The Hole in The Wall by Arthur Morrison (1902)

Morrison’s oeuvre

Morrison is remembered for his bleak novel about a squalid East End slum, A Child of the Jago, and the related collection of short stories about slum life, Mean Streets, but he was nothing if not versatile. At the same time as he was producing his dark stories of slum life, he turned out no fewer than 25 short stories about a respectable middle-class detective, Martin Hewitt, and another series of stories, about a corrupt detective, Horace Dorrington.

The third in the loose trilogy of books about London low-life, To London Town (1899) was surprisingly upbeat, and he then wrote a collection of stories about a legendary folk magician of Essex, Cunning Murrell, published in 1900. Morrison also wrote several one-act plays, and a stream of articles about Japanese art about which he made himself an expert. An impressively diverse output.

The Hole in The Wall

Morrison published The Hole In The Wall in 1902, and it marks a return to a working class milieu of his first stories – but with the twist that it’s set very firmly amid the sight and sounds of London’s old docklands, amid sailors, dockers, lightermen and the river police.

The novel is formally interesting because it alternates between the first-person narrative of an eight-year-old boy, little Stephen Kemp, and chapters told by a third-person narrator about characters and events beyond Stevie’s ken.

It is a crime thriller. Almost all the characters are corrupt, greedy and guilty of at least one crime. It features two brutal murders, a drowning, a grotesque blinding scene and climaxes in one of the characters being burned to death. So it is frequently very dark and grim, way painting a much more lurid picture of lower class life than A Child of the Jago had done. And yet not only the presence, but the narrative voice of little Stevie, who doesn’t understand most of what he sees and cleaves to his grandfather as a figure of hope and trust, lend a curious wistful sweetness to the story.

I found the combination really powerful and read the book in one sitting, compared with Jago which I struggled to finish. Partly, I think, because Hole is like a modern thriller, made up of short chapters with melodramatic scenes, and conveys a really effective atmosphere of dread and tension – whereas Jago, or at least the OUP edition of Jago which I read, is so festooned with historical notes and references, that it often feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction.

Moods and settings

When little Stevie’s mother dies in childbirth, Stevie is taken in by his kindly if gruff grandfather, Old Nat, Cap’en Nat as he’s generally referred to, landlord of The Hole in the Wall pub on the river’s edge in Wapping, ‘the bilge of all London’, as he calls it.

Cap’en Nat is big and strong, inspires fear in all his customers, even the hardened crooks, but is sweet and gentle with young Stevie. He is an ideal grandad.

This is overwhelmingly a tale of the London docks. Little Stevie’s mum’s house was hard by the docks in Blackwall, and Stevie has grown up amid the sight and sounds of ships and sailors and cargos. He’s hardly ever seen his dad because he’s a sailor on a merchant vessel owned by the small Wapping trading firm of Marr and Viner, spending most of his life at sea. He is currently on a voyage to Barbados.

The world as seen through eight-year-old Stevie’s eyes is strange and wonderful and often very funny. Early on Morrison gives us a comic portrait of the dead mother’s sisters – Stevie’s aunts – at the wake, all smug sanctimoniousness, sharp elbows and hard-heartedness, and the way one of them bullies her feeble husband.

Later on we meet one of the regulars at the pub, Mr Cripps, an ironically depicted, high-minded ‘artist’ who pays for his drinks in kind by furnishing the small bar at The Hole In The Wall with scores of paintings of ships under sail. Cripps is notorious for the endless delays he’s made about getting round to paint a sign for the pub. ‘A picture of a hole in a wall, what could be more simple?’ asks Old Nat. ‘Well,’ the shabby alcoholic artist replies:

‘It may seem simple enough; that’s because you’re thinkin’ o’ subjick, instead o’ treatment. A common jobber, if you’ll excuse my sayin’ it, ‘ud look at it just in that light—a wall with a ‘ole in it, an’ ‘e’d give it you, an’ p’rhaps you’d be satisfied with it. But I soar ‘igher, sir, ‘igher. What I shall give you’ll be a ‘ole in the wall to charm the heye and delight the intelleck, sir. A dramatic ‘ole in the wall, sir, a hepic ‘ole in the wall; a ‘ole in the wall as will elevate the mind and stimilate the noblest instinks of the be’older. Cap’en Kemp, I don’t ‘esitate to say that my ‘ole in the wall, when you get it, will be—ah! it’ll be the moral palladium of Wapping!’

This deserves to be said out loud and acted with plenty of ham. It’s funny, and Cripps is a regular character, providing a comic chorus to all the events of the novel, just as Stevie is a wide-eyed innocent witness to them all.

Contrasted with the friendly, humorous atmosphere of the pub, is the outside world and the slum-dwellers, whores, thieves and muggers who infest the dark streets of Wapping, especially of one particular alley of ill fame which Morrison names the Blue Gate.

There are quite a few night-time scenes describing the really pitiful slums of the area – the drunken dancing and fights and robberies – and, early on, a grim description of the murder of Marr, partner in the shipping firm which owns the ship Stevie’s dad’s sailing on. Marr had absconded with the firm’s money, got drunk and is easily lured into a literal den of thieves. Here one of the thief’s harridan mistress realises with mounting horror that the gang are not just going to mug him, but to murder him.

Between the comic warmth of the pub and the grim and lurid descriptions of docklands at night, there is the daylight world of the docks, where grandad Nat takes Stevie and which is described through Stevie’s young eyes as an Arabian Nights scene of wonder and marvels. This is his first sight of Ratcliffe Highway.

I think there could never have been another street in this country at once so foul and so picturesque as Ratcliff Highway at the time I speak of… From end to end of the Highway and beyond, and through all its tributaries and purlieus everything and everybody was for, by, and of, the sailor ashore; every house and shop was devoted to his convenience and inconvenience; in the Highway it seemed to me that every other house was a tavern, and in several places two stood together. There were shops full of slops, sou’westers, pilot-coats, sea-boots, tin pannikins, and canvas kit-bags like giants’ bolsters; and rows of big knives and daggers. (Chapter 7)

He goes on to describe all the different nationalities of sailors that you see strolling up and down the Highway. On a different expedition grandfather takes him to the sugar dock where he sees piles of sugar bigger than any boy could imagine, and discovers plenty of it lying around crystallised in the street or warehouses and docks, which you can just snap off and suck for free.

The plot

The plot centres round an early version of a MacGuffin. According to Wikipedia:

In fiction, a MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object itself, but rather its effect on the characters and their motivations.

The dying stranger

In The Hole In The Wall, Cap’en Nat, Stevie and a few regulars are in the pub one evening when there’s a sudden bang and grunt against the parlour door. They open it and an unconscious body slumps onto the floor while another figure – which had been stooping over it – leaps up and runs off, with Cap’en Nat in hot pursuit.

It is an inky night so Cap’en Nat can’t see the identity of the figure he pursues down the quayside steps and who jumps into the captain’s own dinghy, casts off and within seconds is lost amid the maze of barges, coalers and lighters moored to the river bank.

Stevie had also given little-boy chase but almost immediately trodden on something soft which he assumed was grandad’s tobacco pouch – the Cap’en had been filling his pipe when the bang on the door happens. So Stevie scoops it up and follows the fleeing figures.

The fugitive gets away, the characters all crowd round the man on the floor who has been stabbed in the chest, puncturing the lung, and he quickly drowns in his own blood. One of the many macabre images which imprints itself on the young boy’s memory.

