The most recent report on Youth Justice Statistics (2016/17) for England and Wales states that: ‘In the year ending March 2017, around 1.2 million people were sentenced at court. Of these just 25,700 (2%) were aged 10 – 17.’ Whereas in the period encompassing the publication of Charles Dickens’ serialised novel Oliver Twist (published 1837-39): ‘between 1830 and 1860, over half of all defendants tried at the Old Bailey for picking pockets were younger than 20 years of age’ (White, Juvenile Crime in the 19th Century, 2014) and this statistic is merely for pickpocketing and not representative of all other crimes that may have been committed by young defendants.

These statistics highlight how much of an extensive issue pickpocketing was amongst juvenile delinquents but also the extent of the issue of juvenile crime on the streets. This emphasises the social realism Dickens weaved through his novels, particularly in Oliver Twist; as the novel focuses on the criminal activity of young boys thieving on the streets of London.

In the novel, the heart of the pickpocketing lies with the leader of a youthful criminal gang, Fagin, and his apprentice: Jack Dawkins, better known as the Artful Dodger. Although these characters are fictional, it is clear that Dickens based his work on real-life situations as there are many accounts of thieving juveniles recorded in the Old Bailey records. Between 1830-1850, there were 5372 instances of pocketpicking recorded.

Joseph Alderson was a 16-year-old boy who was sentenced to transportation in 1836 after being found guilty on two accounts of theft. His records show the governor of Newgate recognising the convict from a previous trial: ‘The prisoner was tried in December, 1834, for picking the pocket of Mr. Dyson, the orange-merchant, whom I know well—he is the same boy.’ I found this particular case interesting as it not only shows that it was common for young criminals to re-offend but also shows a likeness to the character of the Artful Dodger – a young boy, roaming the streets of London, picking the pockets of middle-class merchants and trying to get away with it.

joseph alderson

joseph alderson 2
Written record of Joseph Alderson’s criminal conviction. The record states the exact goods that were stolen and includes a statement from the victim as evidence. Source: Old Bailey Online.

In a statement from a witness to the theft, it states that Alderson ‘had two other persons with him, who ran off immediately I took hold of him’ suggesting that he was not alone in his criminal pursuit. This can be likened to the community associated with pickpocketing and crime with Fagin’s group of young boys who have an almost family dynamic. This is particularly demonstrated when Oliver accompanies the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates to ‘work’ and sees ‘the Dodger plunge his hand into this old gentleman’s pocket, and draw from thence a handkerchief, which he handed to Charley Bates and with which they both ran away round the corner at full speed!’ (Dickens, 2003, p. 76) showing that it was a common ritual in the pickpocketing trade to run from the scene as quickly as possible. This also shows that although the young boys approach the crime together, they are not afraid to leave their ‘friends’ behind and must fend for themselves. This can be seen in both the abandonment of Alderson’s two accomplices when he is caught and also by Dickens’ portrayal of the selfishness of Dodger and Bates when Oliver gets caught as they ‘too joined in the pursuit like good citizens’ (p. 76) in order to go unnoticed.

Alderson was transported to Australia for seven years, where he gained his ticket of leave in 1842 and went on to get married and have five children (Digital Panopticon). Perhaps this argues that the transportation system was effective in preventing criminals from re-offending. However, this is not to say that Australia was free of juvenile criminals. Some children were transported at the mere age of 10 and taken away from their families. Helen Rogers’ findings show that: ‘the sensational press coverage of Australia’s wayward youths in the 1870s harked back to anxious debates in Britain over juvenile offenders and street arabs in the early Victorian decades’ (2017, ‘Artful‘) arguing that juvenile crime and discourse was brought over to Australia and continued in their culture.

Media attention around crime is always heightened when the perpetrators are juvenile because this raises the important question of who, or what is to blame? Juvenile delinquency became more prominent in the 19th century due to ‘a decline in formal apprenticeships, and the disruptive effects of industrialisation on family life after 1800’ which struck ‘fears among the general public about the activities of criminal gangs of boys and girls in London’ (White, Juvenile Crime in the 19th Century, 2014). Following on from White’s argument, it can be argued that the devastating effect of poverty and appalling standards of the workhouses were some of the major influencing factors on driving young people to a life of crime.

The Newgate Calendar, criminal broadsides and local newspapers reported on infamous criminals such as Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin. These reports circulated amongst certain social groups, particularly the working classes, and often twisted the truth and romanticised versions of events, turning criminals into heroes. What Dickens does in Oliver Twist is quite the contrary. He intended to reveal the harshness of reality for these poverty-stricken children and does this through the eye of the innocent Oliver and his interactions with the unrefined Fagin and his gang.

