The first Fagin

Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Deborah Kane

Judith Sackville O’Donnell stood outside the art gallery, waiting. She had received a phone call from a man who claimed to be a producer wanting to make a docudrama of her book, 'The First Fagin: The True Story of Ikey Solomon'.

As she waited for documentary maker Alan Rosenthal, who would bring her historical non-fiction to the screen, she wondered if the phone call was a con. Then a big black car pulled up. “I thought, this must be him,” she says. “But it wasn’t. Then I went over and introduced myself to another well-dressed guy who was obviously waiting to meet someone he didn’t know, and no, that wasn’t him either”. Eventually she came across a man wearing a t-shirt and jeans. “He was just this completely unpretentious sort of guy,” she says. “He was really determined. He wanted to make a film, so he was going to make a film, and that was that.”

Rosenthal, a British-Israeli documentary maker, was looking for a project that was a little different, and Judith had uncovered a character fit for the screen. A short story writer and artist, Judith had come across a colonial portrait that didn’t seem to fit its own story. She learnt that the austere-looking man in the picture was the son of Isaac (Ikey) Solomon, who was said to be the model for Charles Dickens’s Fagin in Oliver Twist. Fagin was a shady, fictional character who trained children to be pickpockets in London’s underbelly in the early 1800s. Judith wondered how the man in the portrait, who looked a Victorian model of proprietary, could be the son of a character like Fagin. “He just didn’t look like he was the son of a convict,” she says.

When Judith started her research she uncovered more than expected. Isaac (Ikey) Solomon was a Jewish receiver of stolen goods – considered one up from a common thief, particularly in his own view. He had escaped from the famous Newgate Prison in London, where he would have almost certainly been hung, only to follow his wrongly accused wife to Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony. “I think one of the things that attracted me to Ikey Solomon was that he had this very complex personality,” says Judith. “He used to write letters in which he would express his views about things, about how he came to Australia to be with his wife because he loved her.” Despite working in a criminal trade, he was honest and ethical when it came to his work. “He was very open about his emotions,” she says. “But at the same time he was a very professional fence.”

It was a tale of romance and intrigue crying out to be told. And if it wasn’t for Ikey’s letters, it might not have been. Ikey was eventually sent to England to stand trial at the Old Bailey, and then sentenced to return to Van Diemen’s Land. This meant that the letters he wrote to people in authority were kept in the convict records. “That’s the funny thing about Australian history,” says Judith. “There’s more information about convicts than there is about free settlers, because all their behaviour was recorded. All of his letters have been kept.” Because he was literate, he was used as a go between and treated well. “He used to write letters to Governor Arthur and the letters were always one gentleman to another”, she says. “He didn’t see himself as a common crim, he saw himself as being up the social scale.”

Dickens was a parliamentary reporter during Ikey’s trial at the Old Bailey, and this is thought to be the basis of Fagin’s fictional trial. But that is where the similarities end. Judith did, however, find Dickens’ work useful. “I read all of his books just to get the atmosphere of that period,” she says. “Dickens was 25 years younger than Ikey Solomon, but they lived in more or less the same places, and he described those areas in detail.” Putting the story into that context, and collecting clues from records, letters and newspaper articles (“he just had this extraordinary personality that always got him in the paper”), Judith pieced together a narrative that would soon be brought to the screen.

The film was shown at film festivals across Australia and overseas, most recently at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and the Berlin Jewish Film Festival this year. The film, The First Fagin, is available for purchase at with educational teaching resources available for download. The book, 'The First Fagin: The true story of Ikey Solomon', is available at bookstores or online.