Isaac Solomon: A Model for Fagin
Henry Solomon, like many Jews at the time, lived in the squalid East End of London. His son Isaac, born in 1785 or thereabouts, was one of nine children in a family accustomed to crime. Henry was a receiver of stolen goods, known as a fence, and Isaac followed him into the trade.
At one of his several appearances before the majesty of the law courts, Henry shamelessly told a judge “I am upwards of seventy years old, and have worked hard to support my family. I never got a penny dishonestly in all my days - I have worked for every factory in London. I hate the very thoughts of a thief and of a receiver.”
Convicted of Theft
Isaac started his life of crime early. At the age of eight his parents sent him off into the streets to sell oranges and lemons. But he considered his wages too low so he added the passing of fake coins to his business dealings. He branched out into pick pocketing and then dealing in stolen goods.
Isaac, more usually referred to as Ikey, expanded his trade to a couple of shops that were fronts for burglars, robbers, and thieves to dispose of their goods, and was, to use the subtle phrase, known to police.
He first appeared in the criminal proceedings of the Old Bailey in June 1810. He and an accomplice, Joel Joseph, faced the wrath of the law for stealing a pocket book that contained £40 (worth a little over $3,600 today). (Apparently, Joseph tried to eat the incriminating bank notes while being arrested).
Solomon was sentenced to transportation to the penal colony in Australia where he was to spend the rest of his days. While waiting for a convict ship he was confined in a prison hulk. These were dreadful accommodations in old, rotting ships tied up along the River Thames and elsewhere in the country. They were overcrowded and filthy and, inevitably, disease factories. Many convicts died in the hulks before being transported.
After three or four years in one of these prisons Ikey Solomon escaped and went back to his stolen goods business.
More Convictions for Ikey Solomon
Despite being well-known as a fence, Solomon managed to avoid arrest until 1827, when he was charged with being illegally in possession of several watches and a quantity of cloth.
During the legal proceedings, Solomon was being taken back to his cell in Newgate Prison by hackney cab. The Australian Dictionary of Biography records that, “Unknown to his captors the coach was driven by Solomon’s father-in-law, whom the turnkeys permitted to make a detour through Petticoat Lane. At a prearranged place some of Solomon’s friends overpowered the guard and released him.”
Isaac Solomon Travels the World
Deciding there probably wasn’t much of a future for him in England, Solomon took off to Denmark and then the United States.
In her biography of Solomon (The First Fagin, Acland Press, 2002) Judith Sackville-O’Donnell relates how the authorities, having lost their man, turned their attention to his wife, Ann. She was duly convicted of being in possession of stolen goods and bundled off to the Hobart Town Penal Colony in Tasmania along with her four youngest children. Two older boys followed on their own account.
Ikey learned of this while in Brazil and travelled to Hobart under an assumed name to be with his family. Some chroniclers like to suggest that it was love for his wife Ann that drew him there and, once more, into the arms of the law.
The colony, of course, was teeming with convicts, many of them old associates of Solomon’s, and it wasn’t long before Ikey was recognized.
But, the governor of the colony could do little because he had no warrant to arrest the man even though he was a fugitive from the law. A warrant was applied for from London, at least 100 days away by fast sailing ship. Eventually, the slowly grinding gears of the justice system put an arrest warrant in the hands of the governor.
Ikey Solomon Sent to Tasmania
He was arrested in 1829 and sent back to England to once more face the stern, bewigged judges in the Old Bailey. The trial was a sensation and widely covered in the crime sheets that were peddled around London’s taverns.
This time, the authorities kept a closer watch on Solomon who was sentenced, once again, to transportation. As Yvette Barry of ABC Hobart reports “Isaac Solomon was boomeranged back to Hobart, but this time as a convict.”
Barry quotes local historian Michael Tatlow as saying Ikey soon became the “principle crook of town.” That was quite an achievement given that a high percentage of Hobart’s residents at the time had been transported there for various shady dealings. It was another trophy to go along with the “Prince of Thieves” title he had acquired in London.
Ikey conducted his business out of a tobacco shop in Hobart, but all was not bliss and harmony in the Solomon household. There were lots of fights and the children took their mother’s side. He booted his offspring out of the home and became estranged from them.
He died in 1850, but it’s widely believed he was immortalized by Charles Dickens who is thought to have used Solomon as the template for his villainous character Fagin in Oliver Twist.
The life of Isaac Solomon was dramatized in a four-part mini-series called The Potato Factory. Ben Cross played the central role.
Charles Dickens was stung by criticism that his portrayal of Fagin was anti-Semitic. In later editions of Oliver Twist he cut 180 references to “Jew” from the text.
The Londonist has commented that “It has often been claimed that … 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.”
- “Shady Characters of Old Hobart.” Yvette Barry, ABC Hobart, October 20, 2008.
- “Ikey Solomon, Prince of Thieves.” Tasmania Attractions, undated.
- “Henry Solomon.” Proceedings of the Old Bailey, July 12, 1827.
- “Who Was The Real Fagin?” The Londonist, undated.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor