William Stead, the son of a Congregational minister, was born in Embleton on 5th July 1849. William spent his childhood at Howden. Educated at home by his father, William grew up with strong views on religion. He spent two years at Silcoates School (1861-3), near Wakefield, but at the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a merchant in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Encouraged by his friend, John Copleston, he became a journalist. In April 1871 he succeeded Copleston as editor Darlington Northern Echo. Two years later, on 10th June 1873, he married a childhood friend, Emma Lucy Wilson (1849–1932). Over the next few years they had four sons and two daughters.
Stead was a strict Puritan who favoured social reform. He declared soon after becoming editor of the newspaper, "the Press is the greatest agency for influencing public opinion in the world" and that "the true and only lever by which thrones and governments could be shaken and the masses of the people raised". Stead successfully made the Darlington Northern Echo the most influential voice of Nonconformity in the North of England. His newspaper supported several causes including universal education, votes for women, repeal of the Contagious Acts and Irish Home Rule.
Stead was also a strong supporter of the Salvation Army and the Liberal Party. He later admitted: "When I was editing the Northern Echo I was a thorough-going Gladstonian of a very stalwart fighting kind, with a wholesome conviction that Tories were children of the Devil, and that the supreme duty of a Liberal journalist was to win as many seats as possible for the Liberal Party. We were very successful, and even in the dark hour of Conservatism in 1874 we achieved the almost unprecedented feat of carrying all the Durham seats for the Liberal Party."
His biographer, Joseph O. Baylen, has argued: "As an innovative and unconventional editor Stead made the Northern Echo one of the most renowned north country dailies by committing the paper to most of the agenda of the radical Liberals, the political leadership of Gladstone, and the religious and social endeavours of the Salvation Army. He also committed the Echo to advocating compulsory primary and secondary school education, universal male and female suffrage, repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, ‘social purity’ in politics, collective bargaining in industrial relations, and the eight-hour working day for coal miners. He also advocated radical foreign policies, calling for international arbitration, home rule for Ireland, ‘sane’ British imperial expansion, self-determination for the Balkan Slav nationalities, an Anglo-Russian entente, and Anglo-American amity."
Stead moved to London in 1880 where John Morley employed him as a journalist on the Pall Mall Gazette. Three years later, Morley was elected to the House of Commons and Stead was promoted to editor. William Stead now had the opportunity of developing his ideas on journalism. Henry Massingham commented: "When Mr. Stead, who had served under Mr. Morley with a warm affection for his chief, with great ability, but with a constant sense of repression, succeeded to the editorship, the nature of the rebound can be measured by the difference in the character of the two men. Mr. Morley, old-fashioned, cold and formal in manner, though not at heart, keen and sensitive, but never exuberant; Mr. Stead, flamboyant, expansive, full of ideas transmuted by the rough and ready alchemy of an impressionable nature, a born subeditor, a brilliant, incisive, though not faultless writer, and a man of impetuously daring temperament - it would indeed be difficult to imagine a more sweeping mental and moral contrast."
The Pall Mall Gazette under the editorship of Stead, featured banner headlines, shorter paragraphs in a readable style, with considerable use of illustrations, diagrams and maps to break up the text. Stead published a high percentage of human interest stories and used the paper to campaign for various causes. He wrote in his private journal that he intended to "lead the leaders of our race in its upward striving, hearing new words of command in every cry of the sorrowing and goaded."
In 1883 the Pall Mall Gazette carried a series of articles on the subject of child prostitution. Stead now joined with Josephine Butler and Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army to expose what had become known as the white slave traffic. In July 1885 Stead purchased for £5, Eliza Armstrong, a thirteen year-old daughter of a chimney-sweep, to show how easy it was to procure young girls for prostitution. Stead published an account of his investigations in the Pall Mall Gazette entitled Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.
In September, William Stead and five others were charged with unlawfully kidnapping a minor and committed for trial at the Old Bailey. Stead was found guilty and was imprisoned for three months in Holloway Prison. As a result of the publicity that the Armstrong case generated, Parliament in 1885 passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act that raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen and strengthened existing legislation against prostitution.
Stead supported the growth of the trade union movement and played an important role in the success of the Matchgirls Strike in 1888. He condemned the action of the police after the Bloody Sunday affair. This brought him into conflict with William Gladstone and other members of the Liberal Party. However, he also upset the socialists who organized the demonstration. Henry M. Hyndmanlater admitted: "For myself, I never could stand the man. His mind, his ethic, his manners, his methods, alike revolted me. He was that not uncommon variety of self-conscious ascetic, a Puritan chock-full of guile, and in his way utterly unscrupulous. At one moment when we were at odds with the Tory Government, and it was quite possible serious trouble would come of it, Stead took, or pretended to take, our side, and undoubtedly did us some good. We all of us thought he meant what he said, and that in all good faith he did what he did.
Not a bit of it. The whole affair was carried on, so far as he was concerned, for the greater glory of himself and his newspaper. The night before the great meeting in Trafalgar Square he published an article obviously meant to do the Socialists as much harm as possible, because it might advertise his journal."
Henry Scott Holland disagreed completely: "He was a most lovable man. He had something of the child about him, which drew and endeared... The note of everything about him lay in his moral impetuosity. It carried all along. There was no power on earth that could check, or damp, or repress it. It had the invincible confidence of inspiration in it. It stormed its way through. And, then, it had at its service an intelligence that knew no reserves, and accepted no repression, and revelled in largeness of scope, and in audacities of venture, and in swiftness of action, and in defiant concentration of all its power upon the immediate purpose."
Stead also retained the support of others such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett: "Here was somebody writing with a pen touched with fire about the things that really mattered - clean living, and the protection of children from the deepest of wrongs; and the pen did not give the impression of being guided by sentimentalism: it was evidently wielded by a man who had made a careful study of facts, and was prepared to give battle to defend the right. I do not think I ever heard his name till everybody heard it in 1885, when all London - and, indeed, all the world - rang with the shameless and cruel traffic for immoral purposes in little children, exposed for the first time in the Pall Mall Gazette. This traffic could have been, and ought to have been, stopped by law; but the Bill dealing adequately with these horrors, though it had been passed more than once through the House of Lords, had been, session after session, talked out, counted out, and blocked out in the House of Commons. It was counted out no more after Mr. Stead carried out his plan of insisting that all the world should know that these devilish things were of common, everyday occurrence in a so-called Christian country."
Stead helped Annie Besant to form the Law and Liberty League and used the Pall Mall Gazette to try and save Florence Maybrick and Mildred Langworthy from the gallows. He also took up the case of Elizabeth Cass. Stead was also a strong supporter of women's rights. A good friend of Annie Besant, Josephine Butler and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Stead was proud of the fact that he was the first editor to employ women on the same pay as men.
Stead also took a deep interest in exploring different ways to reduce poverty in Britain. He campaigned against the Poor Law, advocated old age pensions and supported the charity work of the Salvation Army. In 1890 Stead helped William Booth to write In Darkest England and the Way Out.
Stead left the Pall Mall Gazette in January, 1890, and established the Review of Reviews. As his biographer, Joseph O. Baylen, pointed out: "Established in a brief partnership with George Newnes, which was soon to be superseded by a loan from the Salvation Army and a subvention from Cecil Rhodes, the journal was a highly successful venture, with counterparts quickly instituted by Stead in the United States (1891) and Australia (1892). In the Review of Reviews, as in the Pall Mall Gazette, he advocated the union of English-speaking peoples, the expansion and federation of the British empire, Irish home rule, and the maintenance of morality in government and politics."
Stead worked hard for an end to the arms race and was fully committed to the principle of arbitration and to the International Court of Justice. In 1899 he advocated an end to conflict with South Africa and as a result of his membership of the Stop the War Committee and his special periodical, War Against War in South Africa, Stead was accused of being pro-Boer.
Stead attempted to establish a morning newspaper in 1904 but this ended in failure and brought him to the brink of bankruptcy, from which he was rescued by the generosity of several friends. He continued to work as a journalist and reported on the Russian Revolution of 1905.
In 1906 Emmeline Pankhurst sent Annie Kenney to meet Stead. According to Fran Abrams: "Perhaps Emmeline knew of Stead's fondness for young girls, which Sylvia experienced too. On one occasion Annie had to appeal to Emmeline to ask him not to kiss her when she went to his office. But Annie liked Stead, and he quickly became a father figure. Before their first meeting was over she was sitting on the arm of his chair, telling him all about her life. He responded by telling her she must come to him if she was ever lonely or in trouble. Later he even let her use a room in his house in Smith Square to rest during Westminster lobbies and demonstrations, and he lent her £25 to help her organise her first big London meeting." Annie became very close to Stead and used to spend time with him at his house on Hayling Island in Hampshire. In one article Stead argued that Annie Kenney was the new Josephine Butler.
In 1912 William Stead was asked to speak at a international conference on world peace and international arbitration at Carnegie Hall. Stead accepted and decided to travel to America on the Titanic. It was later reported that he made no attempt to get into the final lifeboats and was last seen standing upright on the deck in prayer. Henry Scott Holland commented: "It added a strange thrill to the horror of the ocean-agony to hear that W. T. Stead had gone down to his death in the silent depths of those icy waters. Such an end became him. He belonged to the sudden and supreme hours, when all that man has is at stake. He understood the vehement, the spasmodic. He was at home in heroic moments of storm and stress, in the daring ventures of the human spirit."