The fortune in notes

More importantly, when Stevie shows his grandad what he picked up, it turns out to be a notebook containing a huge amount of cash – £800 in white banknotes! This is the MacGuffin or target or goal or treasure, which triggers the complicated action of the second half of the novel.

In scenes which are shocking or upsetting or lurid or conspiratorial, the reader then slowly learns that:

  • The brig Stevie’s dad (and Cap’en Nat’s son) was aboard as first mate, the Juno has gone down and he was drowned. But not before they receive a letter from him claiming that the owners want it to sink in order to claim the insurance and that the corrupt captain has tried to run it aground several times, with only Stevie’s dad preventing him. Now (he writes, in his last letter) he is worried that they’ll murder or drug him in his sleep, and do it so he goes down with the ship. Which is what then appeared to happen, according to newspaper reports…
  • The Juno was owned by the firm of Viney and Marr. They were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Their plan was to sink the Juno and quickly claim the insurance money in order to pay off their creditors. But due to the delays caused by Stevie’s dad, and the rumours that spread about the ship (at each port it docked some of the crew jumped ship with stories about its owners’ plans) the insurance money might now be difficult to claim. So the partners had liquidated all their assets and gathered the cash into the pocket book – the one Stevie found.
  • But no sooner had they done this than Marr did a runner, betraying his partner Viney and taking all the money. But he didn’t get far. He’d begun drinking in pubs along the Highway and we meet him, very drunk, in a squalid furniture-less thieves den, accompanied by the prostitute known as Musky Mag, serenaded by the sinister blind fiddler, Blind George, and loomed over by the book’s bully-boy murderer, Dan Ogle. Mag picks Marr’s pocket but Dan indicates he wants more than that. Later, three sailors are seen staggering down to the docks, singing and weaving. In fact only two of them are actually walking, supporting the middle figure who appears comatose. It is Marr. They have killed him. (In later scenes, we see Mag alone in the room where the murder took place as night falls and, with Poe-like or Dickensian luridness, she watches the shadows recreate the shape of the black thing which lay there i.e. Marr’s body).
  • Having murdered Marr for the pocket book full of notes, Ogle gives the pocket book to an associate to hide somewhere safe but, following him, sees him make for Grandfather Nat’s. Now we have already seen enough through Stevie’s eyes to begin to realise that Cap’en Nat is in fact a ‘fence’, a handler of stolen goods. He is careful about it – dodgy-looking blokes come to the snug bar, show him silvery objects which Stevie only partly sees, and he sends them out again. But tips a wink to a pale quiet man who sits in the corner of the pub all day, who then goes out to negotiate with the bringers of stolen goods. The reader realises that what’s going on is that Nat assesses the loot, then the pale man actually pays for it. Thus, if ever caught or questioned by the police, Cap’en Nat can honestly say that he never pays for stolen goods.
  • We learn more about Cap’en Nat’s illicit activities when, in one tense midnight scene, Stevie hears noises and creeps down the stairs from his bedroom in the attic, squeaks open the door into the lumber room – and discovers Cap’en Nat receiving smuggled tobacco, handed up to him through a secret opening in the floorboards of the bit of the pub which overhangs the river, by the lighterman Bill Stagg (chapter 14).
  • Back to Ogle following his associate. Ogle realises that his associate was clearly making for Cap’en Nat’s in order to get rid of the hot money (the bank notes had numbers which would be recorded and noticed if handed in to a proper bank). Infuriated, Ogle catches up with him right at the door of the pub, stabs him and is in the middle of getting the pocket book out of his pockets when the door opens and Cap’en Nat gives chase.

All of that is the background to the scene we witnessed, of everyone quietly drinking when there’s a thump at the pub door, the figures slumps into the bar and Cap’en Nat gives chase of the person we now know was Ogle.

So, number one, Marr and Viney are responsible for the death of Cap’en Nat’s son and Stevie’s father. Stevie notices a change come over his granddad, a new bitterness and determination.

  • However, it turns out that the crooked ship-owner Viney has something over the Cap’en. Years ago, when Nat was still a sailor, a man was lost overboard on a ship on which he was first mate. The Cap’en insists the drowned sailor was drunk, but Viney says he can bring witnesses to prove that the Cap’en murdered him, by throwing him overboard. The fact that he can be blackmailed and silenced by the man who more or less killed his own son hardens the Cap’en’s heart, but it is very effective that we see this process mostly through the eyes of little Stevie who notices a change come over his revered granddad.
  • There’s an added complication in the form of the gaunt harridan of a cleaning lady who the Cap’en employs, Mrs Grimes. Always sneaking around the place, she spies the pocket book being opened and assessed and, in a broadly comic scene, later steals it and tries to smuggle it out of the house in the rubbish scuttle. Unfortunately for her, the drunk artist Mr Cripps is hanging round (as usual) and offers to help the little lady – in order to suck up to the Cap’en – but when he grabs one end of the scuttle and Mrs Grimes refuses to let go of the other, the scuttle tips over and spills out the loot, hidden under the rubbish. Nat sacks her on the spot, with typical graciousness refusing to report her to the police, and giving her a week’s pay. Mrs Grime is a convincing portrait of an embittered harridan and this kindness only drives her to even greater heights of vindictiveness. From now to the end of the book she bends all her energies to ruining the Cap’en anyway she can think of.

A congeries of conspiracies

So the scene is set for the final third of the book to boil down into a very complicated series of manoeuvres between five crooked characters who are all conspiring to regain the pocket book and its £800 and/or ruin the Cap’en – namely Dan Ogle the murderer, his girlfriend Mag, Viney seeking to get his money back, Blind George who knows what is going on and sees the opportunity to squeeze a percentage of the loot for himself, and vindictive Mrs Grimes.

After murdering the unnamed associate on Cap’en Nat’s door, Ogle flees Wapping and is hiding out in the lime works out on the remote marshes towards the River Lea, owned by the brother of Ogle’s brother-in-law. This brother makes his first appearance as a stranger wandering around Wapping, his clothes stained with white lime, and so he is henceforth referred to as ‘the limy man’. The remote setting is a pretext for Morrison to give vivid descriptions of what was then waste land on the edge of London – with one particularly good description of the sun setting over the smog of London in the west.

Out to these remote wastes comes Ogle’s mistress, Mag, with beer and sustenance, though Ogle treats her with all the casual brutality which Bill Sykes shows towards Nancy in Oliver Twist.

Then out to this remote location comes Viney the crooked shipowner, who has learned through the grapevine that Ogle somehow has gotten hold of his money. The pair of crooks have a long interview in which they consider every variation of theft, burglary and mugging of the Cap’en to get the money back, before Ogle settles on a simple plan. Viney will knock on the pub door late one night, after closing time, and when the Cap’en opens, Ogle will step up behind the Cap’en and crack him on the head. Then it will be easy to clean out the pub, not only of the £800 but all the other goods hidden there.

The blinding of Ogle

So far so wicked and corrupt. But there is a big twist in the story. Blind George, the wheedling, whining, calculating blind musician and crook, tipped off as to Ogle’s location, rather improbably taps his way all the way out across the waste marshes and finds Ogle in some half-derelict sheds at the bottom of his brother-in-law’s limeworks. Here he has a lengthy interview with Ogle wherein he, George, tries to bargain for a share of the loot.

