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.