‘That we were all and always very poor is most certain but I am equally certain that as children we did not realise it.’ (4)
By the age of ten Jack Goring had lived at twelve different addresses, all within the London boroughs of St Leonard and Shoreditch. Jack gives no particular reason for why the family moved house so frequently apart that ‘these various places were all convenient for us and it is possible were considered more or less favourable on that account'(27), one convenient factor being that Jack and his two brothers attended Turner’s Free School in nearby Primrose Hill, Bishopgate, although he does not state where his sisters attended school.
Jack was a shy, thoughtful boy who from a young age had a great love for the countryside. He describes himself as ‘not too robust’ (27), he also remembers his younger brother Tom as being ‘delicate’ (47). The boy’s apparent lack of physical strength could be seen as a result of the materiality of class, where working class children struggled to compete physically with their middle class peers. Jack and his family certainly lived in a less well off part of London, and according to Charles Booth’s poverty maps of 1898-99 (1), the area of St Leonards was a real mixture of households ranging from purple (Mixed. Some comfortable others poor) to dark blue (V. poor casual. Chronic want) with light blue in between (Poor 18s. to 21s. a week for a moderate family). Jack speculates as to his father’s possible earnings ‘What his wage was I never knew – he was not I think likely to say – but I very much doubt whether he handed over on the average a pound per week to my mother.’ This wage would have designated the family as being within the purple classification of households; somewhere between comfortable and poor. The family more than likely hovered between these two states, and may have been a factor as to the frequent changes of address, no doubt exacerbated by the arrival, in pretty rapid succession, of six children.
Seebohm Rowntree’s 1901 study of York, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, which identified poverty as comprising of ‘alternating periods of want and comparative plenty’ (2). This cycle of poverty is illustrated by Jack’s memory of when one Saturday night aged about eleven, he was sent on an errand to borrow enough money from a relative to pay for a Sunday dinner, even though payday had only been on Friday. Both Booth and Rowntree identified that around a third of the urban population of the whole country was living in poverty, although Rowntree’s study distinguished poverty as something that weaved above and below the poverty line for various reasons, whereas Booth’s viewed some of the causes of poverty from a purely moralistic standpoint, although he did accept the financial restrictions faced by those employed in casual labour. Jack ultimately gives credit to his mother for her ‘economy and unfailing humanity’ as being the reason why, as children, he and his siblings never fully realised the extent of their poverty.
Jack describes his mother, Rebecca Herman b. 1830 (3) as being an enterprising woman, who despite having a large family to care for started a dame school in order to supplement a severely over-stretched family budget. Jack’s father, John Goring b. 1829 (4), had a natural gift for music and was a talented amateur comic singer, which earned him a little extra money, although Jack does not say where his ‘performances’ took place. Jack’s father was also a gifted carver of ivory scarf pins, specialising in dog’s heads. In recognition of his skill, he received an honourable mention certificate, at an exhibition of workmen signed by W. E. Gladstone.
Victorian social philosophy was based on work, thrift, respectability and self-help. Jack’s parents despite their lack of finances, managed through their obvious talents to secure themselves a fair amount of cultural capital. Jack’s mother in particular earned respect within the community for her almost philanthropic effort to provide a yearly outing to Victoria Park for her pupils and their families. There they would play games, followed by tea at the tea rooms ‘at 1d per head for the hot water, milk and sugar, and seating room. The food was taken with us – we were mostly too poor to think of buying it,’ Jacks’ pride in his mother’s achievement is evident with his remark of ‘I often wonder where one could find an enterprise more remarkable than this annual outing.’
Jack’s pride in his mother no doubt inspired a real respect for women, especially regarding equality in marriage. Jack met his future wife Jane in 1883 when she was seventeen and he was twenty one. At the time of writing his autobiography in 1938, they were due to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. Of Jane, Jack wrote ‘upon her I feel the mantle of my beloved mother has fallen and she wears it so becomingly.’ Theirs was a strong marriage, both committed ‘rebels against the conventional view of married life.’ Both Jack and Jane were agreed ‘that [their] union was not to be a mere sentimental marriage.’ For example, despite moderate resources, the couple determined that these ‘be held in common…to build up a home in every sense of the word.’ Their democratic approach to marriage deviated from the norm, where, as far as Victorian marriage laws were concerned, financial control remained with the husband. This is illustrated by an incident involving the feminist and suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who had her purse stolen in the 1870s – the thief was charged with ‘stealing from the person of Millicent Fawcett a purse containing £1, 18s. 6d., the property of Henry Fawcett’ (5).
The strength of Jack and Jane’s union was to be tested on many occasions; some through tragic events in the lives of some of their children. Around 1890, their first child was born. Named John Daniel, he was ‘a fine fellow, well-grown and walking easily at 1 year old’ (154). He was to be an unfortunate victim of vaccination and as a result Jack refused to allow any of his other children to be vaccinated. This occurred before the 1898 vaccination act when vaccination was compulsory; post-1898, parents were allowed to opt-out via a conscience clause (6). The tragedy had a profound effect on both parents, and Jack could only write of the incident that ‘[John Daniel] died a death I cannot bring myself to describe here after 47 years’ (155). Their eldest daughter Margaret, born in 1892, sadly died of pneumonia in 1918 aged 27 – four days after the signing of the armistice. Their third child Rosalind (also born in 1892, although Jack does not say if she was Margaret’s twin) ‘suffered from malnutrition aggravated by medical ignorance’ (203). Jack and Jane, frustrated by ineffectual medical intervention, took matters into their own hands and ‘started feeding her on natural lines’ (204). What these methods were are not stated; although the family were strict vegetarians. The birth in 1895, of their fourth child Elsa, was marred by the death three weeks later of Jack’s mother, Rebecca, who was living with them at the time. Thankfully, the next two children Leonard (b. 1899) and Dorothy (b. 1902) survive without incident. Finally, their youngest child, Barbara, born in 1907, suffered an irreparable injury to her neck, after her pram ran down a slope and overturned, causing ‘arrested development’ (287).
Exposure to death was a far more common occurrence in the Victorian era than today. Nowadays we tend to avoid the subject of death, especially around children. Jack’s children would have more than likely have been more aware of the seriousness of illness, and that there was a real possibility of death. Medicine, although improving all the time, was no guarantee of survival, as shown by the death of John Daniel from a vaccination intended to protect him.
By the beginning of 1899 (just after the birth of their second son, Leonard), Jack’s growing family moved thirty miles away from London to Wickford in Essex; a place they were to remain for the rest of their lives. Initially Jack and Jane had visited the Tolstoyan colony of the Croydon Brotherhood with a view to possibly joining them, but ultimately decided against the move, as that would have meant giving up the family advertising business in London. Jack had not long been independently running his own business, so the solution was to move to Wickford and commute five days a week. However, this only happened with the approval of Jane – who was very taken by newly-built house about a mile away from Wickford station – ‘if you can buy that I will stay in Wickford’ (219). No prizes for guessing who was wearing the trousers on that occasion! A very good decision – something swiftly followed by W. T. Wilkinson and Henry ‘Father’ Power of The Clarion and F. R. Henderson of ‘The Bomb Shop.’ Together, they formed their own little community and life could hardly have been more different, compared with the constant upheaval of his youth – and somewhere free from the noise, clutter and overcrowding of St Leonards and Shoreditch. Jack had definitely entered the modern age by swapping his old life in London for a new lifestyle in the country.
274 Goring, Jack, Autobiographical notes, MS, pp.332 (c. 27,000 words). Brunel University Library.
3. www.ancestry.co.uk Class: RG10; Piece: 439; Folio: 48; Page: 12; GSU roll: 823358.