The True Story of how I am related to Dickens (but not in a good way)

First published in the ABA Newsletter, No. 345, May 2008.

Lewis WormsI was given this little slip of ephemera by our distinguished editor, Brian Lake, a number of years ago. Brian was naturally amused at this nineteenth-century ducker, diver and dealer in second-hand goods with a slightly cavalier attitude to old books sharing my name, even down to the initial.  What Brian did not know was that this was indeed a member of my family, for despite the outlandish name, the Worms family have been knocking around London since the late eighteenth century. To be precise, this is Lewis Worms, my great-great-great-grandfather’s elder brother – one of four brothers who all made a living in much the same kind of way. This is in part their story, but what I have only recently discovered is that they were related to Charles Dickens. Not closely related – and not at all in a good way – but related nonetheless.

Blacking FactoryWe are all familiar with the sob story of Dickens’ childhood being foully blighted by his being stuffed into the blacking factory at a tender age by his wicked relatives. But of course we only know the story in the mawkish accounts handed down by Dickens and his apologists. The wicked relatives have – until now – maintained a dignified silence. We have not heard their side of the story: that the little blighter was an idle loafer who would never have amounted to anything and would probably have turned out as useless as his father, without a short, sharp shock of some sort. Tough love, we would call it nowadays.

The wicked relative in chief was a man called James Lamert*, the manager of the blacking factory, which he ran on behalf of a brother or cousin, George Lamert.  James was related to Dickens by virtue of his widowed father, Matthew Lamert, having married Dickens’ favourite aunt, the also widowed Mary Allen, who lived with the Dickens family at Chatham.  And having married her, he took her away to Ireland, where within a year she died in childbirth.  It is easy to see why Dickens took against the Lamerts: they killed his aunt and put him the blacking factory.  But he had his revenge.  When the really unpleasant people turn up in his novels they tend to have names rather like Lamert (the Murdstones in Copperfield and the Merdles in Dorrit are two obvious examples).

But it was not altogether that simple.  In disentangling the accounts of Dickens’ childhood, we meet kindly uncle Matthew, who first took him to the theatre and kindled that lifelong passion for the stage.  We find splendid cousin James, who built the little chap a toy theatre and first encouraged him to make up characters and plots. And we realise, with something of a shock, that these are actually the very same people, Matthew Lamert and James Lamert.  They were clearly not bad people – he had much to be grateful to them for – so what was all the blacking factory business about?  Matthew Lamert was an army surgeon, rather a distinguished one, who became an Inspector of Military Hospitals.  He was the original of Dr Slammer (another Lamert homophone) in Pickwick.  James Lamert too was intended for the army and, according to Forster, had passed through Sandhurst and was waiting on a commission.  So why on earth were they involved in a blacking factory?

To answer this, we need to look at the wider Lamert family and, in particular, James Lamert’s aunt, Rachel Lamert. She was the daughter of another medical man in Isaac Lamert, born (like Matthew Lamert) in Germany but working in London for many years.  There is a copy of his testimonial pamphlet of about 1787, Pro Bono Publico, in the Wellcome.  Rachel Lamert, the daughter, married a certain Aaron Worms at the City of London Great Synagogue in 1799.  Aaron Worms, like the Lamerts, was originally from Germany and, like the Lamerts, was Jewish.  As an aside at this point, it is perhaps worth noting that Dickens was a little disingenuous when he answered accusations of anti-semitism by claiming not to have known any Jews in early life and to have had no personal animus. There is no doubt that the Lamerts were, or were originally, Jewish – although it may be that some of them had silently dropped their faith by the 1820s (Matthew Lamert married Mary Allen in a Church of England ceremony, and George Lamert, owner of the blacking factory, married Harriet Oppenheim at St. Martin in the Fields in 1827).

Rachel Lamert’s husband, Aaron Worms, was in a successful way of business on the Whitechapel Road, acting as a wholesaler and merchant in linen goods, and as their children grew up and the sons joined the business, the family began to diversify.  In particular, under the most prominent of the sons, Henry Worms, they diversified into the large-scale manufacture and wholesaling of boots and shoes.  By the 1830s, Henry Worms had premises in the Minories, a warehouse on Bishopsgate, and a showroom on Oxford Street. We have all had that experience of buying a pair of shoes and having various offers of shoe polish thrust upon us.  Then as now.  What would make more sense, what would create more synergy, than to have a blacking factory in the family?  Boots, shoes and blacking being wholesaled all over the country.  Hence, I am sure, the involvement of the Lamert cousins. And from this point of view, it is entirely possible that Dickens was simply being treated like every other boy in the family in being set to work at the age of twelve to learn the business from the bottom up.  That was how things worked.  This was in fact opportunity, not punishment.

Oxford Street

The Oxford Street premises at no. 275.

But the story does not quite end there.  Henry Worms, the boot and shoe magnate, was named for his uncle, Aaron’s rather older brother, also Henry Worms – also from Germany, also Jewish, and also originally with a textile warehouse.  He was the father of Lewis Worms and his brothers with whom we began – and my direct ancestor.  But his business did not prosper in quite the same way.  His bankruptcy was posted in the London Gazette in 1811 and we have the full story in his own words in a deposition of 1825.  Imagine this, if you will, in a heavy German-Hebrew accent: “he carried on a Respectable Establishment, as an Auctioneer, Appraiser, Wholesale Carpet and Woollen Warehouse Man for a Long Period in Norton Falgate, till about Twelve Years since, when through unavoidable Misfortunes, he failed in Business and was compelled to open a Shop … and in that Degrading Occupation to preserve a Beloved Wife and Family from Starving, yet by dint of Industry, Attention and Perseverance he maintained them decently till the Death of his Wife, whose irrecoverable Loss he has felt ever since.  He has had to encounter the severest Misery and Distress but has met it with Fortitude and Resignation, and had almost surmounted his Difficulties, till this Dreadfull, Dire, and Destructive Calamity, which will at an advanced period of Life, render him one of the most Miserable of created Beings …”. 

Petition

The dreadful, dire and destructive calamity was that he had been charged (together with his fourteen-year-old son, Morris) with receiving a stolen quart pot, tried at the Old Bailey, found guilty, and sentenced to fourteen years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.  The words above form part of a petition for clemency addressed to the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, still lying unanswered in the National Archives. It reveals that of the eight living children of Henry Worms, all but the eldest were still dependent on him.

At this point, I must ask you if you are reminded in any way of a character from Dickens? – an old Jewish fence, with crooked teeth, surrounded by young people, no mother-figure to be seen, living in a thieves’ kitchen a stone’s throw from Saffron Hill?  Yes – you have it in one.  Dickens, you bastard, you ungrateful little bastard, you have metamorphosed Henry Worms, your relative and mine, into Fagin.  And as the eldest boy of the troupe, I presume that makes Lewis Worms (with whom we began) the Artful Dodger.

So whenever any of you in the ABA sell a book by Dickens, I would like you to remember this story, to remember that without the Lamerts both to inspire him and to kick him up the backside, that without the Worms to give him at least one, if not two, of his most memorable characters, then no-one would have heard of Dickens. That is a sale you would simply not have made – and, in the circumstances, a cheque to me for 10% by way of reparation would not go amiss.

I hope this will become formal ABA policy, because the truth is that Henry Worms may well have been innocent.  The petition, signed by every one of his neighbours who could write his name, describes him as a man hitherto “incapable of Deviating from a due observance of the Laws of this Country”.  The thief who allegedly sold him the quart pot (and who rather suspiciously was only given three months’ imprisonment) was named Moriarty – I assume the father of the master criminal, but that is another author, another book, and another story.  Henry Worms’ alibi was that he was miles away at the time, drinking with Mr Rochester – again another author, another book, and another story.  Far-fetched – perhaps – but if you care to google the words – worms, moriarty, rochester and quart pot – you will find that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Postscript: I conceived the above as a jeu d’esprit to entertain Brian and some colleagues over lunch a while ago.  Tongue firmly in cheek.  But, that said, there is nothing in it that I know to be untrue.  All the people are real, even Moriarty and Rochester (unless the Rochester alibi was a fiction, in which case I want royalties on the Brontës too), and all the facts about them are to the best of my knowledge accurate.  The transcript of the trial of Henry Worms on 13th January 1825 can be accessed at the oldbaileyonline.org website.  Lewis Worms turns up to back up the alibi.

There is, of course, no way of knowing who, if anyone, Dickens may or may not have had in mind when constructing Fagin.  The character is sometimes said to be based on Isaac (Ikey) Solomon(s), who, like Henry Worms and not long after, was sentenced to transportation to Tasmania.  The accounts of his life are a little muddled, but it is safe to say that he was not an old man at the time of his trials, that he had a wife, that he was born and brought up in London and was therefore unlikely to have a had a Fagin-like German-Hebrew accent, and that his ‘patch’ was the Houndsditch-Petticoat Lane area east of the City.  On these grounds alone, leaving aside the family connection from blacking-factory days, Henry Worms is perhaps a more likely candidate.  Dickens is of course quite specific about the Saffron Hill location, which he memorably describes as a nightmarish thieves’ row in Oliver.  Henry Worms lived in nearby Fox Court, and at the time Dickens was writing this passage in the 1830s, two of Henry’s sons, Solomon and Morris, were both actually living on Saffron Hill. Morris, the boy also found guilty and sent to a House of Correction, was married from 57 Saffron Hill in 1838 – the very year in which Oliver was published.

As to Henry Worms, the convict, he was indeed sent to Tasmania, where in 1833 (by now nearly seventy) he went on the run and was never recaptured. The detail of the prominent crooked teeth which he shared with Fagin is taken from police ‘wanted’ descriptions.  He was still untraced in 1841.

His eight children seem to have come to a collective decision that there was little justice for Jews in London.  All four of the sons and the one daughter who married all did so outside of the Jewish community and in Church of England ceremonies.  Their children were likewise baptised as Christians.  The four boys all pursued careers under the rather vague headings of auctioneers, appraisers, brokers and general dealers.  All four lived to a healthy old age, Morris with a second-hand furniture shop in Seven Dials, Philip with an auction-house in Chelsea.  Solomon, my direct ancestor, dealt mainly in recycled building materials.  The daughters too survived and prospered.  Sarah, the eldest, had a school on Clerkenwell Green, and Catherine, Matilda and Frances went from being seamstresses to being engaged in the fur trade. Lewis’ daughter, Sophia, took over this business and appears in London directories as a wholesale furrier on into the twentieth century.

As to why Henry Worms regarded keeping a shop as a “degrading occupation”, those of us who have experienced it will know that this is in many ways true, although we are rarely so frank.  But the answer is that he had indeed fallen calamitously and precipitously in the world.  He was born on the Judengasse in Frankfurt – and there the Worms family had been rabbis, doctors and merchants.  They were related by marriage to the Rothschilds, the first of whom to come to England, Nathan Mayer Rothschild, likewise a child of the Judengasse, began, like Aaron and Henry Worms, with a textile warehouse.  His eldest sister, Schönge (Jeannette) Rothschild, had married Benedikt Moses Worms, “handler für englische textilien”, in 1795.  It is said that Rothschild came to England in 1798 to counter logistical problems posed to family trading interests caused by the European wars, but the firing of the Judengasse by French troops in 1796 and the destruction of many of its 195 houses led to a wholesale migration – a dispersal of a tight-knit merchant community that changed the face of European trade and finance.  It is not wholly inconceivable that this was a tripartite venture to England – Rothschild in cotton, Henry Worms in wool, and Aaron Worms in linen.

Baron Henry

The Baron de Book-Worms

Just how far Henry Worms had fallen in the world is starkly illustrated by the very different experience of life of his namesake and kinsman – the third and last Henry Worms to impact upon nineteenth-century London.  Henry Worms, grandson of Benedikt Moses Worms and Jeanette Rothschild, was born in London in 1840.  He trained as a lawyer, published a number of books, became a Fellow of the Royal Society, worked in the family banking and commodity business, went into politics, survived a sensational divorce from the notorious Baroness Fanny von Todesco and became the first Jewish member both of the Cabinet and the Privy Council.  His second wife was both a daughter and a sister of Lord Mayors of London.  Ostracised by the Jewish community for attending his daughter’s Church of England wedding, he too ultimately decided that being a Jew in England was not worth the candle and he died a Christian.  Styled the Baron de Worms from the 1870s, by virtue of an Austrian title granted to his father, he was himself ennobled as Lord Pirbright in 1895. He achieved all three of the even greater accolades of British life – a Vanity Fair cartoon, an entry in the DNB, and a national nickname. For all his colourful life and many talents, he was in truth a bit of a bore: his dusty speeches earned him the soubriquet – the Baron de Book-Worms. And on that note …

Michael Allen*Postscript 2014.  I have resisted the temptation to rewrite this in the light of significant subsequent research: the broad outline remains unchallenged, but there are some matters for correction and amplification.  The Dickens scholar Michael Allen, in his absorbing “Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory”, has unearthed a great deal more evidence.  I followed Dickens himself into confusion and muddle over the names of the younger Lamerts.  It now appears that unless George Lamert was known as “James” to the family (which is possible), that it was George who was the ex-Sandhurst kind cousin and captor.  A separate James would not appear to have existed.  George Lamert or Lamerte was the manager rather than owner of the blacking factory, but left to start up on his own at around the time Dickens was rescued.  His new partner was Lewis Worms, brother of the boot-and-shoe Henry Worms, which only reinforces the family connection.

Fox Court

The Shop in Fox Court?

Michael Allen has also discovered considerably more about Henry Worms, the runaway convict, both before his trial and after his escape – “he was one of the great survivors of a harsh system and a hard life. The sort of person you wouldn’t forget”. He finds echoes of his story not just in the character of Fagin, but in Dickens’ account of a “Dealer in Marine Stores” (which was the precise wording of the sign outside Henry Worms’ shop) in “Sketches by Boz”, in an illustration to “Bleak House” which could show the very shop, and even in parallels with the back-story of Abel Magwitch.    

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