Predicting the Ripper: Howard J. Goldsmid goes undercover in the East End

The Nemesis of Neglect, from Punch magazine at the time of the Ripper Murders in 1888.

Two years before Jack the Ripper made his name in the notorious East End of London, a 19 year-old journalist travelled to the capital from Birmingham. Disguised as a tramp, Howard Joseph Goldsmid visited the same kind of ‘common lodging houses’ that the murder victims called home in the days before their deaths.

What he found there shocked him so much that he issued a startling warning:

Should we elect to go on in the old rut, strong in the consciousness and confidence of our own wealth and power… what might once, not long since, have been Reform, has grown and swelled and gathered force and volume until the torrent can no longer be stemmed, and we are confronted by REVOLUTION.

This seems melodramatic now, but when he wrote those lines in 1886 there was some justification for the fear that the country was slipping into anarchy. In February of that year rioters rampaged through the West End following a meeting of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square, and as a result the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was forced to resign.

Goldsmid believed most of the rioters had come from ‘the low lodging houses’ which were found throughout London, but particularly in the East End. He had already read about the Whitechapel and Spitalfields in sensational books like ‘How the Poor Live’ and ‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast London’, but, like any true journalist, wanted to see them for himself.

He decided the best way to do this was to go undercover, in the tradition begun by James Greenwood twenty years earlier. He smeared mud over his face, put on a dirty shirt, broken boots and a deerstalker hat, slipped a short clay pipe between his teeth and took on the mannerisms of ‘a returned convict who has allowed his hair to grow.’ He then wilfully endured the terror of spending the night at a series of ‘doss houses’, beginning with ‘The Beehive’ in Brick Lane and ending in Whitechapel Chambers in Old Montague Street.

Goldsmid’s experiences were set down in the book Dottings of a Dosser, published in October 1886. His warnings of a possible revolution were accompanied by a prediction that in hindsight seems particularly chilling. For he wrote that should public sympathy return to sleep,

its slumbers will probably last until the curtain which shrouds the only partially depicted scenes of London wretchedness be lifted with a ruder hand, and the “bitter cry” sound more bitter and perhaps more menacing.

Two years later the ‘ruder hand’ of Jack the Ripper shocked the whole country.

As for Howard Goldsmid, his journalistic career sadly came to an end in 1892 when his father committed suicide and he was forced to take over the family jewellery business. Then on August 7, 1895, Howard followed his father’s footsteps by poisoning himself with potassium cyanide. He was only 28 years old.


Dottings of a Dosser can be read online (for free) on Lee Jackson’s excellent Victorian London website.

A selection of Howard Goldsmid’s journalism from 1887 can be found in the Kindle e-book ‘A Midnight Prowl Through Victorian London‘ (it also contains a short biography).

Anyone interested in the Ripper victims will no doubt already know about the Casebook website.


Whatever Happened to the Age Of Leisure?

Villemard Predictions for the Year 2000

Age of Leisure: In 1910 Villemard imagined life in 2000. Note how it involves a lot of sitting down. Presumably all the bricklayers are off reading books about Plato and Aristotle.

At the beginning of the last Great Depression, in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes offered us hope. In the future the wonders of technology would deliver us from our lives of toil and bring forth an Age of Leisure.

For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.*

It would be a world where ‘the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance’, a world of three-hour days and 15-hour weeks.

The Garden of Eden by Lucas Cranach, 1536. Note the lack of work going on.

This dream of a return to the Garden of Eden (ah, if only God had tasked us with doing some weeding instead of leaving us to temptation), was popular in the booming 1950s. It was thought that atomic power and electronic gadgets would remove the need for human labour almost completely – and therefore that we’d all be left hanging around wondering what to do with ourselves.

A worried Charles Darwin (not that one, but his grandson Sir Charles Galton Darwin) wrote an article about the forthcoming Age of Leisure for the New Scientist in 1956.

Take it that there are fifty hours a week of possible working time. The technologists, working for fifty hours a week, will be making inventions so the rest of the world need only work twenty-five hours a week. The more leisured members of the community will have to play games for the other twenty-five hours so they may be kept out of mischief.

Is the majority of mankind really able to face the choice of leisure enjoyments, or will it not be necessary to provide adults with something like the compulsory games of the schoolboy?

More positively, Ralph Blumenfeld, the editor of the Daily Express, believed in 1933 that ‘as the rush of life slows down, people will have time to read their newspapers properly.’

Now fast track to the present day, and this Age of Leisure sounds like a naive socialist utopia.** Sure, most of us don’t have to do back-breaking work in the fields, down the pits and up chimneys, but I’d guess a majority of the population would laugh at the idea they had any more free time than their grandparents.

