William Thomas Stead was Born on July 5, 1849 in the Northumberland village of Embleton. The son of a Congregational minister, he was brought up in the town of Howden on Tyneside and educated at home by his father. By the age of five he was already well-versed in the Holy Scriptures and he could read Latin almost as well as he could read English.
In 1861, he was sent to finish his education at Silcoates School for boys in Wakefield (N. Yorkshire), where he experienced a profound religious awakening that would dominate the rest of his life. After leaving school, he might easily have followed his father into the ministry, but fate had other plans and in 1871, after a time engaged as a clerk in a Newcastle merchant's office, he ended up as the youngest newspaper editor in the country at the helm of the fledgling Northern Echo in Darlington.
He had been contributing articles to the paper since its inception in 1870 and the presiding editor, John Copleston, had taken him under his wing, ostensibly as his mentor, but in reality because he had no other reporters who were prepared to work for nothing. Through regular correspondence Copleston tutored his eager protege in the finer points of journalism. "Practice writing as an art," he told the young student, "Study it as you would painting or music."
Stead learned his lessons well; so well, in fact, that, in 1871, when Northern Echo proprietor John Hyslop Bell decided that a change in editor was in order, Stead was offered the post, even though he'd never been inside a newspaper office. He should have been thrilled, but instead found himself torn between his own ambitions and his loyalty to his mentor. "All this is entirely unknown to Copleston," he wrote worriedly to a friend, but "what a glorious opportunity of attacking the devil."
In the event, Copleston left of his own accord and Stead, aged only twenty-two, accepted the job for an annual salary of £150 (though he refused to wear kid gloves and a top hat). But he had to hit the ground running; Britain at the time was powering through the industrial revolution. Capitalism had replaced paternalism, corruption and immorality flourished, and poverty was more chronic than at any other time in history. Unperturbed, and with God as his "senior partner", Stead rolled up his sleeves.
"I felt the sacredness of the power placed in my hands," he later wrote, "to be used on behalf of the poor, the outcast and the oppressed."
Stead determined to transform The Northern Echo into an "engine of social reform." He believed newspapers should be informative and entertaining, but he also wanted to promote the causes of Liberalism, social justice, equality, and morality. And so one of his first editorials was on an issue that would have caused most respectable readers to shudder with pious horror — prostitution.
It was, he wrote, "the ghastliest curse which haunts civilised society, which is steadily sapping the very foundations of our morality."
Yet, it was not the prostitute herself that offended Stead's austere morality, since destitute women often had little choice but to turn to prostitution or face life in the dreaded workhouse. His criticism was aimed at a much higher echelon of society. "Stylish houses of ill-fame," he thundered, "could only be supported by men of wealth and respectability." It was their "reckless passion" to which "the ruin of the poor unfortunate is due."
He was playing with fire; prostitution was not a suitable topic for daily journalism - the subject was tabooed by the press. And so it was a great irony of his life that, in the years ahead, the same subject would propel the young Northumbrian to the height of journalistic notoriety.
It was, perhaps, a good omen for The Northern Echo that its birth in 1870 coincided with the introduction of the Education Act. Another much greater boon, however, was the paper's location in Darlington, the birthplace of the railways. From his paper pulpit, Stead was able to preach to a much wider readership because his clever use the railway network effectively turned The Northern Echo into a national newspaper.
Day after day Stead's evangelising sermons ate up the page columns as he spoke out against injustice and corruption like a latter day John the Baptist. But he didn't always reflect the views of the paper's Quaker investors. He strongly supported the death penalty, saying, "murderers must be disposed of." And in politics he had serious reservations about extending the vote to the poor: "I fear that we shall yet suffer evil results from the extension of the franchise to ignorant men." he wrote.
In 1876, Turkey ruthlessly put down a rebellion in Bulgaria, which it then ruled. Stead was horrified to learn that some 12, 000 Bulgarian Christians had been massacred in the uprising while Britain (then Turkey's ally) looked on unmoved. In The Northern Echo he unleashed a savage attack against "the filthy and immoral despotism of the Turks," and berated Prime Minister Disraeli and his "whole tribe of moral eunuchs" for Britain's inaction.
The "Bulgarian Atrocities" caught the public imagination and brought Stead in contact with former Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone, who was able to re-launch his career on the public indignation that Stead had aroused. Gladstone later remarked: "It is a sincere regret to me that I cannot read more of the Echo...It is admirably got up in every way."
Gladstone was not Stead's only notable admirer. Albert, Fourth Earl Grey wrote: "Stead amused me to begin with. 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."
Eventually, Darlington could no longer contain Stead's irrepressible spirit; and in 1880 he left The Northern Echo to work as assistant editor to John (later Viscount) Morley, editor of Pall Mall Gazette in London. Stead hated London, describing it as "the grave of all earnestness". He also disliked London newspapers, which, he wrote, were "drivelling productions... without weight, influence, or representative character."
However, Stead's frustration did not last long; in 1883 Morley was elected to parliament and Stead was given full editorship of The Pall Mall Gazette, which he immediately set about transforming from a lacklustre gentleman's journal to a dynamic, outrageous political organ that soon became required reading for high society.
By now much of Stead's earlier religious fervour had evolved into outright sensationalism. His attack on slum housing in 1883 resulted in new housing legislation being drafted, and in the following year his The Truth about the Navy campaign prompted a £3.5 million government handout to update and repair Britain's ageing ships.
Stead's so-called "New Journalism" was not welcomed by London traditionalists, however. The poet Algernon Swinburne hated it so much that he dubbed the Pall Mall the "Dunghill Gazette", and the eminent novelist Mathew Arnold condemned Stead's revolutionary new style as "feather-brained".
Arnold's criticism was, in part, motivated by events in the summer of 1885, when Stead shocked the world with one of the most sensational stories ever published in a Victorian newspaper. Acting with the Salvation Army, he uncovered a trade in child prostitution in the London underworld. He was shocked to find that the government knew of the problem but turned a blind eye to protect the trade's wealthy clientele.
Enraged, Stead exposed the whole business under the sensational title, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. The story opened respectable society's eyes to the world of London vice — stinking brothels, fiendish procuresses, drugs, and padded rooms, where vicious upper-class rakes could enjoy to the full "the exclusive luxury of revelling in the cries of an immature child."
The public outcry was unