was ‘gigantic’ by British standards (and many Brits were positively stunted in those days) suggests that he was from North America or one of the African nations and probably an ex-sailor who had come ashore at London and decided to stay. The ‘office’ referred to in the above quote is the Bow Street Magistrate’s Court.

Bow_Street_Microcosm copy
Bow Street Magistrate’s Court in the 19th century.

He had not been long at play when the younger prisoner came up and wanted to play with him, but he refused, saying “I don’t know you.” “Oh, but you soon will,” replied the prisoner, and then they played together for a short time.

The Artful Dodger meets Oliver Twist. James Maloney (1810-1879). Published in the book ‘Oliver Twist’ in 1898. An alternative caption might read: “Henry Murphy meets Edward Trabshaw”, except that Trabshaw was wearing a frock.

The Times, Tuesday January 14, 1834 (cont.)

Edward Trabshaw, an intelligent boy, aged 10 years, having been sworn, deposed that his father was a cabinet-maker, and resided at No. 10, Parker-street, Lisson-grove. On Tuesday, the 31st of December [1833], having been guilty of some misconduct at home, his father, by way of punishing him, locked up his clothes, shoes, and hat, and compelled him to put on a frock and petticoats, with a view to prevent him from playing in the streets. He watched his opportunity however, and ran away, and on reaching the Circus, in Regent-street, he stopped, and had a game at marbles with some boys whom he met there.

They then had some conversation, in the course of which witness told the prisoner how he had run away from his father’s house. The prisoner invited him to go home with him, saying that his father lived in Cross-lane, Charles-street, Drury-lane. Having no place to sleep at, witness accompanied the prisoner to Cross-lane, and went with him to a house there, in a dark and filthy room of which he saw the elder prisoner and from 13 to 14 little girls, all miserably clad, and huddled together in a corner.

George Cruikshank’s well-known image of Oliver Twist meeting Fagin. Most artists envisaged an Oliver who was thin and frail.

The younger prisoner then told his father that witness wanted to stop there for the night, but the father swore he would not allow him to remain, and told him to go and find a lodging elsewhere. As he was leaving the room one of the little girls asked him for the pinafore which he had on, and he gave it to her.

The infamous 'rookery' at St Giles.
The infamous ‘rookery’ at St Giles.

Witness then went to the ‘Rookery,’ in St Giles, where he remained until the following Sunday [5 January 1834], when he returned to the room of the prisoners, to get back his pinafore. The girls knocked him about, and refused to let him have it, and after some time the old man told him that he might stop with him, provided he did every thing he desired him to do. He consented, and on the following day the younger prisoner went out and brought home a pair of trousers and an old jacket, which he told him he might put on, observing that he had just stolen them. The old man then took from him the frock, petticoat, and other things which he had had on, and tore them up, contrary to his wish.

Old houses and shops in 'respectable' Drury Lane. Some of London's worst slums were in the streets and lanes behind the famous thoroughfare.
Old houses and shops in ‘respectable’ Drury Lane. Some of London’s worst slums were in the streets and lanes behind the famous thoroughfare. This is the area where John Murphy’s match girls and boys plied their wares.

He then told him that he must go out and beg for him, telling him that if he did not bring home either 6d. [sixpence] or 1s. [one shilling] each time, he would either beat or murder him, and he also threatened him if he attempted to run away. The witness then went on to state, that he used to go out and beg every day, and on his return at night the elder prisoner took from him all the money that he got, and, to prevent his returning home, the younger prisoner used to go out with him and watch him. The girls also went out to beg every day, and when they returned home they gave the old man whatever money they had picked up.

On a Sunday morning the old man said there was nothing to eat in the house and Trabshaw and three girls were sent out to “pick up” whatever they could. In Newton-street the girls desired Trabshaw to wait at the door while they went in, and they presently came out with a piece of pork about four pounds, a  piece of bacon weighing two pounds, together with a quantity of vegetables, which they said they had contrived to steal nicely, the ‘old dame,’ meaning the mistress of the shop, being fast asleep in the parlour.”

