Sue Young Histories

William Thomas Stead 1849 - 1912

December 10, 2009

William Thomas Stead 1849 – 1912 William Thomas Stead 1849 - 1912 was a British journalist who championed the fight against child prostitution, and who was an ardent spiritualist.

William Thomas Stead was an advocate of Cesare Mattei, and a friend of Catherine and William Booth, Josephine Elizabeth Butler, Arthur Conan Doyle,

William Thomas Stead was an advocate of Cesare Mattei, and he befriended Cesare Mattei and when Arthur Conan Doyle became interested in the work of Robert Koch, Stead gave Arthur Conan Doyle letters of introduction to the press, and asked Arthur Conan Doyle to write an article on Robert Koch, as part of his campaign to force the British press to investigate the claims of Cesare Mattei.

Kate Shaw wrote: (William Thomas Stead’s brother married Lizzie Livens)

From ‘… I knew Lizzie Livens very well. She used to visit the Cliftons and we had many ideas in common, she married William Thomas Stead’s brother, who was the man who edited the Pall Mall Magazine and showed up the abduction of young girls - he was much criticized in the matter but he had an act passed in Parliament called “The Stead Act” which did good.

‘When Lizzie visited me before she was married, Dad asked her if Mr. Stead approved of the line of action his brother (William Thomas Stead) had taken. She said “yes” so Dad replied that he could not have him in his house - that of course broke our friendship for which I was sorry but quite understood…’ (The Cliftons refers to Kate Shaw’s cousin, homeopath Arthur Crowden Clifton),

From William Thomas Stead attended Silcoates School in Wakefield, but was early apprenticed in a merchant’s office at Newcastle on Tyne.

He soon gravitated into journalism, and in 1871 became editor of the Darlington Northern Echo. In 1880 he went to London to be assistant editor of the Pall Mall Gazette under John Morley. When John Morley was elected to Parliament, he became editor (1883-1889).

He made a feature of the Pall Mall extras, and his enterprise and originality exercised a potent influence on contemporary journalism and politics. He also introduced the interview, creating a new dimension in British journalism when he interviewed Charles George Gordon in 1884.

He distinguished himself for his vigorous handling of public affairs, and his brilliant modernity in the presentation of news. However he is also credited as originating the modern journalistic technique of creating a news event rather than just reporting it, as his most famous ‘investigation’, the Eliza Armstrong case was to demonstrate.

In 1885, Stead entered upon a crusade against child prostitution by publishing a series of articles entitled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. In order to demonstrate the truth of his revelations, he arranged the ‘purchase’ of the thirteen year old daughter of a chimney sweep, Eliza Armstrong.

Though his action is thought to have furthered the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, it made his position on the paper impossible. In fact, his successful demonstration of the trade’s existence led to his conviction and a three-month term of imprisonment at Coldbath Fields and Holloway prisons. He was convicted on grounds that he had failed to first secure permission for the “purchase” from the girl’s father.

In 1886, he started a campaign against Charles Dilke 2nd Baronet over his nominal exoneration in the Crawford scandal. The campaign ultimately contributed to Charles Dilke 2nd Baronet’s misguided attempt to clear his name and consequent ruin.

On leaving the Pall Mall he founded the monthly Review of Reviews (1890), and his abundant energy and facile pen found scope in many other directions in journalism of an advanced humanitarian type.

He started cheap reprints (Penny Poets and Prose Classics, etc.), conducted a spiritualistic organ, called Borderland (1893-1897), in which he gave full play to his interest in psychical research; and became an enthusiastic supporter of the peace movement, and of many other movements, popular and unpopular, in which he impressed the public generally as an extreme visionary, though his practical energy was recognized by a considerable circle of admirers and pupils.

With all his unpopularity, and all the suspicion and opposition engendered by his methods, his personality remained a forceful one both in public and private life.

He was an early imperialist dreamer, whose influence on Cecil Rhodes in South Africa remained of primary importance; and many politicians and statesmen, who on most subjects were completely at variance with his ideas, nevertheless owed something to them.

Cecil Rhodes made him his confidant, and was inspired in his will by his suggestions; and Stead was intended to be one of Rhodes’s executors.

At the time of the Second Boer War he threw himself into the Boer cause and attacked the government with characteristic violence. His name was struck out (see his Last Will and Testament of C. J. Rhodes, 1902).

The number of his publications gradually became very large, as he wrote with facility and sensational fervour on all sorts of subjects, from The Truth about Russia (1888) to If Christ Came to Chicago! (1894), and from Mrs Booth (1900) to The Americanization of the World (1902).

Stead was a true pacifist and campaigner for peace. He extensively covered the Hague Peace Conference of 1899 and 1907 (for the last he printed a daily paper during the four month conference). He has a bust at the Peace Palace in The Hague.

Stead was an Esperantist, and often supported the language in a monthly column in Review of Reviews.

Stead claimed to be in receipt of messages from the spirit world, and to be able to produce automatic writing. His spirit contact was alleged to be a girl named Julia. In 1909 he established Julia’s Bureau where inquirers could obtain information about the spirit world from a group of resident mediums.

In many of his spiritualist lectures and writings Stead sketched pictures of ocean liners and himself drowning.

After his death, a group of his admirers founded a Spiritualist organization in Chicago, Illinois called the William T. Stead Memorial Center. The resident Pastor and Medium was Mrs. Cecil M. Cook. Most of the many books published by the Center were written by the Wisconsin born journalist and author Lloyd Kenyon Jones.

Stead boarded the RMS Titanic for a visit to the USA to take part in a peace congress at Carnegie Hall at the request of William Howard Taft. After the ship struck the iceberg, Stead helped several women and children into the lifeboats. After all the boats had gone, Stead went into the 1st Class Smoking Room, where he was last seen sitting in a leather chair and reading a book.

A later sighting of Stead, by survivor Philip Mock, has him clinging to a raft with John Jacob Astor IV.“Their feet became frozen,” reported Philip Mock, “and they were compelled to release their hold. Both were drowned.” This story was proven false because John Jacob Astor IV was crushed to death when the first funnel fell.

Stead had made two possible premonitions concerning the Titanic. On 22 March 1886, he published an article named “How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid Atlantic, by a Survivor”, where a steamer collides with another ship, with high loss of life due to lack of lifeboats. Stead had added “This is exactly what might take place and will take place if liners are sent to sea short of boats”.

In 1892, Stead published a story called From the Old World to the New, in which a White Star Line vessel, the Majestic, rescues survivors of another ship that collided with an iceberg.


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