Ogle rudely and brutally denies him any involvement and their argument quickly gets out of hand, with Ogle pushing George and George retaliating with his stick which cracks Ogle hard on the wrist and makes him see red. Ogle knocks George to the ground, kicking and punching him till his face is red and bloody. All the while George is yelling out, ‘Attack a blind man, would ye? Wouldn’t be so easy if you was blind, too, then, would it? If we woz both blind I’d give yer a licking’ and so on.

What I hadn’t anticipated is that, after a scene or two back at the pub in order to vary the scene and pace, the narrative returns us to follow a shadowy figure tapping its way across the wasteland the next evening, carrying a sort of sock full of something. Progressing down the muddy banks of the River Lea. Soaking the sock. Then everso quietly going to the door of the ramshackle shed where Ogle is sleeping. Silently lifting the latch. Tiptoeing inside…

And then there is a truly blood-curdling scene – because the figure is Blind George and he is carrying lime which he was soaked in the water in order to turn it into the highly acidic quicklime and, before Ogle can waken, he has thrust two handfuls of quicklime into Ogle’s eyes and holds them there despite the man’s kicking and punching and fighting, holds them there long enough to sear the flesh of his face and to blind Ogle.

Then he lets go and sneaks away from the screaming figure. ‘Now we’re equal, Dan Ogle,’ he mocks. ‘Now you know what it’s like to fight in the dark,’ and he slips away as the limy man comes running from his nearby cottage.

Ogle is taken to the Accident Hospital. Cut to Viney arriving at the hospital after he’s heard the news, to discover Mag in floods of tears. Nonetheless, despite his permanent injury, Viney discovers that Ogle is more determined than ever to get ‘his’ money.

Fiery climax

And so – partly seen through Stevie’s eyes, partly through the third-person narrator – the story builds to its climax. Viney and Ogle go through with their plan. Viney takes Ogle to the alley beside The Hole In The Wall and positions him by a post just a step or two from the back door. Then knocks. The Cap’en answers.

Viney is nervous. The Cap’en has all sorts of reasons to hate him, it is late at night in a dark alley. But to Viney’s astonishment, when he demands the money, instead of arguing a bit, something in Cap’en Nat snaps. Up till now, for the entire time that they’ve had the pocket book, Grandfather Nat has sworn to Stevie that the money is theirs, finders-keepers, there’s no other claimant and that they will use it to pay Stevie through a good public school, kitted out in all the right togs, and make a ‘gentleman’ of him.

But news of the death of his son, and the his last letter which revealed that the shipwreck was all a wicked scheme by Viney and Marr, made the Cap’en, at first, flare up with anger and then… and then… realise he is sick of crime and a life of crime.

Now, to Viney’s amazement he turns, goes up to Stevie’s room and, to Stevie’s dismay, gets the pocket book out from its hiding place and insists that he ‘has to do right’; he has to give it back to its rightful owner.

Back in the alley he hands the pocket book over to Viney but then – seizes him and insists that they’re going to the police with the whole story. The Cap’en will admit he held onto the pocket book and money which wasn’t his, he’ll even come clean about the drowning incident on the boat all those years ago – but he’ll also tell them all about how Viney and Marr conspired to sink the Juno for the insurance money. It’s time for him to come completely clean and make a new start.

Viney whines, complains, argues and then wriggles himself free and sets off down the alleyways towards the Highway, with the Cap’en in hot pursuit. Stevie has watched all this from his bedroom window, pulls on some clothes and also goes haring off after his granddad.

‘Police, police, stop thief’ the Cap’en yells as he runs. When Viney sees a couple of constables approaching over the bridge of the lock which separates the spit of land the Hole In The Wall sits on from the mainland, Viney instead heads for the actual lock gates, which are narrower, much more precarious, and only secured with a low chain (as anyone who’s crossed an English lock knows).

In his panic and in the dark Viney misses the sharp angle where the two lock gates meet, trips over the low chain which always lines locks gates, and plunges into the bubbling water at the foot of the gates, instantly disappearing in the strong undertow.

The Cap’en and Stevie arrive along with the police who’d been crossing the bridge and a crowd of neighbours woken by the hue and cry. But they are still staring down into the bubbles and swirl of water, when others raise a cry. The Hole In The Wall is on fire!

Remember that Ogle had been left by a post deep in the darkness of the alleyway, waiting to strike the Cap’en and equally surprised when Nat simply handed over the money? Well, once everyone ran off, he saw his opportunity and had blundered into the pub in search of goods and money. But, in doing so, he had knocked over the paraffin lantern and the dry old house had gone up like a torch.

Now a huge crowd gathers round the flame-ridden building and watch horrified as a human figure appears shrieking in agony at a window, a human torch. It is Ogle. First blinded, then burned to death. When the fire brigade arrives its sole concern is to protect the neighbouring buildings. The Hole In The Wall is a lost cause. As Stevie laconically records:

And that was the end of the Hole in the Wall: the end of its landlord’s doubts and embarrassments and dangers, and the beginning of another chapter in his history – his history and mine.

A swift half page coda ties up the loose ends. Viney’s body was never found. Ogle’s body was found, burned to a crisp. Humorous Mr Cripps tried to claim insurance for the loss of his priceless works of art. Mrs Grimes continued her vendetta against the Cap’en and was eventually locked up for assaulting a police officer in her frustration. The Hole In The Wall was rebuilt in brick and renamed. The Cap’en, or Captain Nat Kemp to give him his proper name, turns to honest work, enlarging the nearby wharf which he owned and setting up a company of lighters or flat-bottomed barges.

And little Stevie? In a plain sentence which, after so much storm and stress, moved me to tears:

As for me, I went to school at last.

Characters

This feels the most Dickensian of Morrison’s novels. In the Jago life is too brutal for people to be afforded much description. They just fight and steal and sometimes seem a bit interchangeable, in activity and appearance.

What is Dickensian is the way the brutality of this novel is leavened by the innocence and charm of eight-year-old Stevie, which allows Morrison to approach his characters with a bit more genuine humour than in the Jago.

Also the point of the Jago is that its inhabitants are trapped in it, stuck in a very limited space with only occasional outings to Shoreditch High Street or a little further afield as relief, creating a horrible sense of claustrophobia.

By contrast, the characters of the Hole range widely, and the presence of the mighty Thames, the bustling Ratcliffe Highway, the other pubs and alleys, and the wide wasteland towards the River Lea, all this variety of scene somehow allows for more variety and colour among the characters. Grim they may mostly be, but they are more variegated and vivid and lively than the Jagos.

There was one quiet little man in their midst, who, when not eating cake or drinking wine, was sucking the bone handle of a woman’s umbrella, which he carried with him everywhere, indoors and out. He was in the custody of the largest and grimmest of ladies, whom the others called Aunt Martha.

On the victim’s opposite side sat a large-framed bony fellow, with a thin, unhealthy face that seemed to belong to some other body, and dress that proclaimed him long-shore ruffian. The woman called him Dan, and nods and winks passed between the two, over the drooping head between them. Next to Dan was an ugly rascal with a broken nose; singular in that place, as bearing in his dress none of the marks of waterside habits, crimpery and the Highway, but seeming rather the commonplace town rat of Shoreditch or Whitechapel. And, last, a blind fiddler sat in a corner, fiddling a flourish from time to time, roaring with foul jest, and roiling his single white eye upward.

The man’s right eye was closed, but the left was horribly wide and white and rolling, and it quite unpleasantly reminded me of a large china marble that lay at that moment at the bottom of my breeches pocket, under some uniform buttons, a key you could whistle on, a brass knob from a fender, and a tangle of string. So much indeed was I possessed with this uncomfortable resemblance in later weeks, when I had seen Blind George often, and knew more of him, that at last I had no choice but to fling the marble into the river; though indeed it was something of a rarity in marbles

It was anything but a clean face on the head, and it was overshadowed by a very greasy wideawake hat. Grubbiness and unhealthy redness contended for mastery in the features, of which the nose was the most surprising, wide and bulbous and knobbed all over; so that ever afterward, in any attempt to look Mr. Cripps in the face, I found myself wholly disregarding his eyes, and fixing a fascinated gaze on his nose; and I could never recall his face to memory as I recalled another, but always as a Nose, garnished with a fringe of inferior features.

She was scarce an attractive woman, I thought, being rusty and bony, slack-faced and very red-nosed. She swept the carpet and dusted the shelves with an air of angry contempt for everything she touched… ‘Ho!’ interjected Mrs. Grimes, who could fill a misplaced aspirate with subtle offence… It was not long ere I learned that Mrs. Grimes was one of those persons who grumble and clamour and bully at everything and everybody on principle, finding that, with a concession here and another there, it pays very well on the whole; and so nag along very comfortably through life. As for herself, as I had seen, Mrs. Grimes did not lack the cunning to carry away any fit of virtuous indignation that seemed like to push her employer out of his patience.

There was a knock at the back door, which opened, and disclosed one of the purlmen, who had left his boat in sight at the stairs, and wanted a quart of gin in the large tin can he brought with him. He was a short, red-faced, tough-looking fellow, and he needed the gin, as I soon learned, to mix with his hot beer to make the purl. (Bill Stagg)

I was not prepossessed by Mr. Viney. His face – a face no doubt originally pale and pasty, but too long sun-burned to revert to anything but yellow in these later years of shore-life – his yellow face was ever stretched in an uneasy grin, a grin that might mean either propitiation or malice, and remained the same for both. He had the watery eyes and the goatee beard that were not uncommon among seamen, and in total I thought he much resembled one of those same hang-dog fellows that stood at corners and leaned on posts in the neighbourhood, making a mysterious living out of sailors; one of them, that is to say, in a superior suit of clothes that seemed too good for him. I suppose he may have been an inch taller than Grandfather Nat; but in the contrast between them he seemed very small and mean.

Dickens’ influence broods over the whole story. The Hole In The Wall pub reminds me of the The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters pub in Our Mutual Friend. The scenes out on the marshes towards the River Lea remind me of the opening and the ending of Great Expectations. The bully boy Dan Ogle reminds me of Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist and the pathetic devotion of Musky Mag reminds me of the equally ill-rewarded loyalty of Nancy.

The way so much adult brutality is seen and only partially understood by an innocent boy reminds me of Oliver Twist, and also David Copperfield, and Pip. Little Stevie is a very effective creation. We know that little Arthur Morrison grew up near the docks in Poplar on the Isle of Dogs where his dad was an engine-fitter. A lot of Stevie’s impressions and feelings have the force of real experiences and memories.

And the way the narrative is split between Stevie’s innocent point of view and the unadulterated view of the omniscient narrator, reminds me of the similar split between the first-person Esther Summerson chapters and the third-person narrator chapters of Bleak House.

This is a gripping novel – not, maybe, a work of art like Henry James or Joseph Conrad, but with far more psychological penetration and artfulness than Morrison’s detective stories. If you read A Child of the Jago you should read this too.

Sea songs

This is one of the songs performed on the fiddle by Blind George.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

E.W. Hornung

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison (1896)

H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells’s novella, A Story of The Days To Come, is set in the futuristic London of 2100, and feature a hero and heroine who start out life as comfortably middle class. But bad luck – and a scheming rival – results in our hero losing his job, the girl losing her inheritance, forcing the couple to move into a smaller flat, sell their belongings and, eventually, pushing them down into the underclass of the city of the future, which is governed by the iron hand of the Labour Company.

In their new degradation they are forced to wear the blue serge uniform of the Labour Corps, given free housing and food but in return have to do degrading manual labour down in the bowels of the city. Wells describes their fall thus:

In spite of their inclination towards the ancient fashion of living, neither Elizabeth nor Denton had been sufficiently original to escape the suggestion of their surroundings. In matters of common behaviour they had followed the ways of their class, and so when they fell at last to be Labour Serfs it seemed to them almost as though they were falling among offensive inferior animals; they felt as a nineteenth-century duke and duchess might have felt who were forced to take rooms in the Jago. (Chapter 4 – Underneath)

‘Take rooms in the Jago?’ What is this Jago which Wells refers to?

The Jago

‘The Jago’ was a fictional name which the social realist novelist Arthur Morrison had given to a grid of slum streets which were the focus of his best-selling novel of East End slum life, A Child of the Jago. This searing account of poverty and brutality was published in 1896, just three years before Wells’s story, so Well’s reference was still very topical.

This is how Morrison describes his blighted slum.

From where, off Shoreditch High Street, a narrow passage, set across with posts, gave menacing entrance on one end of Old Jago Street, to where the other end lost itself in the black beyond Jago Row; from where Jago Row began south at Meakin Street, to where it ended north at Honey Lane – there the Jago, for one hundred years the blackest pit in London, lay and festered; and half-way along Old Jago Street a narrow archway gave upon Jago Court, the blackest hole in all that pit.

 The novel includes this hand-made sketch of the district.

Morrison’s Old Jago was in fact a lightly fictionalised version of the real-life network of slums around Old Nichol Street, east of Shoreditch High Street, which Morrison had been introduced to by a vicar working in the area, the Reverend Osborne Jay of Holy Trinity Church.

Jay suggested to Morrison, who had already written short stories about life in the East End slums, that it would be the perfect setting for a longer work of fiction-cum-reportage.

Even as the book was being published and reviewed, the Old Nichol Rookery, as it was known, was being demolished and replaced by a tidy Victorian housing estate – buildings which look a lot like army barracks, much like the Peabody estates scattered all over London. The process is referred to in chapter 29. Eventually, the old street pattern was demolished, leaving only Old Nichol Street remaining. This is what it looks like nowadays.

In 2018, when I went to have a look, the tall forbidding Victorian barracks were still there, but the streets around them have become highly gentrified – there was a very expensive designed trainer shop, several cafes and an art gallery. Difficult to imagine that back in 1896 it was one of the ‘darkest holes’ in the East End .

Photo of Boundary Street, London, taken in 1890, part of the Old Nichol slum.

Boundary Street, London, part of the Old Nichol slum, in 1890

Arthur Morrison

Morrison had a fascinating career. Born in Poplar in 1863, the son of an engine-fitter in the docks, his parents were responsible enough to send him to school, where he learned to read and write and which led on to him getting a job, aged 17, as an office boy at the London School Board.

He worked his way up to third-class clerk at the so-called People’s Palace, an educational establishment set up to serve the East End slums, and which eventually became part of the modern Queen Mary, University of London.

By his early 20s Morrison was trying his hand at writing sketches of life in East London and by the late 1880s he was placing these sketches in local magazines. He worked these up into short stories about the area, and was able to sell these to prestigious literary magazines including the National Observer, whose influential editor, W. E. Henley, encouraged and supported him. The best ones were brought together in the collection Tales of Mean Streets, published in 1894.

At the same time Morrison cashed in on the success of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and invented a detective of his own, Martin Hewitt, who uses his uncanny deductive abilities to solve crimes, all witnessed and recorded by his faithful and rather bumbling amanuensis, the journalist Brett. You can read the stories online.

