‘Life appears to me to be like an escalator but in the form of a switchback it has its ups and downs, its smooth stretches but all the time it carries us along.’ (1)
Jack Goring, was born in 1861 at Wenlock Street, New North Road in Kensal Green, London into a poor, but religious family consisting of his father, a London Porter who was a gifted singer and ivory carver and his mother, who in order to supplement a meagre household income ran a successful Dame school. Jack was the fourth of seven children, six of whom survived beyond sixty years of age, with three still living in 1938 when the autobiography was written – quite an achievement given the family’s level of poverty and living in an era known for its high level of infant mortality.
Jack’s memoir is an impressive 27,000 word hand written epic, that spans 77 years, and as you can imagine, not only does he have lots of interesting stories of his home life and ancestry, but also of the many people he met, some of whom were to help influence and shape his personal ideas and beliefs, although it must be said that his parents, especially his mother, had a positive influence on Jack, who he regarded as an intelligent teacher and a good friend.
Jack also provides some amusing descriptions of his family – I especially like his description of his father…
“[Father] wore what were then known as mutton-chop whiskers. If you can recall a portrait of the late Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria you will get some idea of his appearance”
Impressive face furniture indeed! – but probably bang on trend for the time. His mother, also no stranger to fashion, cut a dash in a crinoline! Jack remembers being present while she was dressing one morning and witnessing the entire process of ‘dropping her crinoline over her head before putting her dress on over her white petticoat’ – a one-off performance, that had she known he would not only remember, but write down for posterity, would have gone against her Victorian delicacy of taste.
Memories such as these are hardly surprising for someone born in 1861. However, some aspects of Jack’s life bear an uncanny resemblance to what we in the 21st century would regard as being exclusively ‘modern.’ For example, grabbing a coffee and a bite to eat on the way to work seems part and parcel of our hectic commuter lifestyles, but surprise surprise, Jack was doing exactly the same thing around 1874 when he used to frequent a coffee stall called ‘The Gutter Hotel’ – established in 1866 to cater for the needs of shift workers by John Pearce, founder of the ‘Pearce and Plenty’ chain of restaurants, and mentioned by John Burnett in his book England Eats Out: A Social History of Eating Out in England from 1830 to the Present.
However, life for Jack really did have its ‘ups and downs.’ He suffered from regular bouts of depression which in the early 1880s was diagnosed as neurasthenia (generally associated with shell-shock), but also known as nervous exhaustion, or nervous breakdown. People living in the late 1800s ‘can remember what it is like to live, materially and spiritually, in worlds that are not modern at all’, creating ‘a sense of living in two worlds simultaneously’ (2). Jack’s own experience of modernity is illustrated by the many changes he saw in his environment. As a boy, Kensal Green was still quite rural and Wormwood scrubs was part of the countryside. The expansion of the city was to swallow up these semi-rural areas, bringing with it changes in transport from horse trams and hansoms, to the expansion of the metropolitan railways.
With this dichotomy in mind Jack always appears to be trying to strike a balance between his material and spiritual lives. On the one hand he works hard trying to build a successful advertising agency in the city in order to support his family, and on the other hand living a quiet Tolstoyan life in the country. It would seem that the fine art of juggling work with leisure is nothing new, just as are other related conditions like depression.
This is not to say that Jack’s difficulties were completely down to lifestyle alone. He had personal tragedies to overcome such as the premature death of his first born son due to complications associated with vaccination. This happened before 1998, after which parents could opt-out via a ‘conscience clause’ from having their children vaccinated without incurring penalties.This act introduced the concept of the “conscientious objector” into English law (3).
Writing can have a cathartic effect on the writer, and this must have been true for Jack as shown by his comment ‘[I] came to what seemed then the weird conclusion that there was and could be nothing in the world worth fearing except fear itself – and such fear was of course absurd’ (4).This reveals real strength of character, something that allowed Jack to focus on what was important, rather than something he had no control over.
Jack’s autobiography is literally crammed with facts and people (some well-known). It will be especially relevant for anyone interested in: socialism and notable socialists of the era, Tolstoyan anarchism, religion, mental health, vaccination, vegetarianism and advertising. A varied range of subjects admittedly, but an illustration of a long and interesting life.
1. 274 Goring, Jack, Autobiographical notes, MS, pp.332 (c. 27,000 words). Brunel University Library.
2. Berman, Marshall. All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity London: Verso, 2010.
3. Williamson S. Anti-vaccination leagues. Arch Dis Childhood. 1984;59:1195–1196.
4. Goring, Jack. p.148