The North East is known for its pioneers, reformers and campaigners, but few have been as eccentric as William Thomas Stead. Born in Embleton in July 1849, his father was a minister in the Congregational Church and his mother was politically active. In 1870 he began contributing articles to the Northern Echo, a new regional paper based in Darlington. In 1872 he became Editor when he was just 22, making him the youngest newspaper editor in the country.
Stead exploited Darlington’s excellent railway connections to widen the Echo’s distribution, and developed the paper into a platform for political campaigning, condemning the Contagious Diseases Act, and championing William Ewart Gladstone in the 1880 general election. He confessed in a letter to a friend that he saw the editorship as ‘a glorious opportunity [for] attacking the devil.’
In 1880 he became Assistant Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette in London, and Editor three years later. Stead completely revitalised the paper; he broke up long articles into shorter paragraphs, included maps and diagrams, and pushed opinion pieces, interviews and human interest stories over bland reportage. He favoured sensational stories, from heart-wrenching tales and lurid scandals to exposés of conditions in London’s slums.
His most famous work was The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, a series of four articles on child prostitution which influenced the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, raising the age of consent to 16. In it, Stead claimed that the trade in children was so widespread in London that one could easily purchase a child for £5 on an average street corner. Always one to make news rather than merely reporting it, Stead decided to prove his claims too – by actually buying a child.
Copies of the paper sold out so quickly that the Gazette ran out of paper to print it on, and had to go to a rival newspaper to ask for more. Stead recounted how, under his instruction, Salvation Army member and reformed prostitute Rebecca Jarrett had procured 13-year-old Eliza Armstrong from her mother, had her certified a virgin by a midwife, drugged her with chloroform, and then escorted her to France.
When the mother recognised her daughter from Stead’s account, she went to the police, claiming she had been duped. Stead was charged with abduction and indecent assault. He was incarcerated for three months at Coldbath Fields and Holloway prisons. Every year afterwards, on the anniversary of his imprisonment, he would wear his prison clothes and flounce across Waterloo Bridge – a typically dramatic gesture, particularly as wearing prison clothes had not been compulsory for him after his first day.
In 1889, following a year gleefully reporting on the Jack The Ripper murders, Stead resigned his editorship and founded the Review of Reviews, becoming the first British editor to employ female journalists. In the mid-1890s he moved to Chicago for six months, publishing If Christ Came to Chicago, a polemic against drinking dens and brothels. Back in Britain, he began to print cheap, heavily edited versions of novels, fitting some of the great works of world literature into under 100 pages. He also became swept up in the latest spiritualism fad, and claimed to regularly communicate with the dead.
Whatever advice the dearly departed gave him, they failed to warn him against launching The Daily Paper in 1904, which lost him the equivalent of almost £3 million when it folded after six weeks. His later life wasn’t one of failure though – in fact, Stead had become a surprisingly influential figure in international politics: he was a renowned pacifist, and was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1912, Stead was invited by President Taft to address a peace congress at Carnegie Hall in New York. He accepted the invitation and boarded a ship named RMS Titanic.
It was a suitably sensational end. Stead was last reported clinging to a life raft with American businessman and the richest passenger on board, John Jacob Astor IV. Strangely, he had predicted he would die from either lynching or drowning.
With his passion for the sensational, his habit of mixing prurience with piety, and his inclination to twist facts or make things up to get a good story, Stead has not had a wholly positive influence on journalism; it would be fascinating to know what he would make of gossip columns and Twitter storms. But his writing influenced real change too – as well as helping raise the age of consent, his 1884 article The Truth About the Navy prompted a £3.5 million government investment to repair Britain’s fleet.
While there was perhaps a little too much madness in his method to crown him a hero of the North East, he remains, unquestionably, one of the region’s most compelling characters.