Morrison wrote an impressive 25 Hewitt stories, but also tried his hand with a different type of criminal investigator, Horace Dorrington, a deeply corrupt detective about whom he wrote seven stories. Morrison was by now writing for a living and turned out whatever seemed likely to sell.

In the middle of all this activity, encouraged and supplied with anecdotes and information by the Reverend Jay, Morrison wrote his first full-length novel, A Child of the Jago, which became an immediate best-seller, caused a storm of protest, and prompted Morrison to reply to the many attacks made on him in the press and via letters.

In 1899 he published To London Town, which he claimed concluded a loose trilogy of books about London begun by Mean Streets and Jago. In 1900 he published Cunning Murrell, a novel describing the exploits of a mid-Victorian magician and healer and in 1902 another story of the East End, The Hole in the Wall.

But the most fascinating thing about Morrison is the way he escaped his background. As soon as he had money, he began collecting Japanese woodcuts and became an expert on Japanese art, writing a number of monographs and books on the subject. (It is striking that the preface to A Child of the Jago, which he wrote to defend it from critical attacks, almost immediately goes off-subject to invoke the evolution of ‘realism’ in Japanese art – a subject few of even his best-educated readers can have been familiar with).

As his writing took off, Morrison moved out of the slums to rural Chingford, then to Epping Forest, then completely out of London to Chalfont St Peter, retired from journalism and wrote only occasional short stories. When he died, in 1945, he bequeathed his important collection of Japanese paintings, woodcuts, and ceremonial tea porcelain to the British Museum.

Poverty writing of the 1890s

In the 1880s and ’90s there was an explosion of interest in life in the slums of British cities. Articles and books were also written about Glasgow and Birmingham but, as by far the largest city in Britain, and the capital of the Largest Empire The World Had Ever Seen, most of this writing concentrated on the appalling conditions of life in parts of East London.

George Gissing wrote a stream of novels about the hard life in the slums, Conan Doyle made Sherlock Holmes venture out East for tales of shocking brutality. The Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 and 1889 solidified the area’s reputation among respectable Londoners as a sewer of vice, drunkenness, prostitution, and horrifying violence.

A trickle of books about the area in the 1880s turned into a flood by concerned observers, politicians, social commentators, bishops and radicals, all keen to propose their own solutions to the poverty, squalor, vice and violence.

  • In Darkest England and the Way Out by William Booth (1890)
  • Life in Darkest London by A.O. Jay (1891)
  • Life and Labour of the People of London in Nine Volumes (1892-7)
  • The Social Problem and its Possible Solution (1893)
  • Neighbours of Ours: Slum Stories of London by Henry W Nevinson (1895)
  • A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison (1896)
  • A Story of Shoreditch by A.O. Jay (1896)
  • Liza of Lambeth by William Somerset Maugham (1897)
  • East London by Walter Besant (1899)
  • To London Town by Arthur Morrison (1899)

A Child of the Jago

It’s a relatively short novel, just 153 pages in the Oxford World Classic edition I have. In fact the lengthy introduction, chronology, bibliography, several prefaces, the extensive notes, a handy selection of contemporary reviews of the novel plus a glossary of lowlife vocabulary, all assembled by editor Peter Miles, themselves make up 89 pages, over half as much again as the text.

So what is A Child of the Jago about? Well, in the middle of this forest of annotations and historical explanations lies the story of young Dicky Perrott, living in an unheated, unwatered slum bedroom with his violent dad, Josh, and a mum, Hannah, so demoralised she can barely nurse the ten-month-old baby, Looey.

The doors have long ago been removed from the doorways. Many of the doorframes have been chopped up and used as firewood. There’s one cold tap in the backyard for the whole house, but it rarely works and periodically the tap itself is stolen. There’s no basin, soap or towel in the house. Everyone stinks.

The rotting slums are never quiet, because somewhere someone is always fighting or taunting, crying or wailing. The Jago as a whole is dominated by civil war between the Rann and Leary families and their respective auxiliaries. Low level fighting never ceases, and sometimes builds up to impressive crescendos.

Fighting began early, fast and furious. The Ranns got together soon, and hunted the Learys up and down, and attacked them in their houses: the Learys’ chances only coming when straggling Ranns were cut off from the main body. The weapons in use, as was customary, rose in effectiveness by a swiftly ascending scale. The Learys, assailed with sticks, replied with sticks torn from old packing-cases, with protruding nails. The two sides bethought them of coshes simultaneously, and such as had no coshes – very few – had pokers and iron railings. Ginger Stagg, at bay in his passage, laid open Pud Palmer’s cheek with a chisel; and, knives thus happily legitimised with the least possible preliminary form, everybody was free to lay hold of whatever came handy.

Bob the Bender was reported to have a smashed nose, and Sam Cash had his head bandaged at the hospital. At the Bag of Nails in Edge Lane, Snob Spicer was knocked out of knowledge with a quart pot, and Cocko Harnwell’s missis had a piece bitten off of one ear.

It is a world of relentless violence. Trying to escape across a yard, Dicky’s mum is cornered by the notorious Sally Green, who knocks her and the baby she’s holding, to the floor, pins her down and starts biting and ripping her neck. Sally’s enemy, Norah Walsh sees this happening and runs at Sally with a bottle. She smashes the bottom off against a kerb, pulls Sally off Dicky’s mum, and stabs Sally again and again with the shards of broken glass, in the face. Yes. It is really brutal.

In between all this mayhem, Dicky nips along to the opening of a philanthropical institute, the satirically named East End Elevation Mission and Pansophical Institute. While worthy middle-class folk congratulate themselves on their philanthropy, Dicky pinches the bishop’s pocket watch and runs home to give it to his dad. But instead of being please, his dad beats him with his belt till he bleeds in several places on his back and legs.

Morrison is satirical about the well-intentioned middle-class’s efforts to help the slum dwellers, channelling Dickens.

The good Bishop, amid clapping of hands and fluttering of handkerchiefs, piped cherubically of everything. He rejoiced to see that day, whereon the helping hand of the West was so unmistakably made apparent in the East. He rejoiced also to find himself in the midst of so admirably typical an assemblage – so representative, if he might say so, of that great East End of London, thirsting and crying out for – for Elevation: for that – ah – Elevation which the more fortunately circumstanced denizens of – of other places, had so munificently – laid on. The people of the East End had been sadly misrepresented – in popular periodicals and in – in other ways. The East End, he was convinced, was not so black as it was painted. (Applause.)

Morrison’s attitude towards the slum dwellers is harder to gauge. His basic approach is to tell it like it is, to simply record the fights, casual violence, poverty and filthiness, all dipped in a layer of biting irony. One reasonably attractive woman makes a profession of luring sailors back to her rooms, where her husband hits them on the head with a foot long iron bar with a knob at the end, then they rob the victim of all valuables and throw him out in the street, where the lesser vultures pick over the leavings, removing shoes and belts.

The cosh was a foot length of iron rod, with a knob at one end, and a hook (or a ring) at the other. The craftsman, carrying it in his coat sleeve, waited about dark staircase corners till his wife (married or not) brought in a well drunken stranger: when, with a sudden blow behind the head, the stranger was happily coshed, and whatever was found on him as he lay insensible was the profit on the transaction. In the hands of capable practitioners this industry yielded a comfortable subsistence for no great exertion.