*John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930)

**Recently five ‘rising Conservative MPs’ suggested that British people work too few hours, have too long a lie-in and retire too early.

The Hibernian Canibal

Hogarth’s Evening, painted in 1736, shows Sadler’s Wells in the background.

One of the most notorious stories about Sadler’s Wells Theatre involves the so-called ‘Hibernian Canibal’ who performed there in 1699. His act was eating a whole Cockerel – feathers, bones, internal organs, and all. The audience, understandably, began chain-vomiting at the sight. But is it actually true?

The main source is the writer Ned Ward’s magazine Weekly Comedy from May 1699. The report is set out as a short drama involving several characters including ‘Snarl, a Disbanded Captain’, ‘All-craft, a Turncoat’, ‘Prim, a Beau’, and ‘Whim, a Projector.’

After a short discussion about ‘writing and fighting’, it begins:

Snarl: What News do you hear abroad? You, Mr Whim, I know are never without a Budget full.

Whim: There’s none stirring, that I know on, in relation to the State. But, I believe, i can give you such a piece of news from Sadler’s Wells, of an Exploit perform’d there, by a Hibernian Canibal, that will operate as well upon a foul Stomach, as a Gallon of Cardus Posset-drink. But I won’t venture to tell it you, unless you assure me first of your Strength of Constitution, that no gentle Purgative will work with you; for otherways, I know not but I may put you into the Condition of the Spendthrift’s Ale-Firkin, Tap you at both ends, that you may run out the sooner.

Snarl: Prithee, Mr Whim, let’s hear what News this is that carries these Physical Virtues along with it; as for my part, there’s no danger of bringing up my Dinner, if you story be never so Beastly; for this day I have kept as a Fast, in Memorandum of the Parliaments kindness to us for the Hazards and Fatigues we’ve run thro’, in the Service of an Ingrateful Nation […] But pray, Mr Whim, as to the News you were talking of?

Whim: Why truly Captain, it’s only an unusual piece of Gluttonism, perform’d by one of St Patrick’s Cormorants, which if he can bring his manner of Eating into Fashion, amongst our Voluptuous Epicureans, it will certainly be the Ruin of all Cooks and Coal-Merchants.

Snarl: Pray, Mr Whim, proceed to the Matter; never fear the turning of my Stomach; I have not Din’d so often with Colonel Walker, at the Siege of Londondery, upon Salt Hides and Horse Flesh, but sure I am able to hear a story about eating, if he tug’d as hard at a Cows Countenance, as a hungry Bear will at the stinking Haunches of a dead CoachHorse.

