The Old Nichol area as shown on Charles Booth’s poverty maps (1889) showing the density of poverty maked out in black and blue.
The Old Nichol had a fearsome reputation in late Victorian London. The collection of about 30 streets at the north end of Brick Lane was in the area now occupied by modern day Arnold Circus. In the late 1800s the Nichol was home to around 5-6,000 people and it was immortalised in fiction by Arthur Morrison in A Child of the Jago (1896). It was a far cry from modern hipster Shoreditch and Bethnal Green.
In 1875 the Nichol was where Henry Stuck lived. Henry was nine and his parents occupied a room at 5 Old Nichol Street one of the most notorious streets in the Nichol slum. It seems that Henry played away from home, preferring to hang out with other boys in a property in Lower Thames Street, south of the Mansion House in the old City of London. He was also known to stay with known thieves in a lodging house in Shoreditch.
In fact reports said that a ‘gang of boys, 40 or 50 in number’ were ‘in the habit of frequenting a small coffee house’ in the street which they had dubbed ‘the House of Lords’. There they seem to have created their own private playground to ape the behaviour of their elders and (at least in the minds of the disapproving authorities) hatch plots to commit petty crime.
In July 1875 Henry was in court. He was brought before Alderman Phillips at the Mansion House Police Court charged with begging. As he stood in the dock a description of the boys’ haunt was delivered in court by Henry’s father:
‘Here they regaled themselves with halfpenny and penny worths of coffee’, he told the magistrate, ‘their language and behaviour being… of the most disorderly and disgraceful character when any of the parents visited the room in search of their children’.
When he wasn’t begging Henry went about the City selling fuses.
Why hadn’t the coffee house been closed down by the police the Alderman wanted to know? They had no power to do an inspector of police explained.
‘On one occasion when the boys were found tossing in the house, [in other words they were gambling, which was a summary offence] the police took out a summons, but it was dismissed’.
As far as Mr Stuck was concerned Henry was ‘a very bad boy’ who had been away for up to three weeks recently. His mother spoke up for him though, arguing that it was her husband’s poor treatment of the lad that had driven him out. She asked the magistrate to send Henry to a Reformatory school where he might learn skills and be away from bad influences. She added that her husband ‘would not work to support his children, and starvation only started the boy in the face at home’.
She had painted a grim picture of life in the Nichol where poverty was endemic and many children lived hand-to-mouth on the streets. Morrison’s novel way well have served to exaggerate the reality of the ‘blackest streets’ of East London but the truth was bad enough.
A Reformatory was a popular choice for working-class parents who struggled to support let alone control their offspring. Many seem to have used the courts to try to get them off their hands. But magistrates were wise to this and often asked the family to make a financial contribution to the child’s upkeep, which may have deterred some from seeking this solution.
If this was Mr Stuck’s intention then he would have to wait to see if the Alderman would oblige him. The magistrate ordered the boy to be taken to the workhouse while the circumstances of the case were investigated. Mr and Mrs Stuck left the court without him, to pursue their domestic squabble in private. As for Henry, who was only nine, his future was far from certain but hardly appeared rosy.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 26, 1875]