The Beginnings of Investigative Journalism

James Greenwood started out as a printer. Later, he began writing adventure tales before entering journalism. As a journalist, he was the first to go undercover for research and to invent investigative journalism in the process. His subsequent writing was nothing short of revolutionary.


James Greenwood was born in 1832 in London. He worked as a printer until the writing bug caught him and he started publishing adventure stories in Boy’s Own in 1861 with Wild Sports Of The World. Over the next four years, adventure stories of his were regularly published and promoted in Boy’s Own and Boy’s Own Annual. His article series Lion King published in the 1864 Annual is thought to have inspired Rudyard Kipling to write The Jungle Book. 

In 1865, he joined The Pall Mall Gazette where his brother Frederic was its first editor. On the suggestion of his brother, James Greenwood dressed as a vagrant. He subsequently went undercover and checked in at Lambeth workhouse for the poor. Out of his experience there, he wrote the three-part article A Night In A Workhouse to be published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1866. The article caused a furor. 

Other articles had treated social issues before that. But their authors had stuck to the Victorian principle of obfuscation by omitting any offensive themes and couching everything in the most blatant euphemisms. Greenwood dispensed with niceties and the nerves of his readers and told them the stark naked truth. The article told for the first time of the dehumanization of the poor; of how they were stripped of their meager possessions and clothing and stuck into dirty bathtubs filled with water as dirty as rotting soup; and how Greenwood found his mattress soaked in blood from his predecessor and how he was told to flip it over and use it. The article set fire to Londoners' world view, and a public outcry for social changes in workhouses ensued. 

Upon leaving The Pall Mall Gazette (long before it was merged with The Evening Standard), James Greenwood joined the Daily Telegraph. He continued his double career as a writer of adventure stories and as a social journalist. His involvement into social issues went further than mere writing, though. 

In 1895, he joined The Ragged School Union in a campaign aimed at arranging to send poor children from London to the countryside for summer holidays. He also set up an appeal that provided £80,000 (that is about 4.8 million pounds in today's money) for Christmas hampers to be handed out to crippled children. He died in London in 1929. 

James Greenwood’s extraordinary works were largely forgotten and have only quite recently been rediscovered as noteworthy. In fact, his work is not only noteworthy, it is partly revolutionary. Critical social writing as produced by Jacob Riis, Jack London, Henry Mayhew, and Arthur Morrison would have been unthinkable without James Greenwood setting the pace. And wouldn't we all be the poorer (and Walt Disney even more so) for missing out on The Jungle Book?

Further reading
The Invention of George Eliot
Too Pretty for Dickens?
The White Sex Slaves of 1874