The Titan of the Titanic
“Turning Back the Clock” remembers the life of W.T. Stead, the pioneer of investigative journalism, who died a century ago, in April 1912. He met his end in the icy waters of the Atlantic, a victim of the sinking of the Titantic.
By Robin Morgan
William Thomas Stead was a power in the land. Governments acted when he spoke – even when his words came from a cell in Holloway Jail – as his campaigning journalism changed the way we thought and lived.
His death shook the world and prompted the Institute of Journalists to organise an appeal for “half-crowns or shillings” to create a memorial to what we described as “a brilliant journalist and a figure of commanding influence.”
W.T. Stead, as he was always known, launched his journalistic career in 1870 in almost evangelical style on the Northern Echo, at Darlington, where his pulpit-thumping style thundered against injustice and corruption while supporting the death penalty – “murderers must be disposed of” – and campaigning against extending the vote to the poor – “I fear that we shall yet suffer evil results from the extension of the franchise to ignorant men.”
His biographer, Joseph 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.”
“Filthy and immoral despotism”
Not a man shy of harsh words, he condemned the Turks for putting down a Bulgarian rebellion in 1876 as “filthy and immoral despotism”, and berated Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and “his whole tribe of eunuchs” for Britain’s inaction. William Gladstone was impressed and re-launched his career as a politician on the back of the indignation that Stead’s campaigning had fuelled.
The fourth Earl Grey (his ancestor, the second earl, was the one of tea fame) wrote: “I found that this provincial editor of an obscure paper was corresponding with kings and emperors all over the world and receiving long letters from statesmen of every nation.”
In 1880 Stead moved to London, which he hated, branding the city as “the grave of all earnestness” served by newspapers which were “drivelling productions… without weight, influence, or representative character.” But he began to change that when he became editor of the Pall Mall Gazette in 1883 (which was subsequently taken over by the Evening Standard) and turned it from “a lacklustre gentleman’s journal” into a dynamic, outrageous political organ that became required reading for high society.
His style was undeniably 20th century tabloid.
The Pall Mall Gazette under Stead’s editorship featured banner headlines, shorter paragraphs in a readable style, with considerable use of illustrations, diagrams and maps to break up the text.
He published a high percentage of human interest stories and used the paper to campaign.
His religious fervour had evolved into outright sensationalism and his exposure of slums that year resulted in new housing legislation, while a campaign to strengthen the Royal Navy resulted in a massively expensive refit of the fleet – and undoubtedly helped prepare the fleet for the trials and triumphs of the First World War.
He was the first to employ women journalists on equal pay.
But his major triumph came in 1885 when he uncovered a trade in child prostitution in London to which the government was turning a blind eye to protect its wealthy clientèle. The story – curiously headlined “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” – opened respectable society’s eyes to the world of London’s “vice, stinking brothels, fiendish procures, drugs and padded rooms, where upper-class rakes could enjoy to the full the exclusive luxury of revelling in the cries of an immature child.”
The public outcry forced the government to enact the Criminal Law Amendment Bill which, among other things, raised the age of consent from 13 to 16, gave international impetus to the checking of the white slave trade… and led to Stead becoming its first victim!
As part of his exposé, he had staged the purchase, for £5, of a chimney sweep’s daughter, Elizabeth Armstrong (called Lily in the Pall Mall Gazette) to prove how easily impoverished children could be acquired for outrage. But he dropped a legal clanger by not telling her father it was a stunt and was subsequently sentenced to three months in Holloway for kidnapping.
His obituary in The Times recalled: “After a few days [in prison] he was made a first-class misdemeanant and he conducted his paper from a not incommodious cell in Holloway Gaol. He became a great friend of the Governor, who presented him, on liberation, with the suit of prison clothes he had worn at Coldbath Fields.”
For many years, The Times, noted, “Stead held a reception of his friends and admirers on the anniversary of his conviction, and on those occasions he wore his Order of the Broad Arrow” (as the obituary termed his prison uniform!).
While his reputation never really recovered and a growing fascination with spiritualism exposed him to ridicule from fellow reporters, Stead continued to be controversial and outspoken, particularly against war – and the Boer War in particular. Several times he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1890 he left the Gazette and created the highly successful Review of Reviews advocating the expansion of the Empire, home rule for Ireland and the maintenance of morality in government and politics. He befriended the Suffragettes of the early 1900s.
Latter day retrospectives of Stead’s achievements include judgements that The Pall Mall Gazette, Review of Reviews and other journals were crucial in the emergence of the modern day broadsheet and tabloid press.
Stead tended to report Spiritualism favourably, as part of the non-conformist world of religion. He became active in the movement in the 1880s and tried to foster support for the Society for Psychical Research. He ran the journal Borderland from 1893-7, which reported on ghosts, psychical experiments, hypnotic rapports, astral doubles and messages from the dead.
He was brought to the brink of bankruptcy in 1904 when his attempt to launch a daily failed but his standing as a journalist continued to command international respect.
His death came as he answered a personal invitation from US President William Howard Taft to speak at a congress on world peace and international arbitration in New York’s Carnegie Hall.
With the Titanic about to make its maiden voyage, Stead, then 62, decided to opt for the luxury of a first class £26 11s ticket for cabin C87 and set sail from Southampton on April 10, 1912.
On board he spent most of his time with the enormously wealthy John Jacob Astor IV, whose cousin, William Waldorf Astor, had owned the Pall Mall Gazette and who in 1911 bought The Observer. When the boat struck the iceberg, both men returned to their neighbouring cabins, dressed and returned to the deck. John Astor had seen his wife off in a lifeboat and as the Titanic sank, both men jumped into the sea and were last seen clinging to a raft, freezing until they both lost their grip and drowned. Stead’s body was never recovered.
Three months later, still in shock over his death, the Institute organised a committee of the good and the great of British journalism to raise cash for a memorial.
The appeal sent to members observed that “while different views may be taken of Mr Stead as a crusader and reformer, there is only one opinion about his ability as a journalist. The brilliancy of his gifts, the fervour of his convictions, and the unswerving probity and courage with which he defended what he believed to be the right, are acknowledged on all hands.”
The half-crowns and shillings poured in. A memorial plaque was sited opposite the Temple tube station on Victoria Embankment, in 1913, close to where Stead use to work at the Pall Mall Gazette offices in Catherine Street, off the Aldwych. The head-and-shoulders plaque was created by Sir George Frampton, an eminent sculptor of the day, and is inscribed: “W.T. Stead, 1849 – 1912. This memorial to a journalist of wide renown was erected near the spot where he worked for more than thirty years by journalists of many lands in recognition of his brilliant gifts fervent spirit & untiring devotion to the service of his fellow men.”
The base of the memorial consists of an armoured knight on the left and a woman in medieval dress on the right, symbolising Stead’s campaigning for women’s rights.
A second casting was made and sent to admiring Americans who erected it in New York’s Central Park.
A much wider public appeal (not connected with the Institute) created the W.T. Stead Hostels for Women organisation which provided safe refuges. Queen Alexandra fevently supported the cause and the first hostels were opened in Westminster and Hoxton, in London, and at Leeds and Bath. By 1914 there were 40 hostels. The residents paid four shillings a week for their accommodation.
A great star of journalism was extinguished when the Titanic sank.