John Vane: London Fiction – A Child of the Jago

John Vane: London Fiction – A Child of the Jago

The Boundary Estate was opened in 1900 and is praised to this day as a model product of the Housing of the Working Classes Act (1985). What it replaced was an equally prime example of the very worst housing in London. The land between Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road was occupied by a slum (or rookery) known as Old Nichol, built 100 years before.

Squalid, dangerous and rife with crime, it was studied by Poplar-born writer Arthur Morrison. He fictionalised it as Old Jago and wrote a novel about it, published in 1896. A Child of the Jago has been idling on my bookshelves for a few years. I’m pleased so have blown the dust off it at last.

The child of the title is, at the start of the story, eight or nine-year-old Dicky Perrott, his mother fearful, his father violent, both of them negligent and fallen on hard times. Morrison creates an Old Jago world where honesty is seen as weakness, cleanliness as snobbery and propriety as a delinquency to be punished and purged.

Morrison early on parodies a gathering of civic worthies, the high-mindedness of whose East End mission is in inverse relation to its effectiveness in changing the Old Jago’s ways. And he brilliantly captures how Dicky is a prisoner of the rookery’s twisted moral code, even when his theft of a neighbour’s clock troubles his conscience:

“He had some compunctions in the matter of that clock, now. Not that he could in any reasonable way blame himself. There the clock had stood at his mercy, and by all Jago custom and ethic it was his, if only he could get clear away with it. This he had done, and he had no more concern in the business, strictly speaking. Nevertheless, since he had seen the woman’s face in the jamb of the door, he felt a sort of pity for her – that she should have lost her clock.” 

It is the tragedy of Old Jago that Dicky’s only way to make amends is to steal again, and that self-perpetuating mechanism continues to encircle him, even when it appears he might escape it. The connection between poor living conditions, a loveless environment and a life of degradation is vividly shown. The book is described in its blurb as having “all the emotional impact of Oliver Twist without any of Dickens’s sentimentality”. It is as unsparing as it is accomplished.

Morrison was a successful writer, contributing to The Globe newspaper and publishing sketches of London life called Cockney Corner. He lived for a while in the Strand. He also wrote stories of the supernatural and created a detective called Martin Hewitt. He produced more pieces about working-class London life for the National Observer.

Apparently, Morrison disliked the term “realism” being attached to his fiction, but he appears to be stuck with A Child of the Jago being hailed as one of best realist novels of its time, indeed any. I found it gripping, moving, virtuoso and cautionary. Today’s London is less brutal, but not without its zones of want, exploitation and cruelty. We don’t want Old Jago to return.

Buy A Child of the Jago from my local independent bookshop, Pages of Hackney. You can buy my London novel there too. Follow me on X/Twitter. Image from Booth’s London Poverty Maps.

Categories: John Vane's London Stories

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