Jack Goring (1861 – 1942): Habits, Culture and Belief

‘If I’d all the money that I could tell,

I’d never cry out young lambs to sell

Young lambs to sell; Young lambs to sell

Four for a penny

Sixteen for a groat

The finest young lambs that ever were bought

Young lambs to sell (123a-123b)


Victorian Street Sellers
Victorian Street Sellers

Jack Goring loved music, and he fondly remembered the songs of street sellers such as the young lady who sold ‘young lambs’- although these particular lambs were made of cotton wool with match sticks for legs! The streets were literally crammed with people all trying to earn a living as best they could. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor was originally advertised as a’cyclopoedia’ of street life. No work in the period is better at bringing alive what Mayhew’s later magazine The Great World of London called “the riot, the struggle, and the scramble for a living”[i]. Jack doesn’t mention anything about ‘riot’ or ‘struggle’, but then again he was born and bred in London and the sights and sounds were just part of his everyday life, plus it has to be said that some of his memories are tinged with more than a hint of nostalgia.

There appears to be a fairly clear divide between Jack’s recreational habits compared to what interested him later in life. As a boy, as already mentioned, he enjoyed the street theatre of street vendors. He also enjoyed spending his weekends at the ‘popular concerts given at Shoreditch Town Hall by Mess[rs] (sic) Hunt and Sparrow’. These shows he compared to radio variety shows broadcast by the BBC ‘which of course lack the advantage of being seen’ (73).

Advertising Poster of Arthur Roberts
Advertising Poster of Arthur Roberts

However, popular music hall culture could be a bit of a mixed bag – he didn’t seem to be much impressed with the lewd lyrics of one particular song, sung by Arthur Roberts – although he was very taken with the antics of E. W. Mackney, ‘the great’ negro impersonator. Mind you, Jack wasn’t averse to ‘blacking up’ himself – he sang a song one Christmas aged ten or eleven ‘for local consumption…out of a cork-black face’ (75-76).

These aspects of Jack’s life seem far-removed from the literature obsessed socialist he was to become later in life, but at the time was part of Victorian working class social culture. It is worth remembering that Jack’s father augmented his income by singing comic songs, although Jack does admit (probably from the viewpoint of hindsight) that ‘his [father’s] singing was probably not altogether an advantage to his family’ (19). Plus what we used to enjoy as children; like the comics Jack was such an avid reader of, are not necessarily what we find interesting as an adult. There is a definite pattern to Jack’s likes and dislikes that evolve as he sets himself on the path of self-improvement, although he does appear to look back fondly on the memories of his youth.

Jack also displayed a serious, side to his nature. He was a quiet, thoughtful boy who even at the age of five ‘tried to think about time and space and recollect[s] clearly feeling awfully overwhelmed’ (28-29). He struggled with his personal feelings about religion. He had always been encouraged by his mother to attend church, but found it hard to accept ‘the idea that the Bible was the one source of [the church’s] knowledge’ (74). As mentioned in Jack’s Reading and Writing blog post, Jack, as far as knowledge was concerned, ‘more the butterfly than the bee’ and with this in mind obviously found it difficult to accept the ideology of the Bible as being sacrosanct. Jack eventually came to the conclusion that ‘I was unable to accept [the Bible] as anything but a consultative and corroborative authority’ (95-96).

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

Jack did however find a spiritual home with the non-conformist congregation based at Hare Court Chapel, headed by the Rev. Henry Simon. Jack found Simon to be ‘the most impressive and eloquent preacher I have ever heard and as broad minded in his views as he was appealing in his manner’ (97-98). Non-conformists mainly supported the Liberal Party who advocated civil and religious liberty [ii] which would probably have been more in accordance with Jack’s Socialist political identity.

It was however Tolstoy (or rather his teachings) that swept away any lingering doubts as to Jack’s thoughts on belief:

Tolstoy influenced my thinking it now seems to me in two vital matters. First he abundantly confirmed the view I had come to hold more and more tenaciously that the internal is the only possible authority for any of us. Next he persuaded me…to believe in non-resistance’ (210).




274 Goring, Jack, Autobiographical notes, MS, pp.332 (c. 27,000 words). Brunel University Library.

[i] http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/oct/16/rereading-henry-mayhew-london-poor

[ii] http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/REnonconformists.htm


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