Meanwhile in Australia

I was going to write you about the ballet today, because yesterday I saw the Royal Russian Ballet. A friend gave me a ticket (this is the only present for a while, I was told, and looked at the price of the ticket and was a little shocked) but this morning the subject of Oliver! came up again. I don’t want to talk about the musical here, because a local group performing the Fagin musical over Jewish New Year is not the most comfortable event in the known universe.

However, I’m sorely tempted to say “Composers – work with me and we will write Ikey the Musical” for the person Fagin may have been based on died in this part of the world. This means, today, I’m going to introduce you to Isaac Solomon (also known as Ikey, also given the surname Solomons).

He was the son of a well-known criminal. Very much a Londoner in how he dressed and how he spoke. He could be included in Regency novels very easily (and isn’t! I’d be delighted if I’m missing depictions of him, for I will read them with glee), for he was in London, leading the life of a high level fence, in the first third of the nineteenth century.

We have pictures from the second time he went on trial, because he became famous at that point. He may have been famous earlier, I don’t know. What I know is that the very exciting and somewhat scurrilous popular literature about his trial may well have inspired Mr Dickens to use him as a model.

My favourite scurrilous document was published (for 6d, if I am reading right) in 1829. It was by “A Former Police Officer” and was called “Adventure, Memoirs, Former Trial, Transportation, & Escape of that Notorious Fence, and Receiver of Stolen Goods, Isaac Solomons; Better known to the Public by the Cognomen of Ikey Solomons; together with the Apprehension, Trial, and Subsequent Transportation of Mrs. Solomons, and an account of Her Husband’s Ultimate Re-Apprehension, in New South Wales.”

That title also gives you the very short summary of what happened. It was a lot more exciting than it reads, which is unusual for the reality behind headlines of this sort. It was also nothing like Bryce Courtney’s rendition of it in The Potato Factory and Ikey was nothing like Fagin in Oliver Twist … except that he was a Jewish criminal.

I’m looking at the picture of him that adorns the leaflet and it’s got some things in common with the other pictures I have seen. He has a big nose (though in this case it’s more classical than curved) and very nicely cut hair. In this picture his hair is elegantly draped over his large and intelligent forehead, partly to look nice but also partly to hide the receding hairline. In a cartoon that shows him giving advice from behind a room divider, he has no receding hairline, and a much smaller nose. In both pictures he has a bit of a beard, but very nicely cut. In short, he’s a dandy. (or at least, well-groomed.)

He was also a practising Jew and was married at the Great Synagogue in London, about the time I may have had ancestors who attended there. It is not unlikely they were in the same room, but quite unlikely that they were in the same circles.

What is definite is that Ikey Solomon/s was a well-dressed person who even those drawing caricatures considered good-looking. With a London accent. Whether that accent was an educated one is not something I have discovered at this stage, but he was born in London and any accent from the Continent is unlikely.

He was the sort of fence who worked through a pawn shop and quite possibly commissioned people to steal things for the pawn shop. Definitely a criminal. Also, definitely, a well-connected one.

He was convicted in the Old Bailey. He escaped from Newgate with a clever carriage trick operated by his father-in-law and he went to the Americas and only came home (and didn’t stay there) under exceedingly odd circumstances. He came home from what is now Tasmania, having set up shop (because he had committed no crimes in the colony and could not be taken into custody without the right papers) where someone sent there as punishment for his escape recognised him. (If I have this right – it gets complicated.). Back in Midddlesex, Ikey was convicted (again) and sent to what is now Tasmania (again) and became a perfect citizen (maybe).

The spectacular reason for him being in Tasmania was true love. This was why he was there, when it was not precisely safe. His wife had been transported for criminal activity. This latter may have been real, or it may have been set up to capture Ikey – his life was a never-ending sequence of soap opera episodes. His wife and he never got that happy ever after (because people don’t actually always work out together), but Ikey crossed the world and lost his freedom to make the attempt.

He became a solid member of his local community. As far as I know, some of his children stayed here, and it’s quite possible that his descendants are just as annoyed as me at productions of Oliver!. I would love to meet one and have a long chat about what being a descendant of the man whose caricature influenced the depiction of Fagin. Solomons was a criminal and he was punished for his crimes and he died a free man.

It’s odd when the stories of Europe take boats here to be with their imprisoned wives and are themselves more interesting than those stories. I do very much wish the world would forget Fagin and start singing songs about this larger than life criminal family. That melody asking where love is could be sung by Ikey’s wife, when he has run to safety, leaving her in England. Or by Ikey himself, when he has run after her – right across the world- only to discover she really doesn’t like him anymore. For the truth of his love… he is put on trial again.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand why any theatre company would prefer Fagin.





About Gillian Polack

Gillian Polack is a historian as well as a fiction writer, which means that history is likely to creep into her blogposts. She is also Australian, a foodie, and has a strong love of things ranging from chocolate to folk dance. All her jokes are good jokes, even the ones that aren't funny at all.


Meanwhile in Australia — 2 Comments

  1. Ikey sounds so much more interesting than the watered down Fagin. But I’ve seen versions of Oliver where Fagin literally steals the show. But then audacious criminals seem to capture the hearts of the common people. There’s a highwayman or three I have in mind. And of course Robin Hood.

    • Ikey would steal the show if he were allowed into it as himself… (I really hate the accent and the stereotyping given to Fagin in Australian productions. They match Dickens’ original Fagin and they hurt. The Queanbeyan Players has Fagin with peyot!!)