Whim: Why then I will venture to tell you, and when you begin to Keck, I’ll leave off. My Friend Mr All-craft and I, took a Walk yesterday to the New River Head, where we observ’d abundance of Inns-of-Court Beaus, and Lady Bumfitters, mingled with an innumerable swarm of the Blew-Frock Order, flock into Miles’s Musick-House, which occasion’d us to believe, there was something Extraordinary to be done, which encourag’d the Sweating Multitude to so crowd in, after an unusual manner, which made us equally desirous, with the rest, of seeing what was to be seen, tho’ we knew not what to expect; accordingly we mix’d with the Herd, and jostled into the House amongst ’em, which we found as full, as if an Elephant had been to Dance a Jigg, or the Salamanca Doctor to have Preach’d a Sermon. With much difficulty we crouded up Stairs, where we soon got Intelligence of the Beastly Scene in agitation, that had drawn such a Numberless body of Spectators to disturb their stomachs. At last a Table was spread with a dirty Cloth, in the middle of the Room, furnish’d with Bread, Pepper, Oyl and Vinegar; but neither Knife, Plate, Fork, or Napkin; and when the Beholders had conveniently mounted themselves upon one anothers Shoulders, to take a fair view of his Beastlyness’s Banquet, in comes the Lord of the Feast, Disguis’d, in an Antick’s Cap, and with Smutty Face, like a Country Hang-man, attended with an ill-looking Train of Newmarket Executioners. When a Chair was set, and he had plac’d himself in sight of the whole Assembly, a live Cock was given into the Ravenous Paws of the Ingurgitating Monster, who, after he had pluck’d out a few of the Tail and Pinion Feathers, he clap’d a few Oats in his Mouth, which he extended to the width of a Ladies Chamber-pot, then held up his Living Morsel, who peck’d out several Corns, and play’d at Bob-Cherry with him a considerable time, to the great Diversion of the Company, till at last, he catch’d him behind the Gills, and snap’d off his Head with as much Slight and Expedition, as a New-England Hog will an Acorn from a Dwarf-Oake, cracking the Skull as nimbly, to come at the Brains, as a Squirrel does a Nutshell, to come at the Kernel; then dipping on’t in a Platter of Sawce, gave it all Mastication together, except the Beak, and down he swallow’d it, Feathers and all, that it might sit the lighter upon his Stomach: Then he clap’d the Fundament to his Mouth, and dragging out several Yards of Guts, he laid those by him, to Eat at last; as People do Cheese for Digestion. Then laying each Hand upon a Leg, he tore them asunder with as Angry a force, as if he had learn’d to Carve his Dinner of the Tyger; And when he had lug’d off a Quarter, he pick’d off the flesh as clean as a Dog would a Marrow-bone; showing as greedy an Appetite, as a Bear that had been kept at short commons would over a plentiful dish of Guts and Garnish. At this rate he dispatch’d the whole Body; and then takes a piece of the Skin he had laid by for a second Course, turns the Feathers inside, and gulp’d it down at once, as a Bawdy Sinner would a Bolus. Then takes up the Guts in his Hand, quoild up like a pound of Sausages, and dandled them about in his Hand as a lady would a Necklace, and at last tosses them into his Mouth and when one end was down in his Stomach, he drag’d it up again by the other, to scowre his Throat from little Bones or Feathers that might obstruct the passage of his delicious Morsel. Then Rowles ‘em up, as a Man would a bundle of Whip-cord, and communicates them very dexterously like a Juggler, to his Jaws, where he toss’d ‘em, and turn’d ‘em, and chew’d ‘em, and tu’d ‘em about, till the unsavory stuffing of the reaking Puddings run down from each corner of his Mouth, like the Grease of fat Pork from between the Lips of a hungry Plough-man. This made the Spectators begin to change Colour, and be sadly troubled with the Hickup; and with those that were most squeamish it began first to Operate; but their Reaching and Exgurgitating, soon made the rest sympathize, that at last there was such a Hawking, Spitting, Slabbering and Drivelling, that I thought some of them would have left him their Intrals too, for an afternoons Luncheon. By this time he had thoroughly compleated his Meal, and, as well as himself, had given everybody else a Belly-full; and was reconvey’d by his guard De Mobile, to his own private Apartment.

Snarl: Prithee Tom make haste and give us some Brandy, or I shall run over at such a rate that I shant leave as much, what d’ye call it within me, as will fill the Bowl of a Tobacco-pipe.

Prim: O dear! (Yauks) my Stomach is so Sick and Head so Giddy, (Yauks) That if you don’t lead me to, (Yauks) the Necessary-House, I shall be forc’d to do something that I should not do.

Whim: I told you, Gentlemen, what would be the effect of my Story. Methinks you look like so many Jacobites that had taken the Oath, against your Consciences, and were hauking of them up again, that they should not lie heavy upon you Stomacks.


The story of the ‘Hibernian Canibal’ seems too good (or disgusting) to be true, but the local historian William J. Pinks states that the performance was also reported in Dawk’s Protestant Mercury of May 24, 1699: ‘On Tuesday last a fellow at Sadler’s Wells near Islington, after he had dined heartily on a buttock of beef, for the lucre of five guineas, ate a live cock, feathers guts and all, with only a plate of oil and vinegar for sawce, and half a pint of brandy to wash it down, and afterwards proffered to lay down five guineas more that he could do the same again in two hours time. This is attested by many credible people who were eyewitnesses of the same.’

Pinks also claims the same Hibernian Canibal ate a live cat at a music house in St Katherine’s on January 24 the same year.

This kind of performance doesn’t seem to have been that unusual, either. In the late 18th century, a French showman called Tarrare ate live cats, snakes, lizards, eels and puppies to test his stomach capacity.

It was also reported in March 13, 1788 that the Duke of Bedford had bet Lord Barrymore 1,000 guineas that he could not eat a live cat. The Lord doesn’t appear to have followed through, but in January 1790 the Sporting Magazine claimed a man had devoured a nine-pound cat, leaving only the bones behind.

Update: There’s also a story from ‘Kirby’s Wonderful and scientific museum’ (free online at Google Books) about a French soldier who was captured and taken to prison in Liverpool in February 1799. Charles Domery, 21, claimed he ate 174 cats, dead or alive, in a single year while serving in the army. ‘Sometimes he killed them before eating, but when very hungry, did not wait to perform this humane office.’ Domery also claimed to have eaten human body parts. ‘Finding himself hungry, and nothing else in his way but a man’s leg, which was shot off, lying before him, he attacked it greedily, and was feeding heartily, when a sailor snatched it from him, and threw it overboard.’