Dickens uses cant slang when the Artful Dodger speaks: ‘why, a beak’s a madg’st’rate; and when you walk by a beak’s order, it’s not straight forerd, but always going up, and nivir coming down agen’ (Dickens, 2003, p. 61) in order to get across not only the Dodger’s cockney accent and unique dialect but also show the secretive criminal code that was supposedly used throughout London in the criminal underworld. Steven Michael argues that, ‘Dickens’s criminal language is carefully controlled so as to gain admission to an to an area of limited moral tolerance’ (1993, 44) suggesting that Dickens had to be artful and precise in his choice of words and representation of these criminals, as the public did not yet understand the harsh realities of this criminal world.

artful dodger
Photograph from the film adaptation of Oliver Twist, Oliver! showing the Artful Dodger imposing ‘all the airs and manners of a man’ (Dickens, 2003, 60). Image Source: Sunday Post.

It is well known that Dickens was a social reformist who used his work to bring socially ‘taboo’ subjects to light. These subjects include: poverty, prostitution, debt, dangerous workhouse and factory conditions and of course, the criminal underclass.

In 1842, Parliament published the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Children’s Employment in which they investigated the lives of child labourers through three years worth of research and interviews. Social reformer and politician Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, commissioned the report which was then compiled and written by R. H. Horne, friend of Dickens and fellow reformist. A section on mining conditions – ‘The Condition and Treatment of the Children employed in the Mines and Colliers’ – promises in its Preface that: ‘the public is indebted for the appointment of the Commission from whom this Report emanates; and […] it has brought to light […] the sufferings and degradation, physical and moral, of large numbers of young children, of both sexes’ (1842) arguing that the work is unsuitable for young children and sheds light on the exploitation of children by these mining companies.

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The introductory pages of The Condition and Treatment of the Children employed in the Mines and Colliers showing illustrations of the dangerous conditions that colliers endured. Source: British Library Archive.

Dickens also exposes the exploitation of children through the characters of Fagin and Bill Sykes and the corrupting effect they have on the children. Oliver’s innocence is what makes him a suitable apprentice for Fagin, he is naive to the criminal world. As Larry Wolff argues, ‘Fagin sets about purposefully to make the boy into a thief. Oliver’s resistance to initiation into the criminal life is represented by Dickens as a spiritual struggle of overwrought intensity, dramatizing the significance of theft as the crime of a child’ (1996, 231), implying that Dickens uses Oliver as a blank canvas to emphasise the children are led to the criminal world by Fagin and his manipulation of their young minds. This is most prolifically demonstrated in Nancy’s argument with Fagin as she cries: ‘I thieved for you when I was a child, not half as old as this (pointing to Oliver)’ and goes on to say ‘It is my living, and the cold, wet, dirty streets are my home; and you’re the wretch that drove me to them long ago, and that’ll keep me there day and night, day and night, till I die!’ (Dickens, 2003, 132).

Dickens’ novels were a vehicle in aiding the reformation of treatment of children living amongst poverty and crime in the streets of London. His fiction drew heavily on the harsh reality of society in 19th century London as demonstrated by Joseph Alderson who could have fitted in Fagin’s gang just as much as the Artful Dodger himself.

Primary Sources: 

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Introduction by Philip Horne, Penguin Classics; Reissue Edition, April 29 2003. Can be purchased here.

Joseph Alderson, Conduct Record, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, Founders and Survivors. Australian Life Courses in Historical Context, 1803-1920, accessed 16/01/19.

Great Britain Commissioners for Inquiring into the Employment and Condition of Children in Mines and Manufactories, The Condition and Treatment of the Children Employed in the Mines and Colliers of the United Kingdom., London: William Strange, 1842. British Library. accessed 17/01/19

Youth Justice Board / Ministry of Justice, Youth Justice Statistics 2016/17, England and Wales: Statistics Bulletin, 25 January 2018. GOV.UK: accessed 15/01/19.

Secondary Sources:

Michael, Steven. ‘Criminal Slang in “Oliver Twist”: Dickens’s Survival Code’, Style, Vol. 27, No. 1, 1993. 41–62. JSTOR, accessed 17/01/19.

Rogers, Helen. ‘Artful’, Conviction: Stories from a Nineteenth-Century Prison, 21 June 2017,, accessed 16/01/19.

Wolff, Larry. ‘”The Boys Are Pickpockets, and the Girl Is a Prostitute”: Gender and Juvenile Criminality in Early Victorian England from “Oliver Twist to London Labour”‘, New Literary History, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring 1996, 227-249. JSTOR, accessed 15/01/19

White, Matthew. ‘Juvenile Crime in the 19th Century’, Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians. 15 May 2014, British Library. accessed 15/01/19.


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