It’s Oliver Twist… with a Twist

  • by Rhian Isaac, Collections Manager, Leeds Central Library

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be welcoming two new bloggers to the Secret Library. Natascha and Jonathan are students from the University of Leeds, who joined us on a Faculty of Arts Research Placement a few months ago to experience working with our collections and bringing them to a wider audience. They’ve been exploring and researching items from our Ernestine Henry Collection, all of which relate in some way to the subject of chimney sweeps (yes, you read that right!). In the Spring, we’ll be hosting an exhibition at Central Library curated by the students but, until then, look out for articles here on the blog showcasing some of their most interesting finds.

The Henry Collection itself is extremely varied, including such materials as ballad books, children’s literature, fairy tales, prints and sketches. A couple of really interesting and rare items, dating back to the 1830s, are plagiarised versions of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers.


These were written by ‘Bos’ (a take-off of Dickens’ own pen name, Boz) who was believed to be Thomas Peckett Prest, a British hack writer, journalist and musician, and published by Edward Lloyd, who used these pirated editions to pioneer ‘penny issue’ fiction. Dickens’ early work fell victim to more plagiarism than any English literary work then or since. Cheap serialised editions based on his plots and characters were produced, and the language was adapted to suit the tastes of a rapidly expanding lower-class readership. This was an extremely lucrative venture, as the penny versions sold as many as 50,000 editions a week, probably outnumbering the sales of Dickens’ originals. The plagiarised versions came out at the height of The Pickwick Paper’s popularity, while Oliver Twist had not even finished running before the parody version, Oliver Twiss, began. They were sold weekly for a penny (as opposed to a shilling for a genuine Dickens) and came out on a Sunday, when working people weren’t at work, via small shops and tobacconists, meaning they could reach an untapped market of semi-literate readers not often accessed by middle-class booksellers.

The Pickwick Papers was a perfect target for plagiarists, as it was first conceived as an accompaniment to the comic sketchings of cockney life by Robert Seymour. There are lots of fantastic examples of Seymour’s work in this collection for anyone interested in illustration.


Pickwick’s plump figure, green glasses and gaiters – no matter how crudely drawn – were instantly recognisable. The episodic plot offered few restrictions to plagiarists and they could adapt or reinvent for as long as they had the public’s interest. The Posthumourous Notes of the Pickwick Club, also called the Penny Pickwick, was the most successful of the plagiarised Pickwicks, and can be found in the Henry Collection.


Oliver Twiss, the Workhouse Boy was the most celebrated piracy of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, exploiting the original’s links with popular traditions of Gothic melodrama, crime reporting and stage comedy, and running for 78 weeks.


As you might imagine, Dickens was not pleased and, in 1837, he attempted to have Edward Lloyd’s publications terminated by legal means. But he failed in his suit when Lloyd argued that the unauthorised imitations were so bad no one could mistake them for the real thing – reputedly leading Dickens to comment: “I was made to feel like the robber instead of the robbed”. However, the famous author would get his own back on the ‘dishonest dullards’ (as he referred to Prest and Lloyd) by caricaturing them in his next novel, Nicholas Nickleby, which was serialised from 1838 to 1839. It is this and his many other classics that continue to attract hoards of enthusiastic readers almost two centuries later.


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