The Press is at once the eye and the ear and the tongue of the people. It is the visible speech, if not the voice, of the democracy. It is the phonograph of the world.
— Government by Journalism, 1886
The Father of Modern Journalism?
William Thomas Stead was born in Embleton in Northumberland. He was home-educated by his clergyman father until, at the age of 12, he attended Silcoates School in Wakefield. He left school to become an apprentice in a counting house, but in about 1870 he began making contributions to the Northern Echo, a newspaper published from Darlington. In 1871, he was invited to become its editor. In 1876, Stead wrote a series of articles about the atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire during the suppression of the Bulgarian uprising1. At this time, provincial newspapers were considered seriously and Prime Minister Gladstone wrote congratulating the Echo on its stand. At its first session, the united parliaments of Bulgaria and Eastern Roumelia2, formed after the successful Russian invasion, passed a vote of thanks to the Echo for stirring European opinion.
Something of Stead's character can perhaps be judged from his habit of catching mice in his office and eating them on toast!3 In 1873, he married Lucy Wilson of Howden. Together they had six children. He gives us an insight into his marriage with this entry in his diary, explaining why he limited sex with his wife to twice a week, for If thrice or four times in the week I got deaf with apparent wax formation in the right ear. However, he also, allegedly, had several affairs in his youth. The best-known of these was with Olga Novikoff, a Russian patriot, who, it was said, personally convinced Gladstone and his government as to what their Russian policies should be. During this period of his life, he converted from his father's Congregational religion to spiritualism, which was attracting considerable interest in Victorian society at this time.
Go to Pall Mall
In 1880 John Morley4 invited Stead to London to become the assistant editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. When Morely was elected to Parliament in 1883, Stead became editor. He pioneered banner headlines and stylish graphics and developed the interview form in newspaper writing.
In 1883, he published The Bitter Cry of The Outcast London which highlighted, in lurid stories, life in the slums of London. A Royal Commission recommended that the government should clear the slums and encourage the building of low-cost housing — a personal triumph for Stead.
The following year, Stead campaigned for a Christian General to be sent to the Sudan to defend the region against an uprising against Egyptian rule formulated by the Mahdi, Mohammed Ahman. General Gordon was dispatched. He was familiar with the situation, having previously ended slavery in the region. The disaster and treachery that was Khartoum followed. The British public blamed the government for failing to send a relief column earlier5 and the next election saw the defeat of the Gladstone administration — a disaster for the staunch Liberal, Stead.
In the same year, he published Truth About The Navy. This campaign was undertaken with the assistance of Captain John Fisher6. It highlighted the supposed frailty of the British Navy and claimed that competing powers could both outgun and outrun British men o' war. This was largely invention, but it played upon the emotional ties of Victorian England and led to a naval spending programme that the country could not afford. This was the birth of what Matthew Arnold called 'new journalism'.
Stead's interests knew no bounds. In 1887, he reported on the publication of Esperanto, the 'International Language', and in 1902 he started campaigning for Esperanto. This led, in 1903, to the founding of the London Esperanto Club in his office at 14 Norfolk Street7.
The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon
In London in 1885, it was possible to buy a young girl for a few pounds and send her to work as a prostitute or to export her to continental Europe. John Barnardo was working to remove these children to safety, but thousands remained in conditions of utter misery. Stead had this brought to his attention by Josephine Butler, a campaigner with Catherine Booth8 against what the Salvation Army called 'white slavery'. He published an article about it and was reviled and condemned. Determined to prove what he knew to be a truth, Stead set out to provide the evidence.
Stead took to calling himself Charles, painting his face with rouge, smoking and drinking champagne. He sought an entry to the underworld where the trade took place. It came through Rebecca Jarrett, a former brothel keeper who had 'found God'. She agreed to help Stead and began to visit the brothels to find out what was available.
It wasn't long before she found Eliza Armstrong and arranged her purchase for £5: £3 down and a further £2 when her virginity was established. The girl was taken to a midwife, Madame Mourez, who declared the girl whole, and she was then taken to a brothel, undressed and put to bed, ready for Stead to arrive as the purchaser. The whole story was written up with considerable artistic licence and with many details deliberately left out. It ended with the sentence, 'For the child's sob in the darkness curseth deeper than the strong man in his wrath'.
The story was an immediate sensation. George Bernard Shaw telegraphed Stead, saying that he was prepared to act as a paper boy and sell 1,000 copies on street corners. Crowds besieged the office — some fighting for copies, others denouncing the damage he had done to the reputation of England's upper classes. Secondhand copies of the Pall Mall Gazette were changing hands at premium prices — then it was revealed that the purchaser of the child was Stead himself.
As is the case nowadays, there was great rivalry between newspapers, and Eliza's parents had their case taken up by Lloyd's newspaper. The Establishment turned on Stead and he was prosecuted for perpetrating the crime he had sought to expose. The case actually turned on a technicality. Stead had bought Eliza without obtaining permission of the illegitimate child's father. Had he done so, the transaction would have been legal. The judge, in summing up the case, declared that claims that child prostitution in England were rife were conclusively disproved. Stead was imprisoned for three months; Madame Mourez and Rebecca Jarrett each received a six-month sentence.
Stead enjoyed special privileges in prison and afterwards wrote, 'Never had I a happier lot than the months I spent in happy Holloway.' Each year thereafter, on the anniversary of his sentence, he would don his prison garb, take the train to Waterloo and walk across the bridge. However, while Stead's imprisonment was a victory for the Establishment, a genuine moral majority battled on. Partly as a result of Stead's work, the age of consent was raised from 13 to 16 and the first steps were taken to protect children from sexual exploitation.
In 1890, 'General' William Booth published his damming indictment of Victorian society, 'In Darkest England and the Way Out'. This is generally accepted to have been ghost-written by Stead. The same year Stead decided to found a monthly journal, Review of Reviews. Through this organ, he campaigned for British-Russian friendship, tend of the Transvaal War9, ending child prostitution, reforming England's criminal codes and international peace10. He wrote on psychic phenomena, spiritualism, and the 'civic church'.
1894 saw Stead visit the World's Fair, in Chicago. He was so horrified by what he saw of the conditions behind the glamour that he stayed to investigate the city's underworld. His findings, published as 'If Christ Came To Chicago; A Plea For The Union Of All Who Love In The Service Of All Who Suffer', are recognised as a model of journalistic research.
Stead's interest in spiritualism and his own belief that he possessed ESP should have enabled him to avoid his death. In 1886, he published an article titled 'How The Mail Steamer Went Down In Mid-Atlantic, By a Survivor', in which there is a high loss of life due to a lack of lifeboats. Then, in 1892, he published a story called 'From The Old World To The New', in which a White Star Line vessel, Majestic, rescues survivors from a vessel that has collided with an iceberg. Despite this, and against the advice of a clairvoyant friend, he booked passage to attend the 1912 Peace Conference at Carnegie Hall. He sailed on RMS Titanic.
Stead is pictured in the 1958 film A Night To Remember, sitting reading in the first-class smoking room as the ship goes down. A survivor is quoted by William Lord as saying he last saw Stead helping women and children to escape. The front page of the Daily Mirror for 18 April, 1912 reads 'Mr WT Stead, the friend of kings and the hater of injustice, who was one of the many hundreds who perished in the sinking of the Titanic.'
There is a plaque erected to Stead in Central Park, New York and there are four in England. Stead's editorial chair is preserved in the offices of the Northern Echo in Darlington and opposite is a stone from his house, where he used to tie his horses and dogs. The inscription is 'The boulder is a fitting symbol of his indomitable strength and courage.'