April 06, 2012

Oliver Twist and Thomas White

My copy of Oliver Twist carries a rather interesting footnote. You may remember that Oliver is tried for the theft of Mr Brownlow's goods in the novel. Oliver is taken up to the court and is incapable of speaking- a kindly man speaks for him and makes up answers, tells the magistrate that Oliver has no parents and that his name is Tom White. Ultimately Oliver is freed when a witness arrives to tell the court that whoever did commit the crime, it was not Oliver. Tom White is an interesting name in all of this: when I first read the book I assumed Dickens had just picked a name- like William Smith- from thin air. The footnote to my copy of the book suggests otherwise- it suggests that Dickens picked a particular name of a particular pickpocket.

In December 1826, Thomas White was indicted at the Central Criminal Court for stealing a hankerchief from the pocket of a Mr Barlow. White was seen stealing the hankerchief and was found guilty and sentenced to seven year's transportation. My footnote tells me that he was working for a well known fence and had a mistress known as Nance at the time but the indictment makes no reference to it. The incidental detail is interesting: White's position sounds very similar to that of the Artful Dodger and Bates- though not to Oliver Twist. Its also a signal of the sentence Oliver might have received had he been found guilty. I suspect there is more to the reference than just that but have to confess I know no more...


James Higham said...

Phew, glad you cleared that one up, Tiberius.