Morning Chronicle account of the same event:

One day three of the girls went out a thieving, accompanied by witness and the younger prisoner. They went to a cook-shop in High-street, St. Giles’s, and made “a plant” there. Having waited until they saw the woman of the shop engaged in frying potatoes in the back parlour, the three girls entered the shop and carried off about 4 lb. of pork and 2lb. of ham, that lay upon the counter. They then ran away, and were joined by witness and the younger prisoner, who watched outside the shop during the time. They took the pork and ham home to the old man.

Given that it was the lad’s first day at the infamous den, it seems likely that the girls were showing off their thieving prowess for the benefit of the newcomer. The young boy, who must have been very hungry by this stage, was treated to a regular feast.

The Times, Tuesday January 14, 1834 (cont.)

The girls were often sent out to rob and steal whatever they could¸ and some of them were provided with matches when they went to beg. The boy added, that both the girls and himself were compelled, through fear of the old man and his son, to do all that they desired, and, being constantly watched, they had no chance of escaping.

Sketch entitled 'The Lucifer Matchgirl. From the book 'London Labour and the London poor'.
Sketch entitled “The Lucifer Matchgirl”. From the book London Labour and the London Poor. Children were legally entitled to seek work from the age of nine years. Hannah Hopkins, for example, ran away from home and found work, ostensibly as a match girl, a few days after her ninth birthday.

George Trabshaw, the father of the last witness, deposed to the fact of his son’s having absconded from home, and of his having been brought home by a policeman on the preceding morning. His son had frequently left home on previous occasions.

Mr. HALL asked in what way this system of villany had been discovered.

Police-constable William Davis, of the F divison, stated, that when the boy Trabshaw ran away his father gave information of the circumstance to the police at Scotland-yard, together with a description of the boy, which was forwarded to the several station-houses. From the inquiries which he (witness) made in consequence, he was informed by a woman that the elder prisoner was in the habit of harbouring runaway children for the purpose of compelling them to beg for his support. She then pointed out the house, No.8, Cross-lane, where she said he lived; and at 2 o’clock on Sunday morning last [12 January 1834] he went to the room which was described to him, and there found the two prisoners, the boy Trabshaw, and a girl about 15 years old, lying together on a heap of straw. There were also 13 or 14 young girls asleep on a heap of straw in another corner of the room, but all the girls ran away as soon as they saw him.

Sketch of Oliver Twist sleeping on a straw matress in the corner of a dark and dirty den.
Sketch of Oliver Twist sleeping on a straw matress in the corner of a dark and dirty den.

Witness then asked the old man what the boy Trabshaw did there. He appeared confused, and said, at first, that he was his boy; but when witness said he knew that was not the case, the prisoner entered into a long rambling statement, saying that the boy had no home, and that he took him in out of pure charity. Both prisoners were then taken to the station-house, and after the boy had been home and washed and cleaned, for he was in a most filthy and disgusting condition, he came to the station house, and made the charge against the prisoners.

Sketch of two Bow Street runners (i.e. policemen). George Cruikshank, published in "The Writings of Charles Dickens', vol. 4, Oliver Twist, published 1894 by Houghton, Miffin and Company. The are interviewing a bed-ridden Oliver Twist. Edward Trabshaw well enough to be interviewed at the Bow Street police station.
Sketch of two Bow Street ‘runners’ or constables (centre). Artist George Cruikshank, in ‘The Writings of Charles Dickens’, vol. 4, Oliver Twist, published 1894. They are depicted interviewing a bed-ridden Oliver Twist. Edward Trabshaw was well enough to be interviewed at the Bow Street police station.

The boy, on being further questioned by the magistrate, said, that a few days ago a young girl who had absconded from her parents was brought to the black man’s house, and her mother having received information where she was, came to seek her. The old man, in order to hide the girl, locked her up in a little dark closet, which was used for the purpose, and the mother was obliged to have the door forced open to obtain possession of her child. With the exception of the younger prisoner, witness was the only boy in the room.

The constable said that the character of the old man appeared to be well known in the neighbourhood; for when he was conveying him to the station-house, some of the inhabitants of Charles-street said to him—“So, you have got old Murphy, the child stealer, at last.”

The old man¸ when asked by the magistrate if he had anything to say in his defence, pretended to be deaf and wished it to appear that he knew neither the English language or the nature of the offence with which he was charged.

The younger prisoner said that his father sent him out to rob for his support, and threatened if he did not do so that he would either shoot him or stick him with a knife. He had frequently struck him with a poker.

The old man, fixing a ferocious look on his son, exclaimed, in very good English, “You lie, you b….y thief;” to which the son replied, “You know it is true enough, father.”

[The Morning Chronicle (14 January 1834) added some additional information:

Rogers, the Inspector, stated, that while at the station-house, the boy appeared to have the entire control over his father, whom he struck and swore at in a brutal manner. He had also understood from Trabshaw, that such was the case while at home, the boy having frequently thrown knives and other missiles at his father.

The prisoners were remanded until Wednesday next, and the constable was directed in the meanwhile to make every inquiry respecting the prisoners, and to endeavour, if possible, to secure some of the girls described by the boy Trabshaw.]

Morning Post 16 January 1834

THE DEN IN CHARLES-STREET, DRURY-Lane.—Yesterday the black man, named Henry [John] Murphy, and his son, who were charged on Monday with keeping an infamous receptacle for children of both sexes, whom they decoyed away from their parents for the purpose of sending them out to beg and steal, were brought up for re-examination, and the Office was greatly crowded by persons who had lost children, without being at all able to account for their absence.

Davies, the constable of the F division, who took the Prisoners into custody on Saturday night, were instructed on Monday by Mr. Halls to find out a woman from whose shop some of the children, under the instruction of the younger Prisoner, had stolen some pork and ham and other articles, and bring her forward to prosecute, in order that such miscreants might be brought to justice. The constable now said he had been unable to produce the woman,  but admitted that he had made but a little inquiry upon the subject.

Mr. HALLS expressed his astonishment at this conduct, and said it was quite certain the constable had been asleep over the business, and was unfit to be entreated with an inquiry of so much consequence to society. The woman who had been robbed lived in a street close to the infamous den kept by the Prisoners, and yet the constable could not find her. The worthy Magistrate then directed Ellis, the officer of the establishment, to take the inquiry into his own hands, and use his utmost exertions to bring forward such evidence as would satisfy the ends of justice.

Ellis then left the Office with the necessary witnesses, and the Prisoners were remanded until Monday next.

It was stated in the Office by an inhabitant of Charles-street that there could be no doubt from the observations of the neighbours that at least 200 children of both sexes had been turned into the streets, as thieves, prostitutes, and beggars, from the house kept by Murphy, within the last twelve months.

The Times, 21 January 1834

BOW-STREET—Yesterday John and Henry Murphy, the black man and his son, who were charged with harbouring a number of children and compelling them to beg and steal, were brought before Mr. HALLS and Dr. ROBINSON, a county magistrate, for final examination.

The evidence previously taken having been read over, Davies, the constable by whom the prisoners were apprehended, said that he had found the little girl, who was concealed by the elder prisoner in a cupboard while her mother was searching for her. He had also found the mother of the child, and they were both in attendance.

