Who Was The Real Fagin?

By Londonist Last edited 74 months ago
Who Was The Real Fagin?
A man appears as fagin (right) at Rochester's Charles Dickens festival

Isaac 'Ikey' Solomon fits comfortably into the East End's 'Who's Who' of crime, and, like Dick Turpin decades before, has earned a place in subsequent literary offerings for his alleged feats of criminality and audacity.

Solomon, one of nine children, was born around 1785 into a criminally disposed family in Gravel Lane, close to Petticoat Lane on the western fringe of the East End, and his life of lawlessness was in no small part influenced by his father, Henry, who was a 'fence', or receiver of stolen goods.

As a young boy, Ikey was soon supplementing his job as a fruit-seller by passing off forged coins, and before long he was picking pockets and committing robbery with the intention of selling on the spoils, following in the footsteps of his father. In April 1810, the young Isaac, along with accomplice Joel Joseph, was caught after stealing the purse of ironmonger's agent Thomas Dodd in Greenwich. Such was their criminal profile by this time that the arresting officer, John Vickery, knew the two thieves by sight, and when they were searched, a suspiciously large amount of money was found about their persons; Joseph, who initially seemed to have nothing on him, was told to remove his neckerchief, and when he refused, Officer Vickery did it for him, discovering £37 worth of banknotes secreted within.

Watercolour of Fagin from Oliver Twist by 'Kyd'

This felony earned Solomon a sentence of transportation to Australia where he should have spent the rest of his days; however, for reasons that are no longer known, he was put on the prison hulk Zetland at Chatham, where he remained for four years until either he managed to escape or, as the Newgate Calendar suggests, was released in error when a fellow prisoner bearing the same name was given a pardon. Returning to east London, Solomon set himself up as a jeweller and pawnbroker on Bell Lane in Spitalfields, resuming his career as a thief and dealer in stolen goods, in which profession he was 'probably one of the most successful in London'. It has often been claimed that during this period Solomon may also have been a 'kidsman', somebody who trained impoverished children in the art of thieving in return for shelter and an 'education' of sorts. Years later, Henry Mayhew would describe how these fledgling criminals learnt the tricks of the trade:

A coat is suspended from a wall with a bell attached to it and the boy attempts to take a handkerchief from the pocket without the bell ringing. Until he can do this with proficiency he is not considered well trained. Another method is for the trainer to walk up and down the room with a handkerchief in the tail of his coat and the ragged boys amuse themselves by abstracting it until they learn to do it in an adroit manner.

Solomon had a number of close calls with the law, until finally being arrested in April 1827 for housebreaking, robbery and receiving stolen property. Committed for trial, he was incarcerated at Newgate. On a writ of habeas corpus, Solomon was taken to the Court of King's Bench, where, on rejection of the application, he was driven back to Newgate; but, unbeknownst to the authorities, Solomon's father-in-law was driving the coach, and managed to make a diversion through Petticoat Lane where family and friends conducted an ambush and set Solomon free. He fled first to Denmark, then to New York and the United States, where he heard via the press that his wife Hannah (whom he had married in 1807) had been targeted by the authorities; convicted of receiving, she had been transported to Tasmania, along with their four youngest children.

Clive Revill as Fagin from the 1963 Broadway production of Oliver!

Solomon arrived in Hobart in October 1828, effectively a fugitive from British justice. However, as he had not committed any crimes in Tasmania, he was able to set himself up in business as a tobacconist and general store-keeper. A warrant for his arrest and extradition to Britain was applied for but took a year to arrive, whereupon he was arrested in November 1829. Again, a writ of habeas corpus was applied for and, owing to technical problems with the arrest warrant, Solomon was granted bail at £2,000 with four sureties of £500. Friends and associates in Hobart were unable to raise the considerable sum and he was put on the ship Prince Regent and returned to Britain to face trial.

By this time, Solomon's exploits had earned him the distinction of having his eventful life set down in print: in 1829 a ‘Former Police Officer' published an account of the story so far, with the lengthy title Adventures, Memoirs, Former Trial, Transportation, & Escapes of that Notorious Fence, and Receiver of Stolen Goods, Isaac Solomons [sic], one of several pamphlets published during this period which seem to have been popular with the public. On 8 July 1830, Solomon appeared at the Old Bailey facing eight indictments of housebreaking, burglary, simple larceny and receiving. He was found guilty on two of the charges and sentenced to 14 years' transportation, back to Australia, where he would remain, even after being granted his freedom in 1844, until his death in Hobart on 3 September 1850.

A George Cruikshank engraving showing the Artful Dodger introducing Oliver to Fagin

As a Jewish fence, well known for his exploits and written about in the mass media, Ikey Solomon is believed, rightly or wrongly, to have been the inspiration for Charles Dickens's infamous character Fagin from Oliver Twist. The two share similarities as criminally minded Jews, and their depictions in popular fiction have also correspondingly led to accusations of anti-Semitism. Dickens himself was so strongly criticised for emphasising Fagin's race and religion at every turn that in subsequent editions of the novel he removed over 180 instances of the word 'Jew' from the text. Later, in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens created the benign Jew, Mr Riah, claimed by some critics to be an apology for Fagin and an attempt to redress the balance and appease his critics.

Over 150 years after the publication of Oliver Twist, Bryce Courtenay's historical novel The Potato Factory, based on Ikey Solomon's story, attracted similar disapproval, with one critic writing that 'It is hard to imagine any book in English, this side of the Holocaust, in which Jews are depicted in such a derogatory manner.' The alleged links between Solomon and one of Charles Dickens' most resilient characters has always been the subject of debate; another possible model is the character of Monipodio, the leader of a 17th century gang of Sevillan thieves who was a main character in Miguel de Cervantes's 1613 short story Rinconete y Cortadillo.

Whether Isaac Solomon inspired the character of Fagin or not, his audacious escapes, turns of luck and ultimate freedom confirmed him as a literary anti-hero and an embodiment of the East End criminal's tendency to stick two metaphorical fingers up to the establishment, much to the delight of many.

This is an extract from Mob Town A History of Crime and Disorder in the East End, by John Bennett. The book is available now, from Yale University Press, rrp £18.99.

Last Updated 24 October 2017