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.