(1) William Stead, Darlington Northern Echo (24th June, 1876)
It will be bad news for England if, while the respite it has procured for Turkey endures, the smouldering sparks of rebellion sown broadcast throughout the Empire should suddenly blaze up, and bring to pass a general conflagration. We shall not be able to plead that there were no warnings of such an eventuality.
It is true that we have Ministerial cries of "Peace, peace;" but the telegraph contradicts them, and a crowd of witnesses attest the contrary. Never since the Herzogovinese took up arms to avenge their wrongs and enforce redress has the aspect of affairs been so ominous. These rebels are still in the field. Servia and Montenegro are but waiting for permission from their patron, Russia, to raise the standard of revolt. On the fringe of the Empire, if we may so speak, the Slav population is profoundly disquieted. Both men and money are freely offered to assist the insurgents in their attempts to break the chains of an intolerable servitude. While such is the state of things in these localities, a war of extermination is being carried on against the Christians in Bulgaria! Upon the provocation of an insurrection the dimensions of which cannot have been great, a company of Bashi-Bazouks, the off-scourings of Turkish society, which sufficiently describes their character, were let loose upon the people, and never did dogs pursue their game more mercilessly. A wide region of central Bulgaria has been laid waste. The names of thirty-seven villages are given that have been utterly destroyed. Men, women, and children have been ruthlessly murdered. Among the incidents mentioned is the burning of a stable with forty or fifty young women within its walls; and a massacre of innocents, to the number of a hundred, found in a school house. The details are sickening. The total slaughter can only be guessed at. The effect of these atrocities is not pacificatory. As the story becomes known through the disaffected provinces a new impulse will be given to the wish for deliverance. The precise relation of Russia to the Christian subjects of the Sultan is questionable. It may, as suspected, or may not, as it pretends, be fermenting discontent; but this much is certain that it is to Russia that these unhappy people are looking for sympathy and aid. Not to Christian England.
England is Turkey's friend. The Mussulmans (sic) are going about saying that England will not see the Empire broken up - that, if necessary, it will help to put down insurrections; and that every indication of vigour in this direction, as in Bulgaria, is sure of it warmest approbation. Is all this a delusion? or has England been committed to the course of action thus defined? It is high time that we had an authoritative explanation of our position in relation to Turkey. We are held accountable for the lack of energy displayed in applying the reforms which might give satisfaction to the insurgents. It is to England that Continental critics ascribe the "days of grace" the Treaty Powers have granted; and which, as we learn, are slipping away unimproved, witnessing as they pass a constant aggravation of circumstances, and a heaping up of obstacles to a satisfactory settlement. How and by what means have we been made responsible for these things? The country is too much in the dark respecting transactions that nearly affects its character, and which may be tending to issues it would deeply deplore. If the "sage forbearance" and "patriotic reserve," as Mr. Disraeli phrases the extreme moderation of the Liberal leaders, continue much longer, we trust some independent member of Parliament will force from ministers a more particular declaration of their policy, and a more detailed statement of their proceedings than they seem disposed to give. The aspect of affairs is decidedly alarming; and it will be little consolation should our fears be fulfilled, that we exhibited a "sage forbearance," a "patriotic reserve," while the several atoms of discord were drifting into collision, repressing with exemplary patience and marvellous self-command, the curiosity which might have framed embarrassing questions, but questions that, if asked, and asked in time, might have kept us from trouble, and averted from Europe a sanguinary war.
(2) William Stead, journal entry (14th January, 1877)
I am apparently more useful than ever. The Bulgarian atrocity agitation was in a great measure my work. I have received the highest compliments from Gladstone, Freeman, W. E. Forster, John Bright and Lord Hartington. I have been praised beyond my utmost expectation. I believe that in God's hands I have been instrumental in doing much to prevent a great national crime, a war with Russia on the side of the Turks. New possibilities of usefulness open out. Life is once more brilliant as in the heroic days. Our time is as capable of Divine service as Puritan times. The agitation of this Recess has rekindled my faith in my countrymen, renewed my faith in Liberalism, strengthened my trust in God. For the Bulgarian agitation was due to a Divine voice. I felt the clear call of God's voice, "Arouse the nation or be damned". If I did not do all I could, I would deserve damnation.
I had a terrible afternoon. It was like a Divine possession that shook me almost to pieces, wrung me and left me shuddering and weak in an agony of tears. I went out determined to do this and nothing else until such time as my mission was revoked. I knew not how it would he taken. Bell fortunately was away in Switzerland and I threw myself heart and soul, and the paper heart and soul, into the movement. I knew I might perish by overstrained excitement. I felt that like Jacob I had met the angel of God and I did not know but that I might have a lifelong limp in consequence of the meeting. There were minor considerations. It was with fear and trembling that I went to the first meeting at Darlington, but it was a great success. Others followed and, when Mr. Gladstone published his pamphlet, I felt that my work was crowned and assumed by other hands, more able than mine. I had written to Mr. Gladstone on the night of the meeting expressing my hope that he would justify the confidence reposed in him by all of us. I felt his pamphlet to be an answer to my letter. I am inclined to attribute some of Mr. Gladstone's evident desire to please me to his consciousness that I was the first to sound in his ears the summons which God had already spoken to his soul. I look back with unfeigned joy to the strain and exertion of that exciting time. I wrote dozens of letters a day, appealing, exhorting, entreating and at last I roused the North. I felt that I was called to preach a new crusade. Not against Islam, which I reverenced, but against the Turks who disgraced Humanity. I realised the feelings of Peter the Hermit. God was with me.
(3) Henry Massingham, Leisure Hour (July, 1892)
Of all the editors who have in turn sat in the well-worn chair in Northumberland Street, the man who has left the deepest mark on the character of the paper is Mr. Stead. Mr. Cook, the present editor, would not hesitate to call himself a disciple of a chief whom he served with singular loyalty and zeal. He stands, however, midway between the revolutionary school of journalism, in which Mr. Stead is the prime innovator, and the extreme conservatism of the editor of Mr. John Morley's type. Mr. Morley had doubtless some of the gifts which go to make a journalist, as well as many which belong to the nobler craft of literature, but a passionate zeal for his profession, the journalist's flair for news - a coming crisis, an interesting personality, a picturesque event - he never had. When the Pall Mall passed in 1880 from Mr. Greenwood's and Mr. George Smith's hands into Mr. Yates Thompson's, and then into Mr. John Morley's, the price changing from twopence to a penny, it became the medium of an honourable, severe, able, but limited school of political Radicalism. Mr. Morley's essay-like leaders, written with less warmth of colour than his best literary work, but models of pure and nervous English, were read, but his paper was not.
When Mr. Stead, who had served under Mr. Morley with a warm affection for his chief, with great ability, but with a constant sense of repression, succeeded to the editorship, the nature of the rebound can be measured by the difference in the character of the two men. Mr. Morley, old-fashioned, cold and formal in manner, though not at heart, keen and sensitive, but never exuberant; Mr. Stead, flamboyant, expansive, full of ideas transmuted by the rough and ready alchemy of an impressionable nature, a born subeditor, a brilliant, incisive, though not faultless writer, and a man of impetuously daring temperament - it would indeed be difficult to imagine a more sweeping mental and moral contrast. In one respect, however, both editors achieved a similar success. The Pall Mall, both with Mr. Morley and Mr. Stead, was a power.
(4) William Stead, The Review of Reviews (November, 1906)
A deputation from the Woman's Social and Political Union waited upon the Prime Minister to urge upon him the importance of conceding the vote to women. As Sir Henry refused to do anything, a few of the more determined leaders of the movement made a demonstration in the outer Lobby. It was a very harmless affair. A few sentences of indignant protest, promptly cut short by the police, fell from the lips of the first speaker. Mrs. Despard, sister of General French, a grey-haired matron who has devoted herself to charitable works in South West London, promptly took the place of the silenced speaker, only to be as promptly silenced. The police then removed the protesting ladies, and there the incident ought to have ended. But no sooner were the women removed from the precincts of Parliament than several of them were arrested, including at least one bystander, Miss Annie Kenney, who had never been in the Lobby at all, and who had refrained from taking any part in the demonstration. Mrs. Despard, who was one of the chief offenders, protested against Miss Kenney's arrest, declaring that if any one deserved arrest it was herself. The police, however, refrained from arresting General French's sister, saying that they had their instructions. So Miss Kenney, the factory girl was marched off to prison, while Mrs. Despard was left at liberty, in order apparently to demonstrate that even in dealing with women there is one law for the rich and another for the poor.
Next day the ladies were brought before the Westminster police magistrate. They were not represented by counsel, and they one and all declared that they ignored the jurisdiction of the Court. They regarded themselves as outlaws, shut out from the pale of the Constitution. Several persons who had witnessed the proceedings tendered themselves as voluntary witnesses, but they were not allowed to give their evidence. The police, therefore, had everything their own way, and the magistrate convicted the whole batch, ordering them to enter into recognizances and bind themselves over to keep the peace for six months. As they refused to do anything of the kind they were ordered to be imprisoned as ordinary criminal convicts for two months. One of the Misses Pankhurst, who was accused of attempting to make a disturbance outside the Court, was sentenced to a fortnight's imprisonment on the evidence of the police, which was flatly contradicted by three independent respectable witnesses. The prisoners were then removed from Court and conveyed in Black Maria to Holloway Gaol. The most disreputable feature of the proceedings was the deliberate and malignant misrepresentation of the conduct of the accused by the hooligans of some of the daily papers. The cowardly brutality of some of the scoundrels who lend their pens to this campaign of calumny is a melancholy illustration of the extent to which some newspapers are staffed by Yahoos.