Morrison deploys an ironic or sardonic tone throughout. The victim is ‘happily’ coshed, the event is referred to as a ‘transaction’, the muggers are ‘capable practitioners’. For the most part this knowing irony works well. I suppose it reflects the position of the author who had one leg in the area and its violent underclass, and the other on the ladder up into gainful employment and ‘respectability’. Irony helps him to manage the detachment of both him, and the presumed middle-class reader, from the appalling scenes he describes.

But it is an often angry irony, a kind of exasperated humour which resents both the violent chavs he’s describing, and the ignorance of the middle-class audience he’s writing for. He is as dismissive of middle-class do-gooders as he is of his violent proles.

Here he is sarcastically describing the reason the half-respectable Roper family are disliked i.e. for not behaving like the rest of the Jago.

The Ropers were disliked as strangers: because they furnished their own room, and in an obnoxiously complete style; because Roper did not drink, nor brawl, nor beat his wife, nor do anything all day but look for work; because all these things were a matter of scandalous arrogance, impudently subversive of Jago custom and precedent. Mrs Perrott was bad enough, but such people as these!

This facetiousness extends to the technique I pointed out in my review of Tales of Mean Streets, which is for Morrison to describe the outrageous behaviour and values of the Jagos – their amorality, thieving, violent, ignorant and careless behaviour – as if it was quite natural and universally accepted. It’s a technique which combines anger, bitterness and humour in a compelling way. For example, after Josh Perrott is arrested, Dicky gets home to find his mum distraught.

Hannah Perrott sat in her room, inert and lamenting. Dicky could not rouse her, and at last he went off by himself to reconnoitre about Commercial Street Police Station, and pick up what information he might; while a gossip or two came and took Mrs Perrott for consolation to Mother Gapp’s. Little Em, unwashed, tangled and weeping, could well take care of herself and the room, being more than two years old.

So the two-year-old is left completely by itself – and this is what I mean by Morrison ventriloquising the values of the Jago – everyone in the story considering that being more than two-years-old means she is well able to take care of herself ‘and the room’. Later, in an even more throwaway moment, when Hannah and Dicky go to visit Josh in gaol, they leave two-year-old Little Em ‘sprawling in the Jago gutters.’ As a middle-class reader I am duly horrified. And that is Morrison’s intention.

Archaic phraseology

A slightly irritating thing about the style is the use of archaic turns of phrase, medievalisms, Biblical terms. This is found in the prose of William Morris, who I’ve just reread, and who has the excuse that he was consciously trying to revive medieval crafts and mentality.

It’s much weirder to find it in the prose of the father of science fiction, H.G. Wells. Wells and Morrison both combine a permanent low-level facetiousness with odd medievalisms lifted from Sir Walter Scott or the Bible.

I wonder if describing the brutal modern world in turns of phrase lifted from medieval romance is intended to be satirical? Or is he mocking the heavy-handed prose of Times editorials and church sermons? Or was it just was the prose style of the day?

Dicky saw a new world of dazzling delights. Cake – limitless cake, coffee, and the like whenever he might feel moved thereunto.

A man pulled Norah off. On him she turned, and he was fain to run…

Without, the fight rallied once more.

He was near as eminent a fighter among the men as his sister among the women…

But he was ever indulgent…

Dicky, with his hands in his broken pockets, and thought in his small face, whereon still stood the muddy streaks of yesterday’s tears.

He had ventured into the Jago because the police were in possession, Dicky thought; and wondered in what plight he would leave, had he come at another time.

The hunchback weak, but infuriate, buffeting, biting and whimpering; Dicky infuriate too…

But Dicky and his bulge he saw ere they were well over the threshold.

Leaning back in his seat, swinging his feet, and looking about at the walls with the grocers’ almanacks hanging thereto.

Old Fisher came down from the top-floor back, wherein he dwelt with his son Bob, Bob’s wife and two sisters, and five children.

Scarce were they vanished above, however, when the little hunchback heard his father and mother on the lower stairs.

But a well-dressed stranger was so new a thing in the Jago, this one had dropped among them so suddenly, and he had withal so bold a confidence, that the Jagos stood irresolute.

‘Scarce’, ‘near’ – why don’t they have -ly on the end and so function as normal adjectives? Is dropping the ‘-ly’ meant to give them a more resonant Biblical flavour, and thereby somehow ennoble the style? Maybe it’s a tone or register we just don’t ‘get’ any more. Whatever the motive, I think it mars his style.

That said, I did notice that the incidence of these ironic archaisms did lessen as the book progresses, Maybe Morrison got fed up of them himself.

By contrast, Morrison’s handling of dialogue feels to me much more confident and accurate. It’s often much more enjoyable, more authentic, to read the novel’s dialogue than the prose narrative.

‘I don’t s’pose father’s ‘avin’ a sleep outside, eh?’
The woman sat up with some show of energy. ‘Wot?’ she said sharply. ‘Sleep out in the street like them low Ranns an’ Learys? I should ‘ope not. It’s bad enough livin’ ‘ere at all, an’ me being used to different things once, an’ all. You ain’t seen ‘im outside, ‘ave ye?’
‘No, I ain’t seen ‘im: I jist looked in the court.’ Then, after a pause: ‘I ‘ope ‘e’s done a click,’ the boy said.
His mother winced. ‘I dunno wot you mean, Dicky,’ she said, but falteringly. ‘You—you’re gittin’ that low an’ an’—’
‘Wy, copped somethink, o’ course. Nicked somethink. You know.’

Many writers have tried to depict working class or dialect speech. Off-hand I think Morrison is the most successful at it I’ve ever read.

The plot

Basically it breaks down into three parts.

Part one 

In the first half Dicky is nine-years-old and two types of thing happen. 1. We witness the casual violence, complete amorality, the thieving, mugging, pickpocketing, deceit and small-mindedness which characterise the Jagos, including his own mother and father. 2. Buried amid all the violent incidents, we witness certain strands of the plot which will go on to become important.

Chief among these strands is the way the inhabitants of the persecute the Roper family because they are a tiny bit more respectable than the surrounding crooks. Their son is the same age as Dicky, a hunchback, and sees Dicky sneaking into their rooms to steal a clock.

Later, Dicky feels guilty and slips a music box he’s nicked from a shop on Shoreditch High Street into the Roper family belongings which are all piled on a cart as they pack up and move out of the slum. But when it is discovered it is interpreted as being a trick, obviously stolen and planted there so the police can be tipped off and get the Ropers into trouble. The Ropers don’t move very far away, and the hunchback boy and Dicky grow up to be enemies, engaged in a permanent violent feud. Whenever he sees the hunchback, Dicky attacks him. But the cripple always gets his own back with the simple trick of telling bigger, harder boys that Dicky is boasting he could best them in a fight. With the result that Dicky is continually being attacked by surprise and apparently at random by bigger boys who thrash him.

Although everything is seen through Dicky’s eyes, the disruptive figure who sets bits of plot rolling is the new vicar, a savvy tough exponent of Muscular Christianity – the Reverend Henry Sturt – who sets up a church in a disused barn and takes no nonsense from the Jagos. The Jagos will happily beat up individual policemen, who will only venture into Jago Court, at the centre of the slum, in large numbers. But Father Sturt, as the Jagos come to call him, from the start won’t be intimidated, stands up to even the toughest hard men, and wins a grudging sort of respect. He is ‘the one man who could swim in a howling sea of human wreckage’ (Chapter 26)

(This Father Sturt figure is based on the Reverend Osborne Jay who had approached Morrison and given him a tour of the Jago, and then supplied him with eye-witness descriptions of specific characters and incidents. Since Jay had already set some of these incidents down in his own book, Life in Darkest London, published in 1891, this led to Morrison being accused of plagiarism, a criticism which stung him into writing a preface to the book, which he expanded into a detailed essay discussing ‘realism’ in contemporary literature. From our perspective, it means we can be confident that many of the characters and events described in A Child of the Jago actually took place.)

The plot, in the sense of a linked series of events, is fairly slight. Dicky grows up witnessing a whole series of, mostly violent incidents: in part one by far the most impressive is the prolonged fist fight between his father and Billy Leary, triggered by the attack on Dicky’s mum by a (female) member of the Leary clan.

Part two

In the second part we leap four years and Dicky is now 13 and expected to earn his keep by thieving. In part one we had seen how he was inveigled into nicking things and giving them to a slimy cunning Jewish fence, Mr Aaron Weech. Now, in part two, Father Sturt gets Dicky a job in a shop. The hunchback slopes past, then doubles back several times to check what he’s seeing is correct. Dicky affects to ignore him.

But Weech, upset at the loss of goods Dicky gives him and also nervous that if Dicky turns honest, he might peach on him, manages to get Dicky sacked. Completely innocent, aggrieved, mortified, Dicky goes home in tears where his Dad belts him as punishment for losing the income. At which, giving up on the straight life, Dicky returns to thieving and pick-pocketing with renewed energy.

The biggest scene in part two is when the Jagos invite their rivals from the nearby rookery Love Lane round to Mother Gapp’s pub, the Feathers, for a truce and reconciliation party. Unfortunately Mother Gapp’s pub wasn’t built to be packed to the rafters with shouting stomping toughs and, in an amazing moment, the entire floor gives way and a crowd of Jagos and Dove-Laners all fall five or six feet into the basement, landing amid breaking barrels, broken pint pots and shattered rafters. Immediately thinking the whole thing is a trap, the Dove-Laners turn on the Jagos and there is an almighty scrap.

Amid the fighting Dicky sees the Roper hunchback silhouetted and pushes him into the hole. He hits a barrel, then falls between two barrels and lies still. Is he dead? Dicky legs it.

Dicky’s dad, Josh, has a bit of heroic bad luck. He breaks into an up-market house and has already pocketed a handsome watch when a fat old lummox labours up the stairs and Josh punches him, sending him reeling back down the stairs. Unfortunately for Josh, this fat man is a member of the High Mob, the bejewelled, swanking crooks who have made such a success of a life of crime that they have risen out of the slums and dwell in handsome abodes, though they still sometimes return to the Jago, to flaunt their wealth and especially to view an organised fight, like the fist fight between Josh and Billy Leary which drew an enormous crowd and elaborate betting.

The High Mobsman puts the word out to be alert for his watch, which has his initials on the back. Josh tries a few fences who turn it down with a shudder but the egregious Aaron Weech spies an opportunity to win favour with the Mobsman, tells Josh to return in the morning, at which point there are two constables tipped off to arrest him.

Without Josh to support them, Hannah, Dicky and Little Em sink into real poverty and starve. Hannah has another baby, delivering it herself in their hovel. Kiddo Cook has taken to dropping round spare morsels form his job in the market. One day he pushes the door open to witness the sight of Hannah having just given birth. He hurries to fetch Father Sturt who fetches the surgeon.

Having cleaned Hannah and the baby up, they walk away and the surgeon gives vent to his despair.

Father Sturt met the surgeon as he came away in the later evening, and asked if all were well. The surgeon shrugged his shoulders. ‘People would call it so,’ he said. ‘The boy’s alive, and so is the mother. But you and I may say the truth. You know the Jago far better than I. Is there a child in all this place that wouldn’t be better dead – still better unborn? But does a day pass without bringing you just such a parishioner? Here lies the Jago, a nest of rats, breeding, breeding, as only rats can; and we say it is well. On high moral grounds we uphold the right of rats to multiply their thousands. Sometimes we catch a rat. And we keep it a little while, nourish it carefully, and put it back into the nest to propagate its kind.’

Father Sturt walked a little way in silence. Then he said: – ‘You are right, of course. But who’ll listen, if you shout it from the housetops? I might try to proclaim it myself, if I had time and energy to waste. But I have none – I must work, and so must you. The burden grows day by day, as you say. The thing’s hopeless, perhaps, but that is not for me to discuss. I have my duty.’

The surgeon was a young man, but Shoreditch had helped him over most of his enthusiasms. ‘That’s right,’ he said, ‘quite right. People are so very genteel, aren’t they?’ He laughed, as at a droll remembrance. ‘But, hang it all, men like ourselves needn’t talk as though the world was built of hardbake. It’s a mighty relief to speak truth with a man who knows – a man not rotted through with sentiment. Think how few men we trust with the power to give a fellow creature a year in gaol, and how carefully we pick them! Even damnation is out of fashion, I believe, among theologians. But any noxious wretch may damn human souls to the Jago, one after another, year in year out, and we respect his right: his sacred right.’ (Chapter 29)

If anyone is allowed to have children, then the problem of children brought into the world by drunk, addicted or irresponsible adults is eternal. This appears to be Morrison’s own view because it is repeated in several of the letters which Miles includes in the OUP edition. The infection can never be completely cured. Morrison followed his patron, the Reverend Jay, in thinking that only moving the population lock, stock and barrel to penal colonies in completely different environments might break the cycle of illiteracy, drunkenness, violence and crime. Almost nothing could be done if you just left them to breed in London.

Part three

Another four years pass. The County Council starts to demolish the Jago and replace the tenements with tall, yellow-brick barracks-like apartments. Dicky is a hardened crook, coming up to seventeen. Josh is released from prison. He drinks his way across London to a surly reunion with his long-suffering wife and his unseen child who howls and wails at the sight of him, to the amusement of all the Jagos crammed into the pub.

Bill Rann persuades Josh to take part in a job – ‘cut and dried as a topper’ – to rob Aaron Weech. This is a red rag to a bull since Josh has spent four years in prison mulling over how Weech turned him in and also how he never lifted a finger to help his starving wife and children.

Things go wrong from the start, with the window proving hard to open, and the downstairs rooms proving empty of loot. Climbing the stairs Josh becomes thick-minded with hate, ceasing to make any effort at furtive creeping, clumping, awaking Weech who comes to his door with a lamp in his hand.

In a grim, late-Victorian scene, Josh grips Weech by the neck and slashes at his face, roaring out his list of accusations and blame, until he hacks at Weech’s throat, then lets the bloody lump fall at his feet. But the commotion has drawn the police and when Josh, foolishly looks out the window, by lantern-light several coppers recognise him.

Rann had long since scarpered. Now Josh takes to the rooftops and flees the baying crowd in a scene which is identical to Bill Sykes’s rooftop flight in Oliver Twist, written 60 years earlier. He makes it to a strong iron downpipe, shimmies down it plans to make it to the maze of slums in Honey Lane but hasn’t reckoned on the way the north-east of the slum has been cleared to make room for the new council housing. In the dark he falls into a hole dug for foundations, twisting his ankle, unable to move.

In the next chapter, Morrison again borrows from Dickens in portraying Josh Perrott’s feverish frame of mind, seeing the entire rigmarole of his trial for murder from the perspective of a mind overwhelmed by feverish, fast-moving, inconsequential worries and perceptions, morbidly obsessed with the smell of the old fence’s squalid den, the pervasive smell of rotting pickles, and

when he turned to face the judge again he had forgotten the time, and crowded trivialities were racing through the narrow gates of his brain once more.

