Fagin’s Real Life Counterpart

On the Charles Dickens walks I often discuss the trauma that befell Dickens when, at the age of twelve, his father, John, found himself deeply in debt and Charles was sent to work at the Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, located in Hungerford Market, which stood on the site of modern day Charing Cross Railway Station.


It is safe to say that Charles never recovered from the trauma of suddenly finding himself adrift in a World that was as far removed from the leafy Kent Countryside where he had spent the previous six years and where he had enjoyed the most idyllic years of his childhood.


Indeed, this period of his life came to haunt both his memory and his imagination and references to it crop up time and again in his novels.

Dickens writing with book covers behind him/
Dickens Writing

Indeed, if there is one character that Charles Dickens does better than any other author it is the abandoned child, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, the young Scrooge, abandoned and alone at school, are all, more or less, re-incarnations of the young Charles Dickens.


The rest of the family (with the exceptions of  himself and his sister Frances) all went into the Marshalsea Debtors Prison. Frances, a talented musician, continued an education. Charles, however, was forced to confront the sudden cessation of his childhood, and his dreams of becoming a gentleman.


Indeed, his nickname amongst his rough and ready co-workers was “the young gentleman” and his feelings towards them are still evident in an autobiographical fragment written many years later:-

The boy Charles Dickens slumped over a bench at the  blacking warehouse.
Dickens at the blacking warehouse.

“No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship; compared these everyday associates with those of my happier childhood…”

Recalling his feelings at the ordeal many years later Dickens would state;-

“My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation… that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life.”


His job at the blacking warehouse was to “…cover pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper, to tie them round with a string; and then clip the paper close and neat…” Once he had done a certain number he was to “paste on each a printed label; and then go on again with more pots…”


On his first day at work an older boy “in a ragged apron and paper cap” came over to show him the “trick of using the string and tying the knot.”

This older boy would take the young Dickens very much under his wing and ensure that the work place banter he endured from his co-workers didn’t go too far, and Dickens would later recall how this older boy had been “very good to me.”

So, how did Dickens repay to favour to this older boy, whose name was Bob Fagin?

Well, as you have no doubt gathered by now, he purloined his surname and, to quote the aforementioned later autobiographical fragment “..took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.


So, the next time you see the late Ron Moody, teaching Oliver how to “pick a pocket or two,” spare a thought for that older boy who looked after the twelve year old Dickens.

The boy who, on occasions, escorted Charles home through the teeming streets  of the pre-Victorian Metropolis, and with whom “the young gentleman” would spend some of his lunchtimes playing on the coal barges, moored on the Thames alongside the Hungerford Market.

As the played, walked, talked and worked, Bob Fagin had no inkling that his sensitive companion The was destined to become the second most famous Victorian (second only to Queen Victoria herself); nor that, thirteen or so years later, his young companion would sit down at his writing desk and create one of literatures most enduring and memorable villains.

Struggling to find a name for the leader of his motley crew of pickpockets, Dickens’s would think back to those dark days of his childhood and, from depths of his memory, he would dredge forth the name of his older companion and protector and, putting pen to paper,  he would afford him immortality, as he scrawled across the page the name – FAGIN.