The little girl was then brought forward, and the nature of an oath having been explained to her, she was sworn, and stated that her name was Hannah Hopkins, and that she was just nine years old three weeks before last Christmas. She knew both prisoners, and having run away from her mother some weeks ago, a little girl with whom she was acquainted took her to the black man’s room, where she remained for three or four days. The elder prisoner used to send her out to sell matches, which he made himself, and he also told her that she must steal whatever she could, and bring it home. When her mother came to look for her, the old man told her to go into a dark cupboard to hide, saying that her mother would make a piece of work if she found her in the room. She accordingly hid herself in the cupboard, and her mother, after searching for her about the room, went out to look for a police-constable, because the black man swore at her so. When her mother left the room another woman took her out of the cupboard and brought her home to No. 2, Jones’s-court, Bainbridge-Street, St. Giles’s. They met her mother on the way returning to search the room again, in company with a police constable. She declared that she never slept there, but used to go every night with another little girl and sleep in a shutter-box in Piccadilly.

Dr. ROBINSON.—Were you ever beaten by either of the prisoners?

Witness.—No, Sir, I never was.

Mr. HALLS.—Did the old man take any part of your dress from you?

Witness.—No, Sir, he did not.

The mother of the child was then asked if the elder prisoner denied that her daughter was in the room when she went to look for her.

She replied, that the old man, in answer to her inquiry, told her that her child was not in the room, and that she never had been there.

Mr. HALLS asked Davis, the police constable, if he had any further evidence to produce.

Davis replied that the owner of the ham and beef shop, from whom the three little girls stole the pork and bacon, while the younger prisoner remained watching at the window, was present, but all he knew of the circumstance was, that he had been robbed on the day in question.

Mr. HALLS then told the prisoners that he should commit them for trial on the original charge—namely, for having stolen the clothing of the boy Trabshaw, of the value of [4s.]; and if that prosecution should fail, he would direct that they should be detained for assaulting the boy, as it appeared that his clothes were taken from him against his will.

Neither of the prisoners spoke a word during the examination, and they were removed from the bar after the several witnesses were bound over to give evidence against them at the next sessions.

The Morning Chronicle of the same date added some additional information:

The girl was sent for, when she stated that she was nine years old, and lived with her mother; she met a girl, named  Mary Davis, one day, who persuaded her to accompany her to the prisoner’s house; she was sent out by the prisoner to thieve, under the cover of selling matches. On being pursued by a woman she knew, she was put into a cupboard by the old prisoner but made no resistance.

Mr. HALLS said, that as the action seemed to have been voluntary on the part of the girl, no notice could be taken of it. The only way in which the case could be taken would be to commit him for trial on the charge of stealing the clothes from the boy Trabshaw, in which he had left his father’s house, and which, it will be recollected,were taken from him by the elder prisoner and torn up.

Immediately upon the girl Hopkins hearing this, she turned round to Mr. Halls, and declared that Trabshaw had himself sold his clothes, and with their produce, together with 5 1/2d. he had obtained from selling matches, bought the rags in which he was found to be clothed when discovered by the policeman.

Mr. HALLS, however, did not feel inclined to believe this statement, and gave directions to the constable that the prisoners should also be indicted for the assaults which they had committed  on Trabshaw’s person, and under the effects of which he was still laboring.

The parties having been bound over in the ordinary way, the prisoners were removed.]

Morning Chronicle 6 February 1834

Yesterday at the Middlesex Sessions, John Murphy, aged 45, a man of colour, and Henry Murphy, aged 14, his son, were indicted for having stolen a frock and other articles from the son of Mr. G. Trabshaw, aged 10 years. It will be recollected, from what transpired at Bow-street, that the little boy was induced to accompany the younger prisoner to the house of the elder defendant in Drury-lane, where his clothes were taken from him, and he was sent out with about 14 girls to beg and steal. The little boy was at last discovered by a policeman, who was employed by the father to search for him.—The jury found the elder prisoner guilty, and he was sentenced to be transported for fourteen years. The other prisoner was discharged.

Well by golly, wasn’t Henry an artful dodger? Despite being the youthful ring-leader in the whole enterprise, he had walked away scot-free, leaving his father to carry the can. Except that he didn’t. What was never reported is that Henry reappeared in court one month later on a charge of larceny, was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years. Given that his former landlord had probably prevented Henry from occupying the room he had shared with his father, and given that said rented room had been filled with straw beds and matches, I can speculate as to what may have caused Henry to resort to larceny.