‘That’s old Mary Pradd, wot was murdered in the Borough’

PC Charles Shelton of the Metropolitan Police arrived at number 40 Kent Street in the early hours of Thursday 16th November, 1876. It was one of the poorest roads in the Borough, a land of street sellers, market traders, gypsies, nomads and thieves. Not far away was the notorious Mint Street, famed as the ‘nastiest street in London.’

So it was with some trepidation that he climbed the stairs and entered the bedroom to examine the scene of a suspected murder. Fifty-five year-old Mary Pratt lay on the floor near the fireplace, covered in blood. Her stockings were stained a dark red. It seemed that a piece of quilt had been used to try to mop up some of the pools of blood on the ground. A few feet away, two men were lying on the bed, both apparently fast asleep.

‘Get up Ned, your wife is dead,’ shouted a woman, one of the small crowd of people already gathered in the room. At that Edward Roland awoke, staggered to his feet and stumbled about a while before sitting back on the bed. PC Shelton noticed a bite mark on his right hand.

After being informed a second time that Mary Pratt was dead, Roland replied: ‘I don’t believe it.’ He remembered going out drinking with Mary and the other man on the bed, James Gumble, on the Wednesday night but denied there was any quarrel or fight. They arrived home, Roland asked Mary to go to bed with him, but she refused, and so he got undressed and went to sleep. He had nothing to do with the blood.

Gumble remembered seeing Mary Pratt on the floor when he entered the room on Wednesday night. He said something to her, but could not remember whether she answered. He then went to sleep.

It was at one o’clock in the morning that Gumble’s girlfriend Caroline Brewington went to 40 Kent Street to look for him and found Mary Pratt lying on the floor. Noticing she was cold to the touch, Ms Brewington went to fetch the landlady on the ground floor, Susan Hill, who contacted the police.

Later that morning the police surgeon Charles Downs examined the body and found a ‘lacerated wound about three-quarters of an inch in length’ which cut through the blood vessels beneath the skin. Mr Downs thought the injury had been caused with a sharp, jagged instrument of some kind.* Mary may also have been kicked.

Rowland and Gumble were both arrested ‘on suspicion of ill-using the deceased’ but both denied all knowledge of what happened to Mary Pratt. There was no blood on Gumble’s hands to tie him to the dead woman and no proof of what had really happened. Two days later on Saturday, 18 May, an inquest jury returned their verdict ‘that the deceased died from injuries, but there was not sufficient evidence to show how such injuries were caused.’

But Mary Pratt’s story does not end there: a few weeks earlier she had been visiting friends staying in a gypsy caravan on a vacant plot of land in Battersea when a 39 year-old photographer named John Thomson stopped by and asked for permission to take their picture.

London Nomades, by John Thomson, in Victorian London Street Life (1877)

London Nomades, by John Thomson, in Victorian London Street Life (1877). Mary Pratt is sat on the steps of the caravan.

Thomson found out about Mary’s tragic death when he took a copy of the photograph to the owner of the caravan, William Hampton, described as ‘a fair-spoken, honest gentleman.’

On seeing the picture, Hampton exclaimed: ‘Bless ye! That’s old Mary Pradd, sitting on the steps of the wan, wot was murdered in the Borough, middle of last month.’

Further details of Mary’s life emerged: she had once been the wife of a tinker called Lamb but when he passed away she began roaming the country with Rowland and Gumble, looking for items to sell, or ‘hawk’, to pay for food, lodging and booze.

Her daughter Harriet Lamb, who lived in Fox’s Buildings in Kent Street (you can see a 1913 photograph of Fox’s buildings at the City of London Collage website), had last seen her mother on the day before her death. Mary was very drunk.

Thomson wrote in his book Victorian London Street Life: ‘The poor woman who met her end in so mysterious a manner had in life the look of being a decent, inoffensive creature. Clean and respectable in her dress, she might in her youth have been even of comely appearance, but now she wore the indelible stamp of a woman who had been dulled and deadened by a hard life.’

As for Kent Street, it changed its name to Tabard Street a year after Mary Pratt’s death. Its reputation as a ‘thieves’ den’ led to a series of attempts to improve it and in the early 20th Century the London County Council tore down the east side of the road to make room for new housing blocks and the green space of Tabard Gardens. (see 1955 Survey of London). These days, it looks very different from how it would in 1876.


*The exact location of the wound was not disclosed by the newspapers, who referred only to it being ‘on her person.’ This probably indicates that it was in the area of her groin.

Reports of Mary’s death in the Daily News of November 20, 1876, and the Manchester Times of November 25 (which for some reason gives her name as Mary Ann Hunter).

John Thomson, Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs (1877) (Click here to see it on Amazon)