The ladies, on arriving at Holloway Gaol, were treated exactly as if they had been the drabs of the street convicted for drunkenness. They were stripped, deprived of their own raiment, made to wear the clothes, none too clean, of previous prisoners, and shut up in verminous cells in solitary confinement. Two of their number, Mrs. Pethwick-Lawrence, the wife of the last proprietor of the Echo, and Mrs. Montefiore, broke down in health. To avert fatal consequences their medical advisers insisted that they should enter into recognizances for good behaviour and regain their liberty. One of the others who was ill was sent into the hospital. The others, among them Mrs. Cobden-Saunderson, a daughter Richard Cobden, stood firm and took their gruel without complaint. They were prepared to "stick it through" to the end. Neither they nor any of their representatives made any appeal to the Government for any amelioration of their condition. They protested vigorously to the Governor against the filthy state of their cells. Tardy measures were taken to extirpate the bugs from which less distinguished prisoners have long suffered, but they were less successful in their protests against the rats and mice. When I was at Holloway as a first-class misdemeanant twenty years ago, one of my liveliest recollections is that of mice running over my head as I lay in bed. Things do not appear to have improved much since then.
(5) William Stead, The Review of Reviews (June, 1910)
Saturday, June 18th, promises to be a memorable day in the history of Woman's Suffrage. Since the General Election the militants have postponed the threatened resumption of warlike tactics in order to give a fair opportunity to the tactics of ordinary peaceful, law-abiding demonstration. They are as keen as ever for admission within the pale of the Constitution, but they have been told that after 480 of their number have proved the sincerity of their enthusiasm by going to gaol there is no need now for anything more sensational than a great procession through the streets of London and a united demonstration in Albert Hall. Although the older, not to say the ancient, Union which bore the burden and heat of the day before the advent of the Suffragettes is not to be officially represented in the procession - much to our regret - most of their members will probably be in the ranks. This is emphatically an occasion on which all advocates for woman's emancipation should sink their differences and present a united front to the enemy. I sincerely hope that all my Helpers and Associates who may be in town will not fail to fall into line and spare no effort to make the procession of June 18th one of those memorable demonstrations of political earnestness which leave an indelible impression on the public mind. That the Women will obtain enfranchisement in this Parliament I do not venture to hope. But the days of the present Parliament are numbered, and the prospects of success in the next will largely depend on the impression of orderly, well-disciplined enthusiasm which London will receive from this midsummer procession.
(6) William Stead, The Review of Reviews (July, 1911)
June 17th was a red letter day in the history of the movement for the the emancipation of women. The women's demonstration took the form of stretching across the streets of London from Blackfriars Bridge to the Albert Hall one fine Saturday afternoon a living five-linked chain of women, dressed for the most part in white. The chain, decorated with flowers and flags, enlivened by matching music, and tied up here and there into a knot by a tableau or a pageant, was in ceaseless movement throughout its entire length. Miss Bryce, the niece of the Ambassador at Washington, rode at its head, arrayed in armour and carrying a sword to represent the immortal Maid of Orleans, that supreme type of militant and conquering womanhood. It was called the Coronation Procession of the Women of Britain, and was the first and the longest and most original of all the processions that celebrated the King's crowning. To the anti-Suffragists who look down from the club windows in Pall Mall, which are still the exclusive lairs of the male monopolist, the great procession winding its slow length along must have seemed like a deadly boa constrictor stretching its coil around its fascinated victim. But to the veterans of the movement - who, like Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy, reviewed the march past from a window in St. James Street, or the still older Mrs. Haslam, of Dublin, who, despite her seventy-eight years, marched the whole way from the Embankment to the Albert Hall - the procession must have sounded the signal: "Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation."
