Having spent the last few weeks admiring my newly leather-bound copy of my favourite Victorian novel ‘a Child of the Jago’ by Arthur Morrison (thanks to http://www.otterbookbinding.com/ for the beautiful work) I thought I would write a little bit about the book here, along with a little about the author, Arthur Morrison.
A Child of the Jago
A Child of the Jago, written in 1896, is probably the most popular example of the ‘slum literature’ novels to come out of the late Victorian era. Along with other works, such as George Gissing’s The Nether World (1889), W. Somerset Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth (1897) and William Pett Ridge’s Mord Em’ly (1901) slum literature gave middle and upper class readers a chance to glimpse the coarser, poorer side of life without having to leave their drawing rooms.
Morrison’s classic is a tale of slum life set in the fictional area ‘The Jago’, in the East End of London. He spent eighteen months living in Shoreditch, immersing himself in the poverty of the slums as research for the novel.
The child of the title is Dicky Perrot, whose father Josh is a brawler and a criminal and one of the main men in the Jago until his arrest. Dicky, without the guidance of his father is trained as a thief by local shop owner Aaron Weech – a character more than inspired by Oliver Twist’s Fagin – a wily and dastardly man who uses others to his own advantage, in particular the slum children. The scene in which Dicky is conned into being in Weech’s debt is written superbly.
Dicky has a little success as a thief, but makes a few vain attempts to ‘go straight’ and reform his character after his mother gives birth to his baby sister and after receiving advice from local clergyman Father Sturt. Ultimately, however, the Jago will not allow him to escape, and Dicky returns to criminal ways.
The theme throughout the book is both one of ‘Thieves Honour’ as slum dwelling criminals do wrong to each other, and yet stand together in the face of the police. Another theme is the futility of attempting to escape the vicious cycle of life in the Jago, a place where to survive, you must steal, thieve and commit acts of violence so as not to stand out, and therefore become an outsider.
The Jago of the story is a fictional place, but is clearly based on the real-life
slum of the Old Nichol, located between High Street, Shoreditch, and London Hackney Road in the north, and Spitalfields in the south.
|A Street in the Old Nichol|
In 1863, periodical The Builder contained a report describing the housing conditions in the Old Nichol:
"With few exceptions, each room contains a separate family; some consisting of mother, father, and eight children. The first two adjoining houses that we looked into, of six rooms each, contained forty-eight persons. To supply these with water, a stream runs for ten or twelve minutes each day, except Sunday, from a small tap at the back of one of the houses... The houses are, of course, ill-ventilated. The front room in the basement, wholly below the ground, dark and damp, is occupied, at a cost of 2s. a week for rent."
And on 24 October 1863 The Illustrated London News published an article entitled:
"Dwellings of the Poor in Bethnal-Green" which also described the living conditions in the Old Nichol, although in a slightly more tabloid-friendly way:
"This district of Friars-mount, which is nominally represented by Nichols-street, Old Nichols-street, and Half Nichols-street, including, perhaps most obviously, the greater part of the vice and debauchery of the district, and the limits of a single article would be insufficient to give any detailed description of even a day's visit. There is nothing picturesque in such misery; it is but one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth, and poverty, huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, teeming with disease and death, and without the means, even if there were the inclination, for the most ordinary observations of decency or cleanliness."
Below is the map from within the first page of the book A Child of the Jago, drawn by Morrison to illustrate the setting. The street names in The Jago are;
The similarity can be seen with the names of the real-life streets of the Old Nichol;
Boundary Street, (
Edge Lane in the Jago?)
Nichol Street, ( Old Jago Street)
Nichol Street, ( Half Jago Street)
If anyone is interested in Victorian social fiction or slum literature, then A Child of the Jago is certainly recommended, or the novel A Princess of the Gutter (1896) by the prolific female writer L.T Meade, which is also set in the Old Nichol. Anyone interested in the non-fictional Old Nichol should purchase Sarah Wise’s documentary book ‘The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum” immediately.
Arthur Morrison was born the son of a steam fitter in Poplar,
East London in 1863, but, being a secretive man, very little is known of his early life. Due to his father’s occupation, it is likely that Morrison’s early home life was impoverished. In 1887, he started work in the people’s palace in Stepney. (The institution was founded by writer Walter Besant.) However the palace fell into financial difficulties around 1890, leading Morrison to become a freelance journalist. (His first commissions were to write on cycling topics.) He subsequently joined the National Observer under W. E. Henley and on its collapse worked for Macmillan’s Magazine and Tit Bits.
Morrison’s naturalistic sketches of east end life were published as the volume Tales of Mean Streets in 1894. It was successful, and at the invitation of a missionary in the slums, the Reverend A. Osbourne Jay, Morrison went on to research and write his best known novel of London squalor; A Child of the Jago in 1896.
To London Town, written in 1899 is less pessimistic than Tales of Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago with which it was to form a trilogy. Cunning Murrell, written in 1900, is a historical novel of witch-finding in
Essex in the mid-nineteenth century with close topographical descriptions. The work is based on the historical fact that ‘a man was swum for a witch in Essex ten years after the date of this tale (1854)’
Morrison was an early contributor to Newnes’s Strand Magazine. For this journal in the early 1890’s he devised a sub-Sherlock Holmes detective, ‘Martin Hewitt, Investigator’. The Dorrington Deed Box (1897) reprints a collection of the authors other detective stories. In 1902 he wrote another novel of slum life, The Hole in the Wall. Thereafter he largely gave up as a writer of serious fiction, but between 1902 and 1910, he made himself an expert on Japanese art, producing an authoritative study, The Painters of Japan, in 1911.
As a novelist, Morrison was remarkable for the authenticity of his observations, even going to such length as spending time working in a matchbox factory to gather local colour, and for the sensitivity of his ear to cockney dialect.
He married in 1892 and had one son, who died of injuries sustained in World War One.
Morrison died on 4 December 1945, and is buried in
in Loughton, Essex where he was living at the time. High Beach
*Parts of the above article regarding Arthur Morrison are taken from the excellent John Sutherland book; The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction