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Tag: Brick Lane

A Child of the Jago – Arthur Morrison and the Old Nichol

ARTHUR Morrison became famous as a chronicler of the East End. It wasn’t always a picture that went down well with his fellow historians.

Many criticised his seminal Children of the Jago, first published in 1896, for sensationalising and dramatising the violence and criminal activities of the Old Nichol, that chunk of Shoreditch that Morrison fictionalised as ‘the Jago’. Morrison himself argued that, horrific though the scenes were – in one chapter a woman thrusts a broken bottle into a rival’s face – he had in fact underplayed the violence of an East End he knew very well.

For Morrison was, unlike the majority of his critics, an East Ender himself – though he frequently muddied the waters about his own background. His birth certificate shows he was born at 14 John Street, Poplar on 1 November 1863, the son of an engine fitter. Nothing further is known until 1886 when, at the age of 23, his signature appears on a cash receipt in respect of a month’s salary. At that point he was Clerk to the Beaumont Trustees, the charity that ran the People’s Palace in Mile End.

Morrison became sub editor of the house paper, the Palace Journal, where he penned weekly studies called Cockney Corners. But as the idealistic dream that was the People’s Palace began to collapse in a welter of financial disarray and infighting, Morrison launched into writing for magazines.

By the early 1890s he was a full-time journalist and on the way to being a successful writer of fiction – a talent he also applied to his own life. By now he was saying that he was born in Kent, the son of a ‘professional man’, and the product of a private school. His time at the People’s Palace he now more grandly described as his being ‘the secretary of an old Charity Trust’ or as a ‘civil servant’.

Ironically, his journalism and fiction drew heavily on those East End roots he was trying to bury. It led to an interesting juggling act when critics doubted the realism of his East End books, as he stressed his first-hand knowledge of the area, playing up the People’s Palace connection while covering up his humble roots.

In October 1891 his article A Street appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine. Morrison captured the essence of the East End life he remembered. Rather than the violence and melodrama usually served up in East End fiction of the day, he focused on ‘the deadly monotony and respectability of the mean streets’. The style was melancholy, despairing and terse: ‘a shocking place … an evil growth of slums which hide human creeping things, where foul men and women live on penn’orths of gin … our street is not a place like this’.

A series of short stories grew out of the article. Published in National Observer throughout 1893, they were collected together as Tales of Mean Streets. He then began work on his next London novel To London Town, but events made him put it aside to begin a more pressing work.

Invited to visit the Old Nichol by the local vicar, Morrison was shocked to find an East End that lay just a mile or so from his childhood home, but which was far worse than anything he had seen. The violence and squalor that had previously been absent from his work filled A Child of the Jago*.

Morrison decided to ‘tell the story of a boy who, but for his environment, would have become a good citizen’. Even today, it’s a superbly readable book – violent, grim but compelling reading. Its language may be dated but the pace doesn’t flag until the predictably bleak ending.

The prolific Morrison was meanwhile churning out journalism and hugely successful detective stories. One series featured Martin Hewitt, a deliberately low-key, realistic, working-class, and frankly dull answer to Sherlock Holmes. His other ‘hero’ was Horace Dorrington – a strikingly amoral detective, who employed theft, blackmail, fraud and murder in his work.

But by the early 1900s Morrison was becoming more interested in his great hobby – collecting the Japanese prints he found in shops during his tours of Wapping and Poplar. And at 50 he retired to Essex, devoting his time to the collection of art.

By the time he died in 1945 he was wealthy but obscure. The books which had entertained and shocked were 50 years old and out of print. On his death, his wife Elizabeth obeyed his wished and dispersed his art collection, sold his library and burnt his personal notebooks and papers. Only the original manuscript of A Child of the Jago, presented to Bethnal Green Library in 1936, escaped the flames.

*For the story of the demolition of the Old Nichol, see East End Life 26 November 2001.
A Child of the Jago is currently in print, published by Academy Chicago Publications, ISBN 0897333926, £10.99. It’s also available as an audiocassette on Assembled Stories, ISBN 1860154417, £14.99.

The Brick Lane bombing

THE targeting of Brick Lane may have a twisted logic for Saturday’s bombers.
If there’s one area that has shown the ability of Londoners to welcome and absorb incoming cultures it’s Spitalfields, as wave after wave of immigrants have settled in the area and each added their unique ingredients to the strong cultural mix of the East End.
But if there’s one lesson the politicians of hate haven’t learned from history, it’s that centuries of attacks against the Irish, Huguenots, Jews and now Bangladeshis don’t drive people away, they just make them stronger.
Even before immigration began in earnest, the area had a reputation for religious and cultural diversity – and it was always a haven for refugees and free-thinkers.
In 1675, when there were 1,300 new buildings crammed onto the old market gardens, it was seen as a centre of non-conformity, as citizens resisted the authority of the established Church of England. In fact the first Baptist church in England had been built there in 1612.
And organised opposition to incomers is nothing new. Back in the early 1700s, there had been protests in the streets of Spitalfields as the newly built-up area was settled by Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution in the Low Countries.

Fine weaving skills
They had come, under the protection of the English crown, bringing with them their skills of fine silk-weaving to settle around Fournier and Elder Streets. Many locals resented their new ways, but soon the incomers were bringing wealth and jobs to the area, as Spitalfields became famous for fine cloths.
Then, in 1780, Lord George Gordon played on Protestant fears of Rome to stoke up the Gordon Riots. Many Irish people had settled on the eastern fringes of the City, looking for work and escaping religious persecution, poverty and starvation back in their home country.
On June 2, Roman Catholic chapels in Spitalfields were burned to the ground and the mob made for Downing Street. Most of them never got there, having sacked Langdale’s Brewery in Holborn and poisoned themselves as they gorged on alcohol. Their eccentric leader was arrested for treason and saw out his years in prison.
For many East Enders, their proudest defence against the forces of fascism came in the wake of the Jewish immigration of the late 1800s.
The Jews had come in their thousands, escaping the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe. Jewishness is an essential ingredient in the rich recipe that is today’s East End, whether it be the humour, the numerous charitable schools and settlements the incomers established, or the world-famous Brick Lane Beigel Shop.
But for some, richness, newness and diversity is itself a threat. In the 1930s Oswald Mosley, another rabble-rouser who pitched for people’s fears, led his Blackshirts on provocative marches around Brick Lane and Club Row.
The fascist challenge culminated in the Battle of Cable Street, on October 5, 1936, when East Enders decided once and for all that the racists would not pass.
The Blackshirts were broken, as was their leader, who had marched his troops up the hill and down again – and achieved nothing. He drifted from influence, a forlorn and half-forgotten figure.

Back in the 1970s, Brick Lane was changing again. Most of the Jewish population had moved on, and their place was taken by a new wave of refugees, Bangladeshis – many fleeing the war that led to the secession of the new Bangladesh from Pakistan.
Walk along Brick Lane today and you will see that some mosques carry a Star Of David above the door – testament to their previous lives as synagogues and the capacity of the area to welcome and absorb new religions and cultures.
On Brick Lane though, the Sunday morning market was a magnet for the new fascists of the National Front and, later, the British Movement and British National Party to hand out their literature of race hate.
But, just like in the 1930s, a new wave of defiance rose to meet them.
The late seventies saw the birth of the Anti Nazi League, Rock Against Racism and the anti-racist movement that eventually forced them off the streets.
The last ten years have demonstrated just how good the East End is at absorbing new religions, cultures and ideas – and how much the area gains from it.
As for the fascists – they’ve yet to learn the lessons
of history.

The recent nail bomb attack on Brick Lane confirms the activity of far right neo-Nazi groups in Tower Hamlets.
Although race hate incidents seem to have subsided recently, the East End is not without its fair share of race- related violence.
The British National Party (BNP), which hit the headlines in 1993 when it secured a council by-election victory in Millwall ward, is believed to be a major player in creating racial tension.
Anti-fascist magazine Searchlight gave us details of the BNP’s history and the origins of other organisations focused against Asians, blacks, Jews and other ethnic minorities.
“Formed in 1982, the BNP spent much of the 1980s in the shadow of the National Front (NF),” said the magazine.
“The BNP’s Millwall victory was achieved after several years of activity. “Campaigning under the slogan Rights for Whites, the BNP successfully galvanised electoral support with a public that had become disillusioned with the main political parties.
“However, the election victory was secured at a heavy local cost. The Rights for Whites campaign, launched in 1990 heralded a massive increase in racial violence throughout east London. While BNP members were personally responsible for only a fraction of these incidents, their political activity and direct scapegoating, coupled with equally racist national media contributed to an atmosphere of racial tension.”
“It was also in the early nineties that the Nazi group Combat 18 emerged out of the BNP’s stewarding group.”
“The 1,500 strong BNP now accepts that the majority of British people totally refute Nazi and anti-Semitic ideas.
“But the party is playing with words rather than substance and as night follows day, Nazism, and violence follow the BNP.”

History of Brick Lane

Back in April 1999, Brick Lane was the second target in a bomb campaign targeting minorities in London. A week earlier Brixton, with a large Black community had been targeted. A week later, a Soho gay pub, the Admiral Duncan, in Old Compton Street, was to be hit with tragic consequences, dozens were injured and three died.

At first the police and local people thought fascist terrorists were involved, and indeed Combat 18 claimed responsibility. The eventual culprit, David Copeland, certainly had a grudge against minorities, but turned out to have been working alone. But why did he target Brick Lane?
Brick Lane a Roman burial ground

For centuries this area has been the home of immigrants, outsiders and dissidents. Brick Lane was originally the home of the dead. For centuries it was a Roman burial ground, positioned deliberately outside the walls of the City of London. This outsider status starts to seem more significant as the centuries progress.

Bricks and tiles began to be made here in the late 16th century … hence the name. By 1603, a quarter of a century after the trade started, John Stow called its buildings as ‘filthy cottages’. A rector of Christ Church described it as ‘a land of blood and beer’. This has always been a poor area.

In 1675, when 1,300 new buildings squeezed onto the old market gardens, Brick Lane was seen as a centre of non-conformity, as citizens resisted the authority of the established Anglican Church. And in 1612, Britain’s first Baptist chapel was built here.
Silk weavers and Huguenots

There was continual immigration and continual protest. The early eighteenth century saw protests in the Spitalfields streets, the existing residents complaining as the newly built-up area was used to house Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution in the modern Holland and Belgium.

The weavers came to settle around Fournier and Elder Streets and soon drove the existing weavers out of business. Protest as they might, the locals couldn’t argue with the quality of the incomers’ work … they had been invited in by the Crown for just that reason. Spitalfields became famous for fine cloths and the area became wealthy, with an affluent middle class.
Irish in Spitalfields

The Irish were the next big wave of immigrants to Spitalfields. Lord George Gordon stoked up Protestant panic about the influence of Rome to stoke up the Gordon Riots in 1780. Many Irish immigrants had moved into the eastern edges of the City, looking for work and escaping persecution back in Ireland, as well as starvation and poverty.

On June 2, 1780, mobs burned Roman Catholic chapels in Spitalfields and Gordon’s motley crew made for Downing Street. Most of them never got that far. They were waylaid at Langdale’s Brewery in Holborn. Many drank so deeply they died in the streets of alcohol poisoning. Gordon was arrested for treason and saw out his years in prison … though he lived there in some comfort.

Brick Lane got an unfortunate notoriety in the 1880s with Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders. A series of killings that have never been solved, and exercise the public imagination all the more for that.
Jewish immigration to Spitalfields

The cultural mix turned again with the massive Jewish immigration of the late 1800s. Escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe, they alighted at Wapping and headed for the cheapest part of London, Brick Lane. This was the community that gave birth to larger than life figures such as Jack Cohen, Lionel Bart, Steven Berkoff, Bernard Delfont Abraham Beame and Lew Grade to name a few.

In the 1930s British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley led his Blackshirts on marches around Brick Lane and Club Row. The challenge culminated in the Battle of Cable Street, on October 5, 1936.
From Jewish Brick Lane to Banglatown

The Jewish community has dispersed once more, leaving a few remnants such as Tubby Isaacs cockle stall and the world-famous Brick Lane Beigel Shop. And by the 1970s, Brick Lane was changing again. The Jewish population was replaced by a new wave of refugees, Bangladeshis – many fleeing the war that led to the secession of the new Bangladesh from Pakistan.

Brick Lane again became a target for fascists, with the National Front and then the BNP marching through the area. But fascist marchers come and go, and elicit little support from outside their own numbers.

On Brick Lane today you will notice that some of the mosques carry a Star Of David above the door: synagogues converted to new use. Some of them were even Protestant churches before that. Brick Lane (or Banglatown) adapts, absorbs and goes on.