Boundary Estate 2 – The Vicar, the Author & the Jago
The Vicar, the Author & the Jago
In 1896 a book was published that caused a sensation, telling the tale of a young boy, Dicky Perrott, born into poverty and destined to lead a brutal life of crime in a fictitious east-end slum. The novel was ‘A Child of the Jago’ written by Arthur Morrison, one of the most popular authors of the time, who had written the book after being approached by Father Osborne Jay, vicar of Holy Trinity Church on Old Nichol Street in Bethnal Green. Although it was acclaimed artistically the novel was criticised by some for its portrayal of crime and violence amongst the poor, and as a result The Old Nichol soon became infamous as the setting for The Jago. Arthur Morrison’s reputation as a writer who reflected real life was enhanced, whilst Father Jay, the model for Father Sturt in the novel, was able to use the novel’s notoriety to the advantage of his Holy Trinity church and his parishioners.
The Vicar: Father Osborne Jay
Osborne Jay was born in India in 1858, the son of a clergyman. After school, which included time at Eton, and taking a BA at Cambridge University, Jay became a curate of Holy Trinity Church, Stepney in 1881. After taking his MA in 1883 he took Holy Orders, and as Reverend Jay he was put in charge of a college mission in Stepney where he worked amongst the poor of Ratcliff, an area of Wapping. In December 1886 Reverend Jay was ‘granted the living’ (made vicar) of Holy Trinity, Shoreditch following the death of the Reverend Henry Henderson.
When Reverend Jay took over the parish it had no church buildings. Services were held in a room over a stable, and Jay’s predecessor slept on a camp bed in the same room. Reverend Jay soon made it known he wished to be called Father Jay, and set about his work undeterred by the lack of premises. He set up a men’s club in an old cheese warehouse where for a penny a week they could play cards, dominoes and bagatelle, sing, smoke and learn to box – but not drink alcohol. Jay freely admitted that he had little understanding of women, and left their care to the Kilburn Sisters and the Mildmay Deaconesses who arranged Mother’s Meetings and gave help and advice at the Mission House on Club Row.
Father Jay’s manner was seen as sterner than Rev. Henderson’s, but he gradually earned the respect of his parishioners. Within 18 months he’d raised £5,000 towards building a new church, and gained the support of members of the Royal Family and many wealthy philanthropists. The great and good soon began visiting the Nichol, and to celebrate his birthday each year Father Jay invited 300 of the Old Nichol’s men and his Society contacts – such as Maharajahs and Dukes – to dinner. After one such dinner the Duke of Bedford began to send two deer a week to Jay, and they were used to make stew for the children’s free meals.
Holy Trinity Church, Old Nichol Street was consecrated in April 1889. It stood on the site of Orange Court, one of the worst parts of the Old Nichol, an area known for illegal bare-knuckle boxing, dog- and cock-fighting and a hide out for criminals and their booty. The new church was expensively decorated with Italian mosaics, Carrara marble and German stained glass, and could accommodate a congregation of 400. 500 people had been evicted from the land where the church was built, and weren’t compensated. Unusually the church was on the first floor, whilst the ground floor and basement housed the Sunday School, Men’s Club and gym, which was fully kitted out with a boxing ring and trapeze. At 10pm every night the club activities stopped and the room became a night refuge. Eventually he opened Trinity Chambers, a lodging house, and a small refuge for shipwrecked mariners.
There was no doubt that Father Jay worked tirelessly for his parishioners and attracted a great deal of publicity and money for their benefit. He held views that although widely accepted at the time, including eugenics and ‘criminal anatomy’, but are now seen as wrong. His fame meant that when he wrote to the author Arthur Morrison in 1894 after reading his book ‘Tales of the Mean Streets’ and asked him to see what life was like on the Old Nichol, Morrison immediately accepted. The Old Nichol was half-way through demolition in preparation for the building of the Boundary Street Estate, and it was undoubtedly one of the worst places to live in London at that time. One year later ‘A Child of the Jago’ was published.
At the inauguration of the Boundary Street Estate in 1900, Father Jay was given special mention by the Prince of Wales for his tireless work. Jay continued as vicar of Holy Trinity but never married, and he retired to Great Malvern in 1921. He died of senile dementia in 1945. Holy Trinity Church was destroyed in an air raid in 1941, and is now the site of a playground refurbished with funds raised by residents in 2002.
The Author: Arthur Morrison
Arthur Morrison born in Poplar in 1863, the son of a steamfitter. Little is known of his childhood, although it is believed he and his family frequently moved as his father looked for work. Morrison himself found it difficult to discuss his early life, and later invented an alternative early life for himself as his fame grew. By 1887 Morrison was working as a clerk at ‘The People’s Palace’, a centre of education and entertainment on Mile End Road (now part of Queen Mary University of London). Walter Besant, the founder of the People’s Palace and famed social reformer, encouraged Morrison’s writing by publishing articles in the ‘Palace Journal’ and persuaded him to pursue a career in journalism.
By 1890 Morrison had moved to West London to work for the Globe newspaper, and pursued freelance work. He married Elizabeth Hutcher in 1892. His short stories focussing on life in the east end appeared in the National Observer, and thirteen were published as ‘Tales of the Mean Streets’ in 1894. He received great critical acclaim for the collection, although one story, Lizerunt, was singled out for its portrayal of casual violence. Between 1894 and 1896 Morrison published three novels about a lawyer-detective, Martin Hewitt, who was a popular replacement for Sherlock Holmes who had been killed off by Conan Doyle in 1894. Like the Holmes stories they first appeared in the Strand magazine.
After receiving a letter from Father Jay about Tales of the Mean Streets, Morrison accepted his invitation to the old Nichol to see conditions there for himself. From 1895 he spent 18 months paying frequent visits to the area, which was being demolished in preparation for the building of the Boundary Street Estate. This was the Old Nichol at its absolute worst. The vast majority of the settled population had left, squatters had moved in and mounted police frequently patrolled the area due to the threat of criminal gangs operating out of the Old Nichol. ‘A Child of the Jago’ was published in 1896 to artistic acclaim, although there was shock and some anger at the portrayal of the poor as violent criminals or a weak-willed and semi-literate underclass.
Arthur Morrison’s career continued with a further six novels, including one more ‘Martin Hewitt’ novel and two novels concerned with life in the east end, ‘To London Town’, and ‘The Hole in the Wall’. His final novel, The ‘Green Diamond’ appeared in 1904. After retiring from writing novels, Morrison turned his attention to art collection, including works by Constable, Gainsborough Hogarth and Turner, but he primarily collected Japanese prints on which he became an expert. In 1911 he published a two-volume work ‘The Painters of Japan’ which was the primary reference source on that subject for many years. Morrison sold his collection to the British Museum in 1913 and retired. The final thirty years of his life were spent quietly and privately with his wife in Loughton, although he was elected to the Royal Literary Society and served on its Council in the 1920s. He died in 1945.
The boy from the slums of the east end, Arthur Morrison, had risen mainly self-taught, to become one of the most popular authors of his day. He was recognised by is peers through election to the Royal Literary Society, and ‘A Child of the Jago’ went through many reprints, was translated into several languages and, along with ‘Tales of the Mean Streets’ is still in print today.
The Jago was an exaggerated vision of the Old Nichol, the invention of an author of crime novels and tales of east-end poverty who was fed stories by a vicar of some of the most extreme cases he’d known during 10 years in his parish. Father Jay and Arnold Morrison apparently got on very well, and Morrison certainly respected the work that Jay was doing. In 1895 and 1896, when Morrison visited the Old Nichol, much of it had been demolished. Few of the long-time residents remained, and the vast majority of properties were virtually uninhabitable and lived in by squatters. Criminal activity was rife and it wasn’t a safe place – mounted police patrolled at night to protect residents in Bethnal Green and Shoreditch from criminal gangs based in the Old Nichol. Morrison stated that he had been mugged several times during his visits. It was inevitable given the state of the Old Nichol at the time Morrison saw it, and with the information from Father Jay, that ‘A Child of the Jago’ would be so bleak. Although it received acclaim and was a huge bestseller, it opened an angry debate about the condition and portrayal of ‘The Jago’. Great figures of the day, such as H. G. Wells, George Gissing and critic H. D. Traill and former Old Nichol residents and workers, claimed the book vastly exaggerated conditions on the Old Nichol. Father Jay and Arthur Morrison fiercely defended the book.
To this day ‘A Child of the Jago’ is seen as a representation of the Old Nichol, that life was really was as bleak and violent as portrayed. At such distance and with so few contemporary written records by residents we probably will never know the truth. The Jago was, after all, a fiction, whilst the Old Nichol had been home to more than 5,000 and amongst the population there were, no doubt, some criminals. Prostitution, illegal gambling, dog- and cock-fighting certainly took place in some courts, but between 1885 and 1895 there was only one murder committed. Petty crime was rife, as with few alternatives shop lifting and picking pockets for a few coins would mean the difference between a reasonable meal or another day of virtual starvation. Aggression and domestic violence was relatively common, no doubt aggravated by the living conditions and the stress poverty inevitably caused. Charles Booth’s investigations in the Old Nichol in the 1880s and 1890s showed there was indeed some severe poverty, but that most residents were respectably employed although mostly very poorly paid.
The dull reality is that the Old Nichol was just like many other poor districts, a mixture of good and bad people making the best of their lot. Living conditions were indeed extremely bad with endemic poor health, few educational opportunities and a dearth of employment choices, but violent crime and gangs were not commonplace. But dull reality doesn’t sell novels.
Peter Miles – Introduction to the Everyman 1996 Edition, ‘A Child of the Jago’
Sarah Wise – The Blackest Streets
The Dictionary of National Biography
Art in the Blood – Website
Tower Hamlets History Online/
East London History Society – website
© Boundary Estate Community Launderette 2010