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.

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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.

‘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.

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*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)