A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison

First published in 1896, A Child of the Jago is arguably the most significant novel from a school of writing that’s often referred to as ‘slum literature’. Morrison was a journalist and writer who himself came from a working class background and who refused to sugar the pill when it came to exposing the poverty, deprivation and squalor of the poor. His adherence to social realism and the unremitting misery of A Child of the Jago didn’t always win him admirers or friends – he was frequently criticised for making the London poor appear to be little more than base animals. But Morrison knew that unless he spoke as he saw, his work would lack the authenticity needed to raise this issues in the public consciousness. I’m not sure if any research has been done to assess the impact of this so-called ‘slum literature’ on the social policy makers of the day but it’s hard to believe that books which sold in relatively large numbers, as this one did, could have had no influence over the social reform agenda.

The Jago neighbourhood was Morrison’s fictionalised representation of the ‘Old Nichol’ slum, which stood, until the mid-1890s, just behind Shoreditch High Street. The story revolves around Dickey Perrott, the child of the book’s title, and documents and examines his unfolding tragic tale. Central to Morrison’s intention with the book is to show how the brutal environment of the Jago – it’s poverty and animal-like depravity – impacts on a basically decent, good-hearted boy.

Critic, Kevin Swafford puts it this way:

“The novel sought to convince its readers that “savages” were not limited to the “darkest” regions of the colonies but could be found just beyond the West End of London in the eastern sections of the metropolis. Through a direct and ironic narrative style, the novel portrays a culture of crime, degeneration, and deviancy through the details of filth, drunkenness, and violence (what Morrison describes as the values, norms, and realities of the Jago).”

Morrison’s Jago is virtually a police no-go zone where the residents are left to fight it out for themselves – family against family in rolling brawls of shocking violence. Dickey’s father is a renowned hardman and fighter and his mother a broken creature who is so distracted by her life that she neglects her children (letting one die for lack of attention and concern). Dickey at the age of 8 finds himself drawn into street crime and petty theft in scenes that will recall Dickens and Oliver Twist and despite the fact that his conscience clearly troubles him at first, he soon learns that its all about survival – if he is weak he will be the victim.

The reader knows that in this world that is more like a sub-set of Hell, Dickey must either escape or be dragged down – and he’s never going to escape. As Morrison himself notes in the third edition of the novel:

 ‘It was my fate to encounter a place in Shoreditch, where children were born and reared in circumstances which gave them no reasonable chance of living decent lives: where they were born foredamned to a criminal or semi-criminal career.’ No matter what good impulses Dicky has, no matter any kindnesses shown to him by an outsider, nor any stroke of good luck – he cannot evade the destiny that awaits all who are bred within the filthy streets and noxious moral atmosphere of the Jago.”
It’s not a spoiler to say that the action of the novel covers nine years; in the first section, Dicky is eight years old; in the second he is 13; and in the third and last, he has reached 17. There wont be a fourth part because a knife in the back will see to that.

This isn’t an easy read but then again, it isn’t meant to be. In some ways it’s almost a contradiction in terms: a social realist gothic horror story that fulminates with anger over the injustices of poverty, built upon layer after layer of unremitting bad luck, bad decisions and bad blood. And it all plays out against an almost cartoonish backdrop of street fighting gangs ready to take up cudgels against each other at a moment’s notice and with virtually no need for provocation.

The book is available as an Oxford World Classic paperback at next to nothing but you’ll pay considerably more for a good hardback. A first edition will set you back well over one hundred pounds if you were lucky enough to come upon one.


Terry Potter

October 2019

(This article was first published on the Letterpress Project website)

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