The Real Artful Dodger?

History forever fails to provide a satisfactory voice for the suppressed. Records and documents are formal and impersonal, as if the individual being written about was not an individual, or human, at all. This is exhibited through young convicts of the 19th century. My research led to John Camplin of Tottenham, a fourteen-year-old boy sentenced to transportation for life in 1818 over the robbery of a dwelling-house. The label of ‘convict’ appears to coldly define him within history, as if life outside of crime and punishment ceased to exist as society decided he did not deserve one. But what about his story?

the artful dodger for blog 1
Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

John Camplin’s silence is broken through Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which offers a literary insight into the lives of real lower class delinquents during the 1800s. The novel conveys a dramatic yet detailed account of child criminality rather than a strictly factual one. The most memorable character, Jack Dawkins, otherwise known as the ‘Artful Dodger’ for his experience in the trade of pickpocketing, is of a similar age and lifestyle to the juvenile. He possesses a larger than life nature with the ‘gift of the gab’, and communicates through a language of confidence and buoyancy, forever voicing his opinion. The comparison of the two youths, and others within Fagin’s den, not only helps to create a personal insight to those left in the shadows, but also exposes society’s true fixation upon child crime and conviction.

Being a major player in the development of mass marketing, Dickens first serialised Oliver Twist in monthly instalments between February 1837 and April 1839. Before it was published in the form of a novel during 1838, it had already been adapted into a play in order to maximise its audience. His novel confronted the major social issues of the time, including the prosecution of children for pickpocketing and theft. In Chapter 43, the Artful Dodger finds himself in court over the burglary of a jewellery box. The scene is represented in a deeply descriptive manner, including precise detail of the court room and its occupants – even the ‘unwholesome’ smell of the surroundings (394). The Artful Dodger’s voice is endlessly heard throughout the trial; appearing to be in control at all times. He is never quietened by those of a greater status and is even offered the chance to question the witnesses speaking against him. Speaking with self-assurance and defiance, he asks where his ‘priwiledges’ (394) are when ordered by the jailer to ‘hold’ his tongue (394).

artful dodger for blog 11
Illustration by Joseph Clayton Clarke

John Camplin’s trial, by contrast, conveys an entirely alternate depiction of a juvenile court case – one of truth and control. Found within the Old Bailey’s records, it is written in a style of short and frank sentences, stating facts as direct as possible with minimal detail. At 5ft 3in he stood trial over the theft of ‘one watch, one key, and one piece of ribbon’ from Mr John Bean’s shop. The whole focus of the trial falls upon Mary Bean, the victim’s wife, and her detailed reminiscence of the events. The accused, John Camplin, is personified through a mere two sentences in comparison: ‘I found a brooch, took it into the shop to ask if it was gold, and found the watch on the floor. I was going to knock, and the prosecutrix took me.’ Even Mr Bean’s statement, who was not present at the time of the crime, was documented before John Camplin’s defence is mentioned.

The clear neglect for justice and fairness is apparent, as if being from a lower class than those accusing him, and documenting the trail, immediately brands Camplin’s argument invalid and implausible – barely deserving of a mention on his own record. The sentence of Death was originally given as stealing from a known property (burglary) was deemed worse than simply pick-pocketing. He was later pardoned with ‘guilty with recommendation’, where, according to the Old Bailey, ‘the jury convicts the prisoner, but recommends that the convict should be treated with mercy…used in cases where the offender was particularly young.’ Ultimately, both juveniles were sentenced to the same fate: transportation for life. The Artful Dodger’s hearing offers an insight into the dialogue and events that could have occurred whilst exploiting the truth of how this was forever silenced in real life situations.

john camplin conduct record for website
John Camplin’s original conduct record

Life during transportation was turbulent for John Camplin. His conduct record held by ‘Archives Office of Tasmania’ is immensely longer than average for those serving seven years. It includes notes of every punishment he received whilst incarcerated: lashes for drunkenness, repeated theft and the failure to attend Sunday church. Camplin’s ill behaviour resulted in his sentence being extended by a further three years, and the chances of him returning home very slim. However, there is an underlying uncertainty within this information of whether Camplin was dishonest and deviant before transportation, like the Artful Dodger, whether he was forced into the label that was thrust upon him in order to survive.

image for blog 1
Alliance of poor Victorian Street Children

The importance of friendship and reputation to boys is stressed within Oliver Twist, particularly highlighted when the boys in Fagin’s den are worried ‘nobody will never know half of what he (the Artful Dodger) was’ (390) once the trial of their comrade is concluded. Fagin dismisses their anxieties, stating ‘he’ll show it himself, and not disgrace his old pals and teachers’ (391). Helen Rogers discusses the friendship and survival of convicts, suggesting ‘boys turned to each other for comradeship and support’ whilst ‘lacking control in the outside world’. She goes on to discuss how ‘juvenile friendships, therefore, were crucial for these boys as they sought entry into the adult world of male labour and companionship. Searching for employment on the peripheries of the labour market, work, play and offending segued into each other’. The stress of creating alliances and maintaining a valued persona could have resulted in Camplin’s behaviour deteriorating, rather than it being his second nature.

