Three illustrations of juvenile pickpockets from Dickens’s Oliver Twist: Left: Oliver amazed at the Dodger's mode of going to work. George Cruikshank. Middle:: The merry old gentleman's pretty little game. Frederic W. Pailthorpe. Oliver's Eyes are opened. Harry Furniss. 1910. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

According to Matthew White, “Around three in every four petty thefts of personal property recorded in the county of Middlesex in the first quarter of the 19th century were committed by people under 25 years old, the vast majority of whom were teenagers or younger boys. Between 1830 and 1860, over half of all defendants tried at the Old Bailey for picking pockets were younger than 20 years of age.” Dickens and his illustrators devote a great deal of attention to juvenile, most notably in Oliver Twist.

Stop thief!. James Mahoney. 1871. Click on image to enlarge it.

In the James Mahoney’s illustration to a familiar scene in Oliver Twist the innocent young boy runs away and the actual pickpockets turn the victim’s attention to Oliver who has unwittingly become a decoy. To initiate the naive youngster into the ways of the criminal underworld, Fagin had his two best pickpockets take Oliver on a fishing expedition at the bookstalls on "The Green" at Clerkenwell. Seeing the robbery in progress, Oliver takes to his heels, and the victim cries, "Stop thief!" — whereupon the actual thieves, Jack and Charley, take up the cry and lead a mob in pursuit of the hapless Oliver.

A Pickpocket in Custody. George Cruikshank. 1839.

In early work by Dickens sometimes the police capture the real thief, as in in Sketches by Boz, where Boz, Dickens’s narrator, “About a twelvemonth ago, as we were strolling through Covent-garden (we had been thinking about these things over-night), we were attracted by the very prepossessing appearance of a pickpocket, who having declined to take the trouble of walking to the Police-office, on the ground that he hadn't the slightest wish to go there at all, was being conveyed thither in a wheelbarrow, to the huge delight of a crowd.”

Related material on Pickpockets


Dickens, Charles. "The Hospital Patient," Chapter 6 in "Characters," Sketches by Boz. Illustrated by George Cruikshank. London: Chapman and Hall, 1839; rpt., 1890. Pp. 178-181.

White, Matthew. Juvenile crime in the 19th century. British Library website. Web. 14 May 2019.

Last modified 14 May 2019