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.