All the women's societies participated in making the procession a success. Militants and non-militants marched, if not exactly side by side, then certainly in loyal comradeship, in succeeding ranks. In the evening each section went to its own place, the militants going to the Albert Hall, which was crowded with an enthusiastic audience. The Shakespeare Ball, held in the same place in the following week, was more elaborate in its decorative design, but it is doubtful whether its gaily caparisoned army of Peers and grandees in masquerade produced a more striking effect than was presented by the massed militants that historic Saturday. It was a night of jubilation not without justification. Not five years had passed since Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy standing upon a chair in order to address a small but earnest meeting of Suffragists in my office in Mowbray House, gave the signal for the beginning of the militant campaign, and here were the results. The redoubtable trio who have engineered the movement, the Pankhursts, mere et fille, and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, were joined this time on the platform by Mrs. Annie Besant, who formulated in logical and uncompromising terms the right of all human beings to justice and a free opportunity to use all their talents, without distinction of sex, even if this demanded the admission of women to the Bench, the pulpit, and to the House of Commons. The note of triumph was accentuated by Miss Christabel Pankhurst, who chortled in her joy as she read out Mr. Asquith's pledge that next Session the women should not only have their promised week for their Bill, but that the promise of reasonable facilities should be kept in letter and in spirit. As a thank-offering some £5,000 was subscribed on the spot, bringing up the campaign fund to £64,000.
Emmeline Pankhurst arrived in London that year and sent Annie Kenney off to lobby the journalist W. T. Stead for his support. Perhaps Emmeline knew of Stead's fondness for young girls, which Sylvia experienced too. On one occasion Annie had to appeal to Emmeline to ask him not to kiss her when she went to his office. But Annie liked Stead, and he quickly became a father figure. Before their first meeting was over she was sitting on the arm of his chair, telling him all about her life. He responded by telling her she must come to him if she was ever lonely or in trouble. Later he even let her use a room in his house in Smith Square to rest during Westminster lobbies and demonstrations, and he lent her £25 to help her organise her first big London meeting. With Emmeline's permission he invited her to spend time at his house on Hayling island in Hampshire. He signed his letters to her, "your affectionate Granddad". Stead was so bowled over by Annie that later that year he wrote a eulogy to her in his Review of Reviews.
(8) Henry M. Hyndman, Further Reminiscences (1912)
I have before spoken of the unpleasing impression he produced upon me when I first met him at dinner on his coming to London from Darlington, in company with Lord Morley, Mr. Andrew Lang, Sir John Robinson, and our host, Mr. Yates Thompson. I saw a good deal of Stead from time to time for a few years after that, and he made a wholly unique position for himself. He first introduced the practice of interviewing for the newspapers into the English press, and in some respects bettered his American instructors. That, as Sir Walter Scott said of himself when narrating another man's story, he "put a cocked hat and a sword" on every such bit of special reporting he did cannot be disputed, but his narrative certainly gained in picturesqueness what it lost in photographic accuracy. The interviewed victims lived in his account of them, and he took good care that the portrait of Stead should live too.
As editor he made his paper a platform for vigorous daily preachment by quite unusual methods.
He existed upon active sensationalism and vigorous exaggeration. He, so to say, caught his public by the beard and bellowed or shrieked his convictions for the day into its ear. People might kick, but they must hear. Whether it happened to be the need for a strong navy, or the innumerable virtues of Russia and her Czar, with the splendid work of civilisation they were doing in the East and on the Afghan frontier more particularly, or the glories of a possible Nonconformist Pope, with a vision of the Vatican as W. T. S.'s continental villa, or the splendid work of the Salvation Army and its sweating-shops, or the pressing need for protecting the maidens of modern Babylon from the outrageous vices of the respectable bourgeois, it was all given out to the world on Sarah Jane's top note. There was no mistaking what Stead meant to tell you, but after the first few sentences had been dinned into the ears of any sensitive person an irresistible longing for the sounds to be conveyed from a greater distance, or through two stout plugs of cotton wool, came upon the most eager for information.
Stead's methods of obtaining and parading information were at times as peculiar as they were boisterous in expression. I believe the man to have been strictly honest. Flattery and admiration might win him but not cash. Yet at the time of the Penjdeh incident in Afghanistan he displayed such minute knowledge in his paper of the movements of the Russian troops in that far-off locality, and treated his readers with such appalling accuracy to the names of the very captains of the sotnias of Kossacks employed, that, upon his stigmatising another journal as a catchpenny sheet, that organ referred to retorted by speaking of Stead's paper as "our catchrouble contemporary," and all the London world of journalism was glad...
For myself, I never could stand the man. His mind, his ethic, his manners, his methods, alike revolted me. He was that not uncommon variety of self-conscious ascetic, a Puritan chock-full of guile, and in his way utterly unscrupulous. At one moment when we were at odds with the Tory Government, and it was quite possible serious trouble would come of it, Stead took, or pretended to take, our side, and undoubtedly did us some good. We all of us thought he meant what he said, and that in all good faith he did what he did.
Not a bit of it. The whole affair was carried on, so far as he was concerned, for the greater glory of himself and his newspaper. The night before the great meeting in Trafalgar Square he published an article obviously meant to do the Socialists as much harm as possible, because it might advertise his journal. I told him as plainly as I could, and I am not troubled with stammering in my speech, what I thought of him, but he took my objurgations in what he called a truly Christian spirit.