Father and son, by the good grace and sense of the authorities, were sent together to a prison hulk to await their transportation to Australia.

Convict John Murphy

John Murphy, one of 240 convicts transported on the William Metcalf, 23 May 1834. Convicted at Middlesex Session Peace for a term of 14 years on 3 February. Arrived in Van Diemen’s Land 4 September 1834 and sent to the newly opened Port Arthur Penal settlement outside Hobart Town. Died there of unspecified causes 22 December 1834. One of the first convicts to die at Port Arthur, he would have been buried in an unmarked grave. The harsh treatment handed out to the convicts sent to Port Arthur was particularly hard on older prisoners and many of them did not survive their lengthy sentences.

Ruins at Port Arthur, Tasmania. Photographer: Denis Williams
Ruins at Port Arthur, Tasmania. Photographer: Denis Williams.
Port Arthur ruins 3
The ruins of the Port Arthur penal settlement outside Hobart, now a popular tourist attraction. Some of those tourists might be interested to know that the first convict to die there was poor old John Murphy, the dark-skinned child exploiter who became one role model for the character of Fagin in ‘Oliver Twist’. Photographer: Denis Williams.

Convict Henry Murphy

Henry Murphy, one of 240 convicts transported on the William Metcalf, 23 May 1834. Convicted 3 March 1834 at Middlesex Session Peace for a term of 7 years. Arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on 4 September 1834 and probably sent to the juvenile convict settlement where treatment wasn’t as harsh at at Port Arthur. Ticket-of-Leave granted seven years later.

Hobart Town convict road gang circa 1834.
Hobart Town convict road gang circa 1834.

Was John Murphy an inspiration for Dickens’ arguably best-known character, Fagin in Oliver Twist? Well yes of course he was, although certainly not the author’s only source. His story received a lot of publicity in England at the time and Dickens must have been aware of it, may even have kept newspaper clippings. One publication that covered the story of Murphy’s infamous den in early 1834 was the London newspaper the Morning Chronicle. In August 1834 that paper hired Dickens as their political reporter and he continued to work for the Morning Chronicle until November 1836. Soon after his departure from that newspaper, he began to write Oliver Twist. Dickens would have known the reporter who covered the Murphy story, and he also had access to the newspaper’s library and archive of back issues. Already a champion of social justice (as also was the Morning Chronicle) Dickens was writing his short sketches of London life at that time and was particularly fascinated with the lives of  the downtrodden and criminal classes.

Nevertheless Fagin is his own creation. No longer an outsider because he is a black man, probably a Negro, the Dickens landlord/tenant has become a Jew. And instead of washing snotty handkerchiefs and rehousing stolen pocket watches as Fagin does, the flesh-and-blood John Murphy had set up a cottage industry in his rented room and was making matches. Both men, one factual and one fictional, housed and fed many waifs and runaways and supplemented their incomes by instructing their young charges to beg and steal. Prostitution of the older girls seems to have been on the cards for both characters although the girls probably would have been doing it anyway. These were desperate times for London’s street urchins and runaways. In 1834 there were no large factories manufacturing matches. It was a dangerous and unhealthy cottage industry supplying a very necessary resource and the bundles of matches, often wrapped in newspaper, did sell to a ready-and-willing market.

With a young motherless son to support, John Murphy was trying to make the best of his bad circumstances. If he was a ‘receiver of a stolen goods’, then it was primarily food, wallets or coin purses, and clothing. He not only had to pay two or three shillings a week to rent his room, but also had to feed and shelter up to 16 children, mostly girls but with some boys as well. All of the children came from surrounding streets and he seems to have offered them, in return for their services, a few days or weeks of respite from their difficult home lives.

