Child of a Child of the Jago
By Dr. Peter FerdinandoThis article appeared in the first issue of Cockney Ancestor, the Journal of the East of London Family History Society. It was reproduced in 1999 as part of the East of London Family History Society's 21st year celebrations. All rights reserved.
Arthur Morrison, the East End born journalist and art collector wrote The Hole in The Wall, the novel of crime and terror on the Wapping Riverside for which he is perhaps most renowned, in 1902, but six years prior to that his first full length novel, A Child of the Jago was published. In it he described life in "the old Jago", one of the roughest and poorest neighbourhoods in the East End towards the end of the 19th century.
Although A Child of the Jago was acclaimed artistically, Morrison was much criticised by contemporaries for exaggerating the violent and criminal aspects of the Jago. However, in his preface to the third edition of the book, written in response to the critics, he denied any such exaggeration, claiming rather that he had deliberately understated such features in telling his story.
Since 1896 we have become inured to violence in print and film, but it is easy to imagine the horror-struck disbelief with which the average late-Victorian reader viewed Morrison's picture of everyday robbery and bloodshed in this little underworld ghetto near the eastern edge of the City.
Fiction or Reality?
Certainly the Old Jago around which Morrison's tale revolved was modelled topographically on the Old Nichol, a small district of half a dozens streets, courtyards and alleyways immediately to the Northeast of the junction of Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road. Apart from the change of name Morrison made no attempt to disguise the identity of the district. In fact, even in his modifications of street names within the Nichol, he deliberately stayed very close to the originals, with Boundary Street becoming Edge Lane, Chance Street becoming Luck Row, and Mead Street becoming Honey Lane.
The novel was clearly not intended as pure fiction but as a sort of dramatised documentary. In particular Morrison introduced into the story a parish priest, Father Sturt, whose attitudes he based squarely on those of the Revd. Arthur Osborne JAY, a Vicar of Holy Trinity, Shoreditch from 1886, whose parish included the Old Nichol. He dedicated the book to Father Jay, who first introduced him to the district and whose hints he followed in surveying it.
Father Jay had read Tales of the Mean Streets (1894), Morrison's collection of short stories about life for the ordinary East Ender and wrote to him praising the accuracy of his general image of the East End, but saying that in certain parts of the area life was much coarser and harder than that portrayed in the Tales . Jay invited Morrison to visit the Old Nichol, as an example. On taking up the invitation Morrison was immediately persuaded of the truth of Jay's assertion and he began forthwith on the novel which became A Child of the Jago, based on research which he carried out over the next eighteen months with the priest's help.
The novel centres around Dicky Perrott, who is an impressionable boy of eight or nine when the story opens. To Morrison the Nichol is thoroughly horrible and he is intent on showing how Dicky in the next few years tries, and fails, to find any way out of it. The slum atmosphere is powerfully depicted and, true or false, once into the story, the reader is not likely to put the book down as the narrative is so gripping.
At 5 New Nichol Street in 1851
Morrison's book was written in the 1892 when the Old Nichol was already beginning to appear before the planned onslaught of the LCC Boundary Street Housing Improvement Scheme (itself a result of Jay's campaigning). Morrison's assertion that the Old Nichol had been "for one hundred years the blackest pit in London", cannot be accepted literally, but it is likely that the hardships for people in the area were as great as they were later, in 1851 when George and Mary Ann Ferdinando and their young family lived at 5 New Nichol Street, in a house shared by two other families and containing in all sixteen people.
George was a handloom silk weaver, in which occupation he was following his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, and in which his two elder daughters Mary Ann and Elizabeth aged 16 and 15 in 1851 were already working. Four daughters and two sons were living with George and his wife and life must have been hard for the family for this was a precarious time for the East End silk industry.
In 1851 the silk weavers and those in auxiliary trades formed by far the largest single group of workers in the Old Nichol. As an example, the census returns for Old Nichol Street, with its 75 houses, lists 730 people, of which only 277 had an occupation. More than a quarter of these, 70 out of the 277 were in the silk weaving industry, while other occupations only shoemaking (26, including binders and stitchers) and bricklaying, 11, were numbered in double figures.
Working Class Adaptability
Indeed the most striking aspect of the list of occupations in this single street is the great diversity represented, mainly by only one or two individuals. Even after allowance has been made for different names applied to one occupation (boot/shoemaker/finisher/closer/binder/cordwainer etc.) and after all the hawkers of specified wares (fruit/china/brushes/perfumery/cabinets etc.) have been condensed into one, there are still some 120 different occupations spread among the 277 individuals, mostly either street trades or the type of manufacturing carried out in the worker's own rooms.
The occupiers of Old Nichol Street were packed together at an average of almost ten persons per house, representing two or three families. An interesting sidelight is that overcrowding cannot be put down to excessive family size. Although there were some large families, the average family contained less than four persons.
In the 1860s the weaving industry declined for George Ferdinando and his fellow workers when a trade treaty with France permitted silk finished goods to be imported at a cost less than that for which they could be made here. By this time George had left the Old Nichol but still lived close by, working as a dock labourer, a casual occupation which required stamina, but was uncertain and badly paid.
The extent to which the silk industry declined during this period can be seen from the 1871 census which showed that there were only 21 residents of Old Nichol Street dependent upon weaving, compared with 70 in 1851. Diversity of employment was otherwise much as before, with the exception of box maker, 1 in 1851 and 25 in 1871.
Child of the Nichol
George Ferdinando did not long survive the rigours of his new employment, dying in 1868 age 56 of Phthisis and Bronchitis, but his eldest son George John was more fortunate. Born in 1840 he had begun his working life as a silk weaver, but by 1866 had married for the second time, he too was working as a labourer and he emerged twenty years later, having outlived his second wife, as a foreman at a tea warehouse. The horrors of the Old Nichol were far behind him, although his home in Sydney Street, Bethnal Green was not much more than a mile away.
It is interesting, if fruitless, to speculate whether George John ever read A Child of the Jago and recognised his own childhood in Dicky Perrott's, for he died in 1897, the year after the book was published. George John was my great grandfather and although he died more than 40 years before I was born - indeed, even before my Father was born - I feel that my kinship to him links me in a personal way with the Old Jago.
There is here a basis of one of those peculiarly exclusive little clubs - in this case limited to those who can demonstrate their direct descent from someone who lived in the Old Nichol (defined as the Square bounded by Boundary Street, Half Nichol Street, Nichol Row and Old Nichol Street) before the LCC Housing Improvement Scheme swept it all away. There is plenty of scope within its limits, since the basic shape of the area had already been fixed, together with the street names, as early as John Rocque's famous map of 1746. Must a club have a name? If so, what about The Children of the Jago!
Author and Further Reading
Dr. Peter Ferdinando
2, Troed-y-Rhiw, Rhiwbina, Cardiff CF14 6UR
Sources and Notes for further reading:- 1851 census PRO HO 107/1539 ED 1. 1871 census PRO RG 10/474 ED 1. LCC Boundary St. Home Improvement Scheme held at Tower Hamlets LH Library, Bancroft Road.
Gallery of the Old Jago Area
A small gallery of images connected with this article are provided on the next page.