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Charles Dickens and Crime

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As Christmas draws ever nearer one particular work written by one particular author always seems to be on our minds, despite being published 173 years ago. A Christmas Carol has been adapted for radio, stage, and screen countless times and this year will doubtless see new versions (as well as a lot of repeats of previous ones). While many of us are aware that our modern Christmas traditions are heavily influenced by those of our Victorian forebears, what is less well known is that these celebrations were in decline at the time Charles Dickens began his literary career.

While the contributions of Prince Albert in bringing the German custom of decorating the Christmas tree to England, and reviving the singing of Christmas carols, should not be underestimated, Dickens' vision of Christmas was crucial in shaping the holiday as we celebrate it today. Dickens came up with what he called his "Carol Philosopy", prescribing that Christmas should be "a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys." As much ink as Dickens expended on Christmas however, many would argue that crime played an even larger part in his fiction; so many of his most memorable characters being either criminals (of one sort or another) or else the victims of crime. And many of those crimes, and criminals, had their origins in reality.


If we think of crime in Victorian London, after the gory horrors of Jack the Ripper, many people's minds turn to the fictionalised criminal underworld of Dickens' second novel Oliver Twist. Originally published in monthly instalments, Oliver Twist tells the tale of a boy born in the workhouse into a life of poverty, drudgery, and abuse. Oliver falls in with a boy called Jack Dawkins – better known by his nickname of The Artful Dodger – and another called Charlie Bates. Both are “Fagin's Boys”; soldiers in an army of children who thieve under the guidance of petty crime-lord Fagin. Fagin is popularly thought to have been based upon the real life criminal Isaac "Ikey" Solomon.

Notorious as a receiver of stolen property, Ikey gained fame for his escape from arrest, and the high-profile recapture (on board a ship named the Lady of the Lake) and trial which followed. While, having served his time, Ikey died a free man in Australia in 1850, Fagin was not so lucky and died by the noose at Newgate Prison. Dickens was criticised at the time for using criminals and prostitutes as characters in Oliver Twist.

I saw no reason, when I wrote this book...

Charles Dickens

In a preface to the Library Edition 1858 he wrote: "I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech did not offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral, at least as well as its froth and cream." Prison Hulks The opening chapter of Dickens' thirteenth novel, Great Expectations, tells of the terrifying experience of young orphan Philip "Pip" Pirrip while visiting the marsh-bound cemetery where is parents are buried one Christmas Eve.

There Pip is accosted by “A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin".

This "fearful man" is Abel Magwitch, an escapee from a prison ship moored in the Thames Estuary. Prison Ships, or Prison Hulks as they were more commonly known, were usually vessels that had been deemed unseaworthy re-purposed as makeshift places of incarceration for England's many criminals. A typical British hulk, the former man-of-war HMS Bellerophon, was decommissioned after the Battle of Waterloo and became a prison ship in 1815.

Anchored off Sheerness, and renamed HMS Captivity in 1824, she held almost five-hundred inmates at a time. Conditions aboard the hulks were extremely poor, and mortality rates were high. As a child Dickens' would sail up the River Medway with his father, John, and en route would have seen the hulk convicts at their labours unloading ships and working marshes at Cooling, north-east of Chatham.

Debtor's Prison Set in the 1820s, much of Dickens' seventh novel, Little Dorrit, takes place in or around the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark, London. "Thirty years ago there stood, a few doors short of the church of Saint George, in the borough of Southwark, on the left-hand side of the way going southward, the Marshalsea Prison. It had stood there many years before, and it remained there some years afterwards; but it is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it. It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained within it a much closer and more confined jail for smugglers.

Offenders against the revenue laws, and defaulters to excise or customs who had incurred fines which they were unable to pay, were supposed to be incarcerated behind an iron-plated door closing up a second prison, consisting of a strong cell or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide, which formed the mysterious termination of the very limited skittle-ground in which the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles." A debtor's prison was a place were destitute persons unable to pay a court-ordered judgement would be confined until they had either worked off their debt via labour, or else until could secure outside funds to pay the balance.

Dickens' father, John, was one of these unfortunates, confined to Marshalsea for three months in 1824 and only freed by the death of his own mother, his inheritance from her paying off the debts. His father's imprisonment has a profound effect on young Charles. Dickens described him as "a jovial opportunist with no money sense". John did briefly return to debtor's prison, having to be paid out by Charles who borrowed the necessary money.