(9) Millicent Garrett Fawcett, The Contemporary Review (June, 1912)
All who care for justice to women, and who desire to see the law and its administration make sure that, as far as possible, the world shall be a place of happiness and safety for children, have lost a stalwart friend in the death of W. T. Stead, who went down, on April 16, with the Titanic. I first became aware of a new note in journalism - at any rate in London journalism - in the early eighties.
Here was somebody writing with a pen touched with fire about the things that really mattered - clean living, and the protection of children from the deepest of wrongs; and the pen did not give the impression of being guided by sentimentalism: it was evidently wielded by a man who had made a careful study of facts, and was prepared to give battle to defend the right. I do not think I ever heard his name till everybody heard it in 1885, when all London - and, indeed, all the world - rang with the shameless and cruel traffic for immoral purposes in little children, exposed for the first time in the Pall Mall Gazette. This traffic could have been, and ought to have been, stopped by law; but the Bill dealing adequately with these horrors, though it had been passed more than once through the House of Lords, had been, session after session, talked out, counted out, and blocked out in the House of Commons. It was counted out no more after Mr. Stead carried out his plan of insisting that all the world should know that these devilish things were of common, everyday occurrence in a so-called Christian country. When he undertook his chivalric campaign, the age of consent in Christian England was thirteen; little children of thirteen could therefore legally consent to their own ruin, and no legal redress could be obtained from those who were worse than murderers. Many other offences of the deepest villainy were unrecognized as such by the law, and therefore were liable to no legal punishment. All this was changed by the action Mr. Stead took. He was blamed for his sensationalism, for his want of good taste. But he knew what he was doing, and his training as a journalist told him that in order to rouse the torpid conscience of the House of Commons, shock tactics were necessary. I remember well his personal description of how he had been worked up to take the action which he did take. As a young man he had been greatly influenced by Mrs. Josephine Butler, and her great crusade against the immoral Contagious Diseases Act. It was Mrs. Josephine Butler who came to him with her heart-rending story, drawn from facts in her own experience, of the sale and purchase of young children in London for the purposes of immorality. Stead felt her message as a call for personal service. "Whereupon, Oh King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the Heavenly vision," he might have said - the Heavenly vision of trying to get God's will done on earth as it is in Heaven. But though he was full of the spirit which leads to personal service, he was careful and cautious in regard to facts. He felt he must make the groundwork of positive knowledge firm beneath his feet. He went, therefore, with his story, Mrs. Butler's story, to Sir Howard Vincent, then Head of the Criminal Investigation Department. "Just tell me," he said, "are such things possible?" The reply was: "They are not only possible, they are of common occurrence." Stead broke in, "It ought to rouse hell," and Sir Howard rejoined, "It does not even rouse the neighbours." Stead determined it should rouse the neighbours and the whole country, and through them the miserable indifference of the House of Commons to villainy which was contaminating the life-blood of the nation at its source. He made a plan for the fictitious, but apparently real, sale of a child, safeguarding himself and her at every stage by the presence of trustworthy witnesses of his bona fides. He also took into his confidence beforehand the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Manning, and other high ecclesiastics. He then spread broadcast in the columns of the Pall Mall Gazette, of which he was the editor, the whole story. He accomplished what he set out to accomplish. The House of Commons boggled no more over the Criminal Law Amendment Bill: there were no more counts out and talks out of that long-delayed measure. The sons of Belial did what they could in the House to minimize its stringency, but they were no longer masters of the situation, and the Act which was finally passed was an enormous improvement on anything which up to that time had found a place in the statute book.
The enemy furiously raged together, and going over the whole of Stead's story told by himself with the utmost circumstance and publicity, discovered a joint in his armour of precautions, and that he had actually, in his crusade, committed a technical breach of the law. A grateful country sentenced him to three months' imprisonment as an ordinary criminal. But he was almost immediately made a first-class misdemeanant, and went on editing the Pall Mall Gazette from his cell in Holloway.
The effect of his heroic action did not cease with the passing of Act. Many good men and women, foremost among them Mr. and Mrs. Percy Bunting, determined that the deep feeling which had been aroused shuld have a permanent expression. The National Vigilance Association was formed with Mr. W. A. Coote as Secretary. Its object was to see that the new law was set in motion, and to secure further improvementsand developments in it. The International work now going forward with the object of preventing the White Slave Traffic is due to the National Association, and thus indirectly, to W. T. Stead. The House of Commons shows its old indifference and supineness in relation to this great work: the Bill has been put up for second reading by the Member in charge of it again and again. It is always blocked. The Government, while expressing entire approval of it, declines to take it up: it needs behind it the electoral force which it would receive if women had votes. No one was more clear on this point than Mr. Stead: he constantly recurred to it. The last time I saw him was on March 28. I was, with other women, walking up and down the pavement outside the House of Commons while the men inside were killing the Conciliation Bill. We exchanged a friendly greeting, and I well knew that with his whole heart and strength he wished us well.
It is pleasant to read what everyone is saying of him now: that to him death was but the passage from one room to another of his Father's house; that it was quite certain that he would be among the last to leave the ship, that among the tragic uncertainties of this tragic event there was, at any rate, one positive certainty, and that was that he would never seek his own safety at the cost of others, but would die, as he had lived, heroically. No one pretends that he was faultless; but he had a great and generous heart, a boundless and intense vitality, and the spontaneous desire everywhere and always to protect and cherish the weak. We may be thankful for his life, "We are a nation yet," as long as we can breed such men as he was.
(10) Henry Scott Holland, The Contemporary Review (June, 1912)
It added a strange thrill to the horror of the ocean-agony to hear that W. T. Stead had gone down to his death in the silent depths of those icy waters. Such an end became him. He belonged to the sudden and supreme hours, when all that man has is at stake. He understood the vehement, the spasmodic. He was at home in heroic moments of storm and stress, in the daring ventures of the human spirit.
He would show himself in all his nobility of soul under this tremendous proof; and no one who knew him could doubt how his tenderness might have spent itself in the service of women and children. "Splendid action on the edge of life." How he would have loved James Mozley's famous phrase! His soul would have been aflame to meet the call. If only he could have told us, as no other could tell, the story of the awful night, and have flung out, into burning words, the tragic irony of such a close to that stupendous toy which man's power and pride had fashioned for his pleasure!
He was a most lovable man. He had something of the child about him, which drew and endeared. I recall the old days of Bulgarian atrocities, in which he and Liddon struck up their surprising friendship. I think of his confiding to Liddon, on a drive to Dunkeld, that he had learnt more from John Knox than he had ever got out of St. Paul. "Indeed, dear friend: that, I confess, has not been my own experience," came the answer in Liddon's softest tones.
Then the storm of the "Maiden Tribute" burst. I had been warned by a short visit from Josephine Butler, with her grey, sorrow-stricken, beautiful face, to be ready for some tremendous shock. So I was able to understand and to recognize the dauntless and devoted courage of the man and to rely absolutely on his spirit of self-sacrifice, however perilous his methods. Later on, I had the help and joy of acting with him over the Eastern Crisis and Armenian Massacres.
The note of everything about him lay in his moral impetuosity. It carried all along. There was no power on earth that could check, or damp, or repress it. It had the invincible confidence of inspiration in it. It stormed its way through. And, then, it had at its service an intelligence that knew no reserves, and accepted no repression, and revelled in largeness of scope, and in audacities of venture, and in swiftness of action, and in defiant concentration of all its power upon the immediate purpose.
Never was a man so magnificently equipped for delivering the direct blow that would tell decisively. He knew exactly what to lay his hands upon, to serve the need of the hour. He could work up any amount of material, at a moment's notice, into some amazingly effective form. The whole man went into it, at full speed, with every nerve strung and alert. He took the whole world into his purview; nothing was too big: nothing daunted. Everybody and everything could be put to use for the purposes of his fluent advocacy. These were the times at which all his wonderful capacity came out.
He lay outside conventional movements, and was singularly detached from the normal currents of political influence. He did not belong to anybody. Rather, he broke out in splendid spasms. And no one could foresee where and what his occasions would be. He had a liking for going direct to the central spot, and dealing with it straight, e.g., to the Pope, or the Tsar,or Cecil Rhodes, or the Sultan. His impetuosity gave us shocks and surprises. It swept us into the irretrievable disaster of sending Gordon to the Sudan. But it was always noble, and heroic. It always had a touch of spiritual simplicity in it. It had a prophetic force about it, which cleaned out the dull channels of our sodden lives, and purged our hearts of their dulness and timidity. He did us good, even when he blundered. He stirred the true blood in us, and woke the spirit from its sloth. We became aware of the high calls of faith, and the risks that heroism must ever run, and of the sacrifices that the good cause will ask for to the end. He might be rash: he might be violent: he might be one-sided. When once stirred, he could not help bringing into play the perilous gifts that made him the most vivid and brilliant journalist in England. But he was never stirred but by great motives. He was always prepared to spend himself and to be spent for the highest that he saw or knew. He held nothing back, when he gave himself away. Spiritual convictions were paramount over him. He lived, and was ever ready to die, for the truth as he believed it, and for the God whom he served.