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The Cockney Novelists

July 11, 2015
by Jonathon Green

It is that time of year when you may be seeking some summer reading material and so today Contributing Writer Jonathon Green introduces the forgotten works of the Cockney Novelists


The ‘Cockney’ - that is the born East Ender – has long since been a regular figure in fiction. Originally, in appearances from Jacobean plays to mid-nineteenth century sporting fiction, the type was not working-class. It was the geography not the sociology that mattered. Wealthy merchants were still Cockneys and revelled in the name.

The East End of modernity, which (at least until recently) meant primarily poverty, is a mid-nineteenth century invention. Its citizens emerge, struggling and insecure, via the pages of Henry Mayhew’s pioneering sociological study, London Labour and the London Poor (1851). They are further investigated by Mayhew’s many successors, notably James Greenwood, but not until the nineteenth century was nearly over, were they fictionalised.

Dickens had portrayed Cockneys, but mainly as comic walk-on parts or, as in Oliver Twist, criminals who properly spoke cant. Other novelists, often temperance advocates whose ‘novels’ may as well have been tracts, looked East, but they made no attempt to put flesh on their caricatures. They were all in dreary earnest, propagandizing the proles, permitting neither smiles, jokes nor amusements, and certainly no drink or tobacco.  For them, the East Ender was either debased or respectable, and the aim of their one-dimensional tales was to move him by whatever necessary means from the first to its sober antithesis.

What the historian P.J. Keating has labelled as the Cockney Novelists flourished towards the end of the nineteenth century and spilled over into the next. They included Arthur Morrison, Edwin Pugh, William Pett Ridge and – even if his bestseller purported to be reportage – Clarence Rook. While they dealt with their subject matter in different ways, all can be seen in at least one aspect of their work as combining a fictional form with a new concern with the London working classes, not as comedy cameos like Dickens or as objects about which one might preach and on whom one might prey, but as three-dimensional characters in their own right.

The first such writer was Henry Nevinson (1856-1941) a socialist, feminist and a campaigning journalist  who in time covered the Boer War, Russia’s 1905 Revolution and – much against establishment wishes – the First World War (in which his son C.R.W. Nevinson was a war artist). In 1893, he was commissioned to write a series of sketches on working-class life. Following its author’s hands-on researches in the East End, where he had already run a mission and given classes in English literature, this appeared in 1895 under the title of Neighbours of Ours. There are a dozen stories, all narrated by the same Cockney speaker. What Nevinson offers is a portrait of a community, as realistic as he can make it, and without falling into stereotypes. He covers a variety of aspects, good and bad, and in Sissero’s Return even looks at a cross-race relationship. The book lay the groundwork for those who followed.

Arthur Morrison (1863–1945) began his professional life as a sports writer (boxing and bicycling) before moving on to fulltime work at The Globe in 1885. A year later, he became a clerk to the Beaumont Trustees, a charitable trust that administered the People’s Palace – a philanthropically designed educational and cultural centre for the local community – in Mile End. Here he began writing a series entitled Cockney Corners for the Palace’s magazine,  the People’s Journal and it was these sketches that would lead him to further writings on the area. A short story, The Street was published by Macmillan’s in October 1891, followed by fourteen more tales of London’s most impoverished area, collected in book form in 1894 by W. E. Henley (who was already working with John Farmer on their slang dictionary) as Tales of Mean Streets. The book, with its unblinking depiction of East End squalor and the violence, crime and desperation that it engendered, was a controversial success, especially the story of  Lizerunt (i.e. Liza Hunt), a young woman, once blithe and flirtatious, who is first beaten by her boyfriend and then forced by him into prostitution.

A Child of the Jago (1896) was even more controversial, with its exploration of life in an area known as The Jago (in reality the notorious Old Nichol slum off Bethnal Green Rd). This story of the street Arab Dicky Perrott laid out even more unmediated violence, criminality, dysfunctional family life and aggressive, fearful insularity. Drunkenness was a given. Despite the presence of a muscular  Christian parson (Morrison’s portrait of the real-life Revd A. Osborne Jay, vicar of Holy Trinity, Shoreditch, and author of Life in Darkest London, 1891) Dicky cannot escape his environment and is murdered, refusing, as the Jago code demands, to ‘nark’ on his killer. In Morrison’s bleak portrait, death is the only escape the Jago will permit.

Henley, reviewing Child of the Jago, described it as ‘masterly’ but equally as ‘that terrible work.’ Against it he set another book, the popular journalist Richard Whiteing’s No 5. John Street, which he saw as ‘a fairy-tale [and] no mere debauch in sentiment, but— a refined and moving expression of reality.’ Richard Whiteing (1840–1928) was a foster child, apprenticed to a maker of seals and medals, and later attending art school at the Working Men’s College in Great Ormond St, where he met F.D. Maurice, John Ruskin and Frederick Furnivall, one of the pioneers of the OED. Furnivall’s ladies’ rowing eight, recruited from the New Oxford St ABC restaurant, featured in Whiteing’s novel Ring in the New (1906). His journalistic career began in 1866, on the Evening Star, where he wrote a column, supposedly in the persona of one Mr Sprouts, who rose to become an MP and embodied the principles of common sense and plain talk. The collected columns appeared as a book in 1867, but No 5 John Street was his best-seller. Somewhere between a sociological investigation and a Cockney novel, it followed the author as he lived in the East End slums in order ‘to learn what it is to live on half a crown a day, and to earn it.’

While Morrison may be seen as a descendant of Mayhew or Greenwood, a reformer’s zeal permeating his work. The remaining ‘Cockney’ writers are far more allied to Dickens, most of whose Cockneys were far from ‘savage’. For all that her home turf is The Cut, near Waterloo, no-one could epitomise the ‘chirpy cockney sparrer’ of popular myth more than the eponymous heroine of William Pett Ridge’s Mord Em’ly (1898). Mord is poor, her mother a nervous wreck and her father away (i.e. in prison) but if she runs in the streets as the junior member of the all-girl Gilliken Gang, there is no malice or hard-core criminality in her. Mord Em’ly is above all a feisty young woman, enjoying life, and giving as good, if not better than she gets. In her ‘happy ending’ Mord, now married, leaves for a new life in Australia. The book was a bestseller and a film appeared in 1922.

Edwin Pugh(1874–1930), whose titles include Tony Drum: A Cockney Boy (1898), Harry the Cockney (1912), and The Cockney at Home (1914), is the antithesis of Morrison. He allows for no irony and makes no attempt at the ultra-realism that his predecessor offers. Pugh is a sentimentalist and his affections veer unashamedly East. His own background – the son of a theatrical prop maker and a wardrobe mistress – may have been an influence. He sympathises with his characters’ problems, and they almost invariably have to battle (often unsuccessfully) against ill-fortune and tough lives, but there is no crime, no violence. His Cockneys are the ‘deserving’ poor – they are prey, not predators.

Clarence Rook (1862-1915), American but London-based and prolific in his time, remains something of a mystery, with one bestseller to his name, and a great deal of second-rate work to accompany it. George Bernard Shaw praised him as ‘very clever fellow’ but E.V. Lucas, another contemporary, saw him as one who ‘never fulfilled his many talents.’ A freelance journalist, Rook wrote the ‘By the Way’ column for The Globe, had a number of short stories published and in 1898 launched the career of one of fiction’s earliest female detectives – Miss Nora Van Snoop of the New York Detective Force

All of which was geared to a middle-class audience, but Hooligan Nights (1899) was very different, even though the readers again were doubtless middle-class, many of whom might have already read Morrison or Pugh. According to Rook, this was no novel but a piece of reportage based on ‘some sheets of manuscript’ shown to him by his publisher. ‘They contained certain confessions and revelations of a boy – named in the book as ‘Young Alf’ – ‘who professed to be a leader of Hooligans’. All else aside, Rook was using his journalistic instincts – the word hooligan, still of unknown origin, had only emerged – first recorded in police court reports – a year earlier. Such early uses were capitalised, suggesting a gang, but no evidence of this has survived. Rook claimed that Irish Court, in the same area, had once hosted an actual Patrick Hooligan who led the first such gang, and that Alf was ‘one on whom a portion at least of […] his mantle had fallen’ but he was touting an unproven etymology.

Young Alf, the star and supposed author of this Life and Opinions of a Young and Impenitent Criminal Set Down by Himself is a south Londoner and lives just down the road from Mord Em’ly, in the Elephant & Castle. Rook describes him as a ‘young man who walks to and fro in your midst, ready to pick your pocket, rifle your house or even bash you in a dark corner if it is made worth his while. […] It would, I think, be very difficult to persuade young Alf that honesty is the best policy.’ Alf is a professional, on however limited a scale, and since there is no moralising, he declares a frank delight in his occupation. He has, after all, a philosophy:

‘Look ’ere […] if you see a fing you want, you just go and take it wivout any ’anging abart. If you ’ang abart you draw suspicion and you get lagged for loiterin’ wiv intent to commit a felony or some damn nonsense like that. Go for it, strite. P’r’aps it’s a ’awse and cart you see as’ll do you fine. Jump up an’ drive away as ’ard as you can and ten to one nobody’ll say anyfink. They’ll think it’s your own prop’ty. But ’ang around and you mit jest as well walk into the next cop you see and arst ’im to ’and you your stretch. See? You got to look after yourself; and it ain’t your graft to look after anyone else, nor is it likely that anybody else’d look after you — only the cops. See?’

Nine years later, Rook published London Side-Lights, consisting of thirty brief sketches. In the twentieth, To Him Who Waits, we read again of Young Alf who has ‘gone away and laid his bones upon a battlefield – for he enlisted in a moment of enthusiasm  –  and his colonel announced that he had died as a good soldier.’

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

Learn more about the Cockney Novelists in Jonathon Green’s history of slang Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue

You may also like to read about

The Cockney Alphabet

The Map of London Slang

Jonathon Green, Lexicographer of Slang

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Rachel Jowitt permalink
    July 11, 2015

    Some of these titles look wonderful! Some of these authors have titles available electronically on gutenburg.org. I feel sad I am unable to own the originals with those wonderful illustrated boards though….

  2. Barbara permalink
    July 11, 2015

    I really enjoyed this ‘fascinating read’ this morning. Just shows you should always question stereotypes, I was falling into the trap of lazy reading without thinking whenever I read ‘Cockney’ even though my Mother was born and bred in East Ham and I knew what wonderful, interesting people live there. Thanks Jonathon and the illustrative book covers are wonderful in their own right

  3. Yvonne Kolessides permalink
    July 11, 2015

    A wonderful start to my day..thank you

  4. David Lewis permalink
    July 11, 2015

    Very surprised not to see Israel Zangwill on the list. His ‘Children of the Ghetto’ fully matches what appear to be the criteria for the list (books written by someone from, and about, the East End). Was there any particular reason for its omission?

  5. aubrey permalink
    July 11, 2015

    I. Zangwill wrote about the hussle and bussel of the life of the jewish immigrants in and around Pettycoat Lane in the late 19th C. Viz: ‘Children Of The Ghetto’ and ‘King Of The Schnorrers’. These two books depicted a world within a world.

  6. Shawdiane permalink
    July 11, 2015

    Thank you for sharing these Book Cover Illustrations; how wonderful they are.
    Now I am going to have to search hi and low for copies of these books. We have
    an excellent 2nd hand book shop on our island who has books from 17th C,
    and floors of first Eds from Victorian days, so I am hoping he will be able to
    find some of these treasures or books of this calibre. I adore reading this type
    of book on days when my brain needs a rest from the Intel challenging books
    I usually read. I find it fascinating reading books written about the Cockney
    World as it used to be, people were different then in their attitudes and you meet
    some hairy but lovable characters.

  7. July 11, 2015

    We still have decorated board books in our shop, we like them although they did fall out of favour a few years ago. Thanks for mentioning James Greenwood, he was my great grandfather’s cousin, and I believe that he wrote many adventure books as well so I am always on the look out for them.

  8. July 12, 2015

    David Lewis: The list makes no claims to comprehensiveness, and my interest in these writers arose, I must point out, as part of my researches for a history of slang. (Children of the Ghetto (1892) uses mainly standard English, plus a couple of Yiddishisms. It is also more overtly political than the titles I mentioned.) But your mention of Zangwill, whom I have read, makes me realize that none of the writers I mention feature the Jewish community. There are the poor Irish, but as yet the Jews don’t seem to have established a role. This would change, and books on the East End Jewish community would start appearing in 1930s, but Zangwill, still looking at Jews as incomers, is an exception for the 1890s.

  9. July 12, 2015

    Pauline Taylor: The Oxford Dict. National Biography says this about Greenwood:
    Greenwood [...] established himself as a successful children’s author. His adventure book for boys, Wild Sports of the World (1862), with accounts of big game and biographies of hunters, was published by Samuel Beeton, who went on to publish at least four more of Greenwood’s books, first in serial form and later as novels. ‘King Lion’, a story that appeared anonymously in Beeton’s Boy’s Own Magazine in 1864, but was later attributed to Greenwood, was credited as an influence by Kipling. He worked with a succession of publishers and produced more than thirty children’s novels until about 1890. His stories were often illustrated by Ernest Griset, an artist born in France but known as ‘the English Doré’, who specialized in depictions of animals.

    [Beeton was the husband of 'Mrs Beeton' of cookery fame]

  10. July 12, 2015

    A wonderful Artwork are these vintage Bookcovers!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  11. July 12, 2015

    Jonathon. Thank you, all extra info re James Greenwood is much appreciated and this ties in with my understanding that Mrs Beeton was a visitor to the home of James’ brother, Frederick Francis Greenwood. I wrote more about James and Francis on ‘At St Pancras Old Churchyard’ 28 June 2015.

    Pauline.

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