Murphy had been running his little match factory and thieves’ den under the very noses of the Bow Street runners, without previously having attracted any official complaints from neighbours or attention from the police. Within the over-crowded rooming houses of Charles Street, reputed to be among the worst in London, his activities wouldn’t have stood out as that unusual. It would have been common for child factory workers to sleep and eat on the premises. He used his young son, Henry, to scout for suitable pauper runaways to sell his matches and do his thieving and it proved in the end to be his undoing. Henry had become cocky and over-confident, too anxious to grab the reins.

Dickens was 24 when he started to write Oliver Twist and there is an element of naïvety in his decision to keep emphasising that Fagin is a Jew. Fagin is one-dimensional. Despite his forced sense of humour, he is not a good person. He is capable of feeling self-pity but has no empathy with others. John Murphy, however, had the potential to be portrayed as a multi-faceted, complex and more sympathetic character.

Segment of 1827 map of London. Location of Cross lane has been indicated as an addition. It was a short distance from the Bow Street police station.

Was Henry Murphy an inspiration for the ‘Artful Dodger’? I believe so, although Dickens has recreated him as a much more appealing character, not so much brute as braggart. And here again, he would not have been the only source of inspiration. In the squalor of London’s slums in the 1830s, there were many dens similar to that run by the Murphys, and many cheeky young thieves to act as their master’s apprentice. Dickens was a first-rate reporter, free to walk the back streets and lanes of London to listen and observe. His own faculties were a more reliable source of information than court reports, with their varying degrees of inaccuracy.

And what of Edward Trabshaw, was he the inspiration for the boy Oliver Twist? Not entirely of course, although his courtroom evidence may have helped to fire the author’s imagination. Let’s face it, without the inclusion of Fagin’s den, the novel would be much less appealing. But Trabshaw was a boy who understandably wanted to avoid being punished for losing his garments, which had probably belonged to a sister. Despite his respectable working-class background he had run away from home on many occasions and was afraid to return. He had gone to the St Giles rookery without a penny and must have survived for a week by selling at least some part of his clothing. No wonder he was keen to get his pinafore back. To claim that John Murphy tore them all up is surely nonsense, given that they had street value.

There is another small parallel here in that Oliver Twist was placed in the service of a funeral director who had a workshop, in which he used basic carpentry skills to make his coffins. Trabshaw’s father was a carpenter and it’s likely that his son was old enough to be expected to help him from time to time.

Fagin is afraid that Oliver will ultimately betray him and it is this fear that largely drives the plot for Oliver Twist. In the real world, the result of Trabshaw’s betrayal was ultimately devastating for the elder Murphy. All of a twist was this real-life ‘Oliver Twist’ and Dickens was an author who loved to have fun with names. Henry Murphy, on the other hand, hopefully ended up having a better life in Australia.

The story of Edward Trabshaw and the Murphys father and son is a great example of how authors of the calibre of Charles Dickens can take their inspiration from many sources and end up writing a classic novel which captures its time so exactly, as Dickens did with Oliver Twist.

Before I conclude this blog I would like to point out another interesting fact. Following on from the story in The Times (14 January 1834), is a court story in which an inn-keeper is on trial for having attacked his wife. The couple had been quarrelling over their young son’s behaviour and the wife had taken her son’s side. The Bow Street policeman who investigated the crime and gave his evidence was Inspector Fagan. Another story about Inspector Fagan appeared in the newspapers of those times. On that occasion he was on duty at night and he still hadn’t found suitable accommodation for a young and destitute female waif so he took the child back to his own home and family to look after until suitable accommodation could be found for the child the next day. His name is spelt differently – but pronounced the same.

In later years Dickens himself may have forgotten the inspiration for the choice of the name ‘Fagin’ and thought it was because he had a kind friend in the poor house whose name was Fagin. Fair enough and doubtless true but I suspect the subconscious prompting to use the name also came from a source much closer to hand.

Bing Translator

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, Fagin, Artful Dodger, Inspector Fagan

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