094: Charles Dickens, Fagin and Henry Murphy, 1834

The Times (London), 14 January 1834

Victorian writers who mention people of African descent in England include novelists Thackeray and Trollope, and it has long been known that Charles Darwin was taught bird-stuffing in 1820s Edinburgh by John Edmonstone from British Guiana (now Guyana). Studying back copies of The Times revealed that in 1834, when Charles Dickens was a journalist in London, aged 22, an interesting item was noticed.

Henry Murphy, ‘a black man’ aged about 60 had appeared at Bow Street court on 13 January 1834 charged with keeping a place for runaway children where they were compelled to ‘rob and beg for their suppers’. His ‘copper-coloured’ son John was also charged. Henry Murphy was surely an inspiration for Fagin in Dickens’s Oliver Twist of 1838: and his son was the Artful Dodger?

Dickens had an uncle who worked for The Times and it was suggested back in 1933 that he may have contributed to the newspaper a century before, in a period when parliament was in recess for Dickens worked as a parliamentary reporter in London.

Dickens scholars may have their own views, but the 1834 cutting (above) shows two African-descent Londoners — in that strange almost mystical period when there were ‘almost no blacks in Britain itself in the mid-nineteenth century’ (Ronald Hyam, Britain’s Imperial Century, 1815-1914, Macmillan, 1993, page 155).

My recent research (some on other pages of this site) shows that Henry and John Murphy were not unusual although their impact on Dickens may have been.

Further research into other newspapers and Australian on-line archives of convicts reveals the names were reversed. The trial at the Middlesex Sessions found the father, John, to be guilty and he was transported for 14 years. His son, Henry, born 1820, was tried on 3 March and sentenced to 7 years. The father aged 59/60 was from Guadeloupe [French West Indies] and his ‘mulatto’ son seems to have been a Londoner. They were two of the 240 convicts who sailed in May 1834 and reached Hobart, Tasmania on 23 January 1835. Convicts 1249 and 1251, their descriptions are in the Con 23/3 files and on-line listings. [I am indebted to Ian Duffield for this.] The trial of young Henry has not been traced in contemporary newspapers. The theft of clothing would have been enough to lead to his transportation, as it had with his father.

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