We see the lengthy, wordy, repetitive rigmarole of the trial through Josh’s fevered mind, then the guilty verdict, Hannah fainting. Then a few days later he is hustled out of his cell, meekly thanks his gaolers, through the exercise yard and into the execution shed, up the steps to the gallows and then…

Father Sturt tries to give Hannah some charring work, but she’s useless at it. Dicky swears vengeance on the world. He half thinks of suicide but that’s soft talk. He’s got his mum and the kids to look after. He’s walking back to the Jago, with a plan for a job tonight, with Tommy Rann, a builder’s yard in Kingsland, when he runs into a fight. A mob of Jago youth is roused and storming towards Dove Lane. A fight, a fight will clear his head, anything to take his mind off his dad and… So Dicky joins in, storms Dove Lane with the others, throws himself into the centre of the melee, laying about him with a big stick when he feels a sharp punch under the arm and stumbles forward.

There’s blood, the boys nearest cry out that he’s been stabbed. It was his old enemy, the hunchback. The fight breaks up and everyone flees, apart from a few lads who lay Dicky on his back while the blood gurgles into his lungs. The lads come with a loose wooden door, lay him on it and take him to the surgeon. Father Sturt arrives and takes Dicky’s hand. They ask him who did it and to the end Dicky keeps up Jago morality, refusing to snitch.


Life before sex and drugs and rock’n’roll

I’ve been watching the American TV series, The Wire, set in Baltimore and following a team of detectives as they bug and gather evidence on a powerful drug-dealing operation. Series three follows the rivalry and warfare between two leading drug gangs, complicated by the involvement of a wild card drug thief and assassin, Omar.

The point is that a modern depiction of really rough slums (as of 2003, when the TV series is set) features:

Drugs The underworld is dominated by a network of drug dealers – small-timers on the street, distributing for higher-up gang leaders, some of whom have made enough money to begin investing in property and even entering the city’s corrupt politics.

Gun crime Rival gang members freely shoot each other dead, either individually or in mass firefights.

Sex And their lifestyle overlaps with prostitution. The series doesn’t hold back on scenes of dealers getting blow jobs up dark alleyways or shagging hookers doggy-fashion in cars or enjoying the services of high class escorts.

Music All this is set against a semi-permanent backdrop of hard core rap music, music which seems to both describe the violent amoral world of its origins, and encourage and propagate its values.

Looking back at A Child of the Jago requires a big effort to block all this – the contemporary world of music, drugs and violent crime – out of your imagination. In 1896 there were no mass-produced drugs. Some of the characters – including Dicky’s dad – drink heavily but there are no alcoholics, as such, no people completely incapacitated by booze. They all need to stay sharp in order to thieve.

There were no cars, so people were much more limited, psychologically, to their home turf, in this case the grid of Jago streets which provide all kinds of back exits and short cuts which characters can use to escape from the police (on the rare occasions they show up) or, more probably, from other characters after their blood.

There are no guns so, although there is a continual threat of violence, all of which is serious – being bottled in the face, hit on the head with a cosh, whacked on the arm with bits of metal fence or, occasionally, stabbed – in the end the actual homicide rate is relatively low.

There is no music. The baleful events of The Wire play out to a backdrop of music appropriate to the characters, mostly hard-core rap, the indiscriminate consumption of which somehow confirms the shallow amorality of the characters sub-human lifestyle.

But there was no recorded music in Victorian times and so music in the book is rare. Occasionally you might come across a drunk singing on a street corner. More often there’ll be a sing-song in the pub, especially if it has an old joanna which someone can play. Then there are the stern, four-square hymns which emanate from churches or are sung by the Sally Army. But otherwise, the only sounds are of horses and carts and people.

Lastly, there appears to be no sex. The Victorians must have had sex otherwise we wouldn’t be here, but you wouldn’t think so from most of their art or fiction. Right at the start it’s explained that wives are sent out onto the busier streets to lure unwary men back into the Jago, so waiting husbands can cosh and mug them. But if there is any actual sex or prostitution in A Child of the Jago I couldn’t detect it.

Peter Miles, the editor of the Oxford University Press edition which I read, includes a dozen or more contemporary reviews of the novel in  his notes. By far the most interesting is a piece by Robert Blatchford, socialist and editor, who points out this glaring absence of sex from the story.

According to Blatchford, both critics and defenders of A Child of the Jago waste their breath debating its realism, since it omits:

  • the actual swearwords all working men use but are forbidden in print
  • the prevalence of illness
  • the ubiquity of prostitution whereby most of the Jago children are prostitutes before they reach their teens

The social impact of disease and prostitution (and the combination of both in venereal disease) are not discussed because they are not allowed to be discussed under the cultural self-censorship and the actual legal censorship, of the times. Therefore, according to Blatchford, Morrison’s depiction may revel in violence and crime – but massively fails to give a full and accurate picture of life in the slums.

This censorship helps to explain the feeling that, upon reading a book like this, you enter a world of different concerns and issues from our present day.

In the absence of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, what would have concerned a late-Victorian middle-class reader of the book? Well:

  1. The non-stop violence.
  2. The squalor and uncleanliness – this would have been linked to middle-class anxiety about cholera and other contagious diseases spreading to middle-class areas from sinks of filth like the Jago.
  3. The continual low-level thieving – everybody pinches any valuable they see. Though mainly carried out within the slum itself, the crooks do sometimes venture further afield to nick things from shops or pick pockets.
  4. The lack of Christian faith. None of the slum-dwellers knows or cares anything about religion, except as a way of wangling free food and drink out of naive missionaries. In his copious notes, Peter Miles quotes the 1886 census of the East End which declared that 92% of the population did not attend a service of any religious denomination.
  5. The immorality of living in sin. Even if they consider themselves ‘married’, very few of the couples in the book have actually been through a church service. Thus, in the eyes of any theologian, every time they have sex they are committing a cardinal sin which will send their souls to hell. They really did need to be saved, and soon. Hence the expense of money and effort opening Missions and building new churches.
  6. The lack of education. There is a free Board School close to the slum but none of the parents let their children go there because a) it’s a waste of time, they should be home helping their mum or, as soon as they’re able, going out to earn money thieving; b) if they attended school, their names would be taken down, and so the authorities would be able to identify them and their parents. No, no, the Jago parents prefer to stay off the grid, any grid.

Although the underlying principles – extremely poor, uneducated people living in filthy conditions, amid ceaseless violence and crime – are similar, it’s the difference between slum life of 1896 and slum life today which strike the modern reader.

Colourful names

Morrison has a sure way with names. Compare and contrast with his vastly more famous contemporary, Rudyard Kipling (Morrison born 1863, Kipling born 1865) all of whose names, in his hundreds of short stories, are arch and contrived, for example the names of the three soldiers in the British army who feature in some seventeen stories – Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris.

By contrast, Morrison’s characters’ names – like his depiction of late Victorian street speech – feel entirely authentic and colourful:

Mother Gapp, Cocko Harnwell, Kiddo Cook, Josh Perrott, Aaron Weech, Snuffy, Little Em, Jerry Gullen, Jerry Gullen’s canary (actually a knackered old cart horse), Bill Leary, old Beveridge, Pigeony Poll, Tommy Rann, Pip Walsh, Sally Green, Old Fisher, Mr Grinder, Snob Spicer, Bob the Bender, Pud Palmer, Ginger Stagg.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1890s

Joseph Conrad

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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