But the question still remains. What type of boy was John Camplin? He was born in Tottenham and tried for his crime in Middlesex, both areas of London. As Dickens’ novel is based entirely in the same capital, it is safe to presume he acquired the same vocabulary presented by his facsimile, the Artful Dodger, and the other boys in Fagin’s Den. Susan Magarey argues that ‘juvenile delinquents were… [thought] ‘a race ‘’suigeneris’’, different from the rest of society, not only in thought habits or manners, but even in appearance; possessing, moreover, a language exclusively their own.’’ Oliver Twist supports this idea, as idioms exchanged between the occupants of Fagin’s den appear to be exclusive to their social setting. Fagin refers to the Artful Dodger’s sentence of ‘transportation for life’ as ‘lagging and a lifer’ (398) which is incomprehensible to Mr Bolter – a man of middle class status. Similarly, John Camplin expresses colloquialisms through the love token he sent to his parents during the voyage to Australia. They are the only words documented directly from the individual himself, other than his trial.  It pleaded: ‘Rembr me In som Foreign Country’. A sense of provincialism and simplicity is conveyed, as he appears to be unknowledgeable or disinterested in the country he was about to inhabit. The use of non-standard English could be due to the size of the small coin, or perhaps reflect the dialect and pronunciation of the class he belonged to.

;ove token
John Camplin’s original love token

However, the rest of the writing engraved on the coin opens a gateway into understanding the boy further.  By addressing the love coin to no one but his parents, the desire to make amends and apologise for his actions is accentuated. His last wish is to state his love for them ‘shall never end’, which focuses on his naivety and inexperience. The short charming poem contradicts the actions and behaviour associated with the Artful Dodger. Instead, the loving respectful nature of his innocence correlates directly with the protagonist of the novel, Oliver Twist, who found himself in a sequence of misfortunes that did not reflect or implicate his character.

Within Larry Wolf’s analysis of the novel he states, ‘the game of ‘guessing the crime’ becomes a detective joke between Dickens and the reader, from the first time that Fagin plays his own game of picking pockets with the boys–and only Oliver is innocent enough not to understand that they are practicing theft. This contrived collusion with the detective readers, underlined by Oliver’s innocence and ignorance, allows Dickens to help them to the unavoidable inferences, “that the boys are pickpockets, and the girl is a prostitute.”’ Relating to reality, is society the detective reader who is influenced into presuming all boys are pick pockets? Therefore, Camplin may have found himself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, unable to shake the prior negative connotations attached to his age, class and gender.

Alternatively, the social and economic situation of London during the era could provide an explanation for Camplin’s crime, rather than his persona. Magarey’s article ‘The Invention of Juvenile Delinquency in Early Nineteenth-Century England’ discusses how ‘the shifts in the labour market, the poverty, overcrowded housing and disease which dominated the lives of the poor labouring classes in this period made city streets, for some of the nation’s rapidly increasing number of children, their principal means of survival’. This idea coincides with the love Camplin shows to his Mother and Father, possibly a result of feeling guilty and responsible for eliminating their only access to food.

research blog post oliver Twist_06
Illustration by George Cruikshank

All this being said, John Camplin may have been everything society believed him to be. The unlawful, dishonest criminal personified through these few documents may not deserve my justification. Heather Shore wrote, ‘one boy interviewed in the New Bailey prison in Salford, quoted in the 1852 Select Committee on Criminal and Destitute Juveniles, remarked, ‘I have seen ‘Oliver Twist’ and think the Artful Dodger is very like some of the boys here’’. This statement proves the validity of the Artful Dodger’s character, and how some young convicts had their youthful innocence replaced by perfected deceit, thus becoming a real life Artful Dodger. I am hesitant to decide what character Camplin really was, but I would rather like to believe he was an innocent young boy who became a victim of society’s injustice.

Now I leave it to you, the reader. Was John Camplin the real life Artful Dodger?


Primary Sources

1.Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, the Penguin English Library, London: Middlesex, 1966

2. John Camplin’s Trial, The Old Bailey Records –

3. John Camplin’s Conduct Record, Archives of Tasmania –,358,55,F,60

4. John Camplin’s Love Coin, The National Museum of Australia  –

5. John Camplin’s Conduct Record, Archives of Tasmania –,358,55,F,60

6. John Camplin’s Record, Founders and Survivors –

Secondary Sources

1. (Reference of Death with Recommendation)

2. Rogers, Helen. Friendship and Survival of Juveniles in the 19th Century (blog). October 2014 2.

3. Magarey, S. ‘The Invention of Juvenile Delinquency in Early Nineteenth-Century England’ in Muncie, John, Youth Justice: Critical Readings. (London: Sage, 2002) 3.

4. Woolf, 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 (1996), p. 227 4.

5. Shore, Heather, ‘Cross Coves, Buzzers and General Sorts of Prigs: Juvenile Crime and the Criminal “Underworld” in the Early Nineteenth Century’ in British Journal of Criminology 39, (1999), p. 12


Jessie Willcox Smith, May 14, 2010.

Joseph Clayton Clarke,1890.

Victorian Street Children, illustrator unknown, (est.1800-1900).

George Cruikshak, originally published along side monthly instalments of Oliver Twist, from February 1837 to April 1839.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *