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The Preacher's Son who saved Prostitutes

Chris Lloyd (The Northern Echo, July 5, 1999)

William Thomas Stead was the son of a Northumberland Congregational minister. His father taught him Latin before he taught him English. Even before the boy was aged five, he was reading the Old Testament, and when he was 11 he was sent to a school for the sons of Congregational ministers.

It is little wonder, then, that when Stead found himself as editor first of The Northern Echo and later a couple of London newspapers, that he used his editor's chair as a pulpit. From it, he preached with fire and brimstone wrapped up in a burning Biblical language. And, often, he converted.

He became editor of The Northern Echo in 1871 at the tender age of 22. He'd been writing letters to the previous editor for 12 months, and when the job became vacant, the proprietor took the brave decision of offering Stead the job. Stead accepted, as long as he had control over his writing, didn't have to work Sundays and didn't have to wear a top hat.

"What a glorious opportunity of attacking the devil," he wrote to a friend. It was the start of a revolutionary period in British history - and British newspapers. As Stead noted in one of his first editorials for the paper: "The discontent of the producing classes is ripening". Collectivism and trades unionism was coming in, assisted by the Education Act of 1870.

The old ideas of paternalism, where the mill owner bestowed a park or a school upon his poorly paid but grateful employees, was dying. (Not that Stead was totally enamoured with the horny hands, or houses, of the toilers. His first house was in Darlington town centre and he ensured that there were blinds on the windows so he could block out the "rows of slated hideousness" in which the common people lived.)

With better education, the working man didn't want dry newspapers full of clever conceits and long, finely-crafted sentences recalling the daily diet of Parliamentary debates. He wanted gaiety and jollity. He wanted entertainment and information. In another age, this "new journalism" might have been called "tabloid journalism". And so the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) was described by Stead as "the fat little man in red"..

In the 1880s, the novelist Matthew Arnold wrote to a friend about the changes being wrought at Stead's new paper: "Under your friend Stead, the Pall Mall Gazette, whatever may be its merits, is fast ceasing to be literature."

Whatever the new form of writing was, Stead used it as a medium to get over his message. He regarded a newspaper as "an engine of social reform" and "a means of government". In the editor's chair with him was God whom he regarded as his "partner". His motto was "be a Christ" - not a mere Christian who did pious works, but a saviour of mankind who went into the temple and kicked over the tables. And so in his work he was able to weave his two greatest concerns. "The service of man is the service of God," he said.

Stead began to set an agenda for the North-East - a journalist taking over the role of the politician - and began vigorously championing the cause of social justice. Even as early as 1871, an editorial in The Northern Echo hinted at the subject on which he was to make his name: child prostitution. He saw this in the starkest terms, the ultimate example of how the rich exploited the poor. It is, he fumed, "the ghastliest curse which haunts civilised society which is steadily sapping the very foundations of our morality". Going further, he claimed that society "outwardly appears white and glistening... but within is full of dead men's bones and rottenness".

Stead was fortunate in that he found his first job on The Northern Echo because it was the first national newspaper. Its position in Darlington at the centre of a railway network meant that it was the only daily paper that was on sale every morning in both London and Edinburgh. Up and down the country sped Stead's views. In 1876, his tumultuous words on the Bulgarian Atrocities (where the Turks were violently oppressing their Bulgarian subjects) really did change public opinion. Vast public meetings were held; 200,000 copies of Stead's pamphlet on the subject were sold within weeks. The Government had to take notice and Prime Minister WE Gladstone became his greatest admirer.

He struck up a friendship with Earl Grey who later became Foreign Secretary. The Earl wrote: "Stead amused me to begin with. I found this provincial editor was corresponding with kings and emperor all over the world and receiving letters from statesmen of every nation. This struck me as odd and interesting."

By 1880, his determination to change the whole world had out-grown the railway town of Darlington. Joseph Chamberlain recommended that be should become editor of the Pall Mall Gazette which was where, in 1885, he launched his most famous - even infamous - campaign: "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon." As his Echo editorials of 15 years earlier had hinted, Stead was outraged by child prostitution. He determined to support the Criminal Law Amendment Act which raised the age of consent from 13 to 15 by procuring a 13-year-old virgin.

He paid £5 for Eliza Armstrong, had her medically examined to ensure she was untouched, sent her to a London brothel where the proprietor dazed her with chloroform (a common practice) and prepared her for use by customers. Stead was the first customer, and whisked Eliza to France for five weeks as he exposed her terrible story in the Gazette.

Many, many people were offended by his repugnant story - sex in Victorian times was taboo. Newspapers didn't write about prostitutes. And Stead had indeed gone too far both in terms of his coverage - his sub-headlines "Confessions of a brothel keeper" and "strapping girls down" were as sensational as anything today's News of the World has to offer - and in terms of what he had done. He had used false pretences to lure a girl from her family. He had aided and abetted an assault upon her with chloro­form. He had held her hostage in a for­eign country. He had also changed the law and had started a huge debate about women's rights. He was sentenced to three months in prison.

He was the most famous man aboard the Titanic went it sunk in 1912 taking him to a watery grave. He had charged society for the better and his "new journalism" had changed the way newspapers, both in the way they looked - pioneering the use of headlines and pictures - and the material they carried, developing the interview and making papers lively and relevant to the new readership.

But, just like today's tabloids, he revelled in his notoriety. Throughout his career he enjoyed the publicity that went with him being the only British journalist who supported Russia, the frightening enemy in the east. And he used sex to sell. Procuring Eliza Armstrong probably wasn't necessary because the Bill was already progressing through Parliament. The suspicion was that Stead was being prurient and salacious - just like today's tabloids.

He didn't deny that he was a sex maniac and in 1898 he wrote an appropriate metaphor for one who started his career in a railway town: "Sex passion... like steam... is the driving force if it is kept within bounds. In excess, it bursts the boiler."

Stead felt that he had kept it within bounds, using it to drive his projects forward for the benefit of his God and his fellow man. It was those who abused young virgins who "burst the boiler".

On balance, history agrees with him.

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