Today’s Victorian walking tour of London’s East End led us to Shoreditch High Street, which until the 1890’s was known as the Old Nichol slum, the location that Arthur Morrison bases his novel A Child of the Jago on. Morrison’s savage depiction of street violence and infantile death highlights the neglect and lack of order in the original Nichol’s Slum. Fate and destiny play an important role in the novel and the reality of the individuals who lived in Old Nichol; they would fall into alcoholism and crime for the sake of survival. By the year 1888, the city of London had experienced the murders of Jack the Ripper, the uprising of the Match Stick Girls, and the London City Council decided that Old Nichol, being the worst slum, should be pulled down and rebuilt. Though Parliment and other reformers had attempted to improve the lives of the working class since the 1830’s, their efforts secured a specific fate and destiny for them – worsened poverty and a likely death. The five to six thousand people that lived in Old Nichol were removed, or for a better use of lanague, displaced and never to return. The city council designed a new community with set rents, strict rules, and planned architectural features that meant a new area built around a circular park with air and light.
Just as the city council secured the fate and destiny of the people of Old Nichol (unless you argue that their fate was already settled), Morrison presents a novel where his characters also have a destiny, a certain faith, a meeting with death. One could liken Morrison’s short and snappy chapter lengths with the brief lives of those in the Jago, or as Dicky is told by another Jago resident, Old Beveridge, that “for a child like him, there are only three ways out of the Jago: gaol; death on the gallows; or to join the Igh Mob.” Since this blog post cannot provide a full critical reading of Morrison’s novel, the message speaks for itself and Dicky begins a life of crime at the age of eight, he steels for Aaron Weech, his father Josh is arrested and later executed for murder, and the constant uproars of faction fighting lead many to their untimely deaths. Despite Father Sturt’s attempt to be the hero, the dark hold of the Jago would take its victims as it pleased; infants had no protection in Morrison’s vision of the Old Nichol. For many of the working class residents of London, they could thank the philanthropic work of individuals such as Octavia Hill and John Ruskin, who sought to revitalize neighborhoods in London’s East End.
I have added a few photos of the original Old Nichol slum and a couple of photos of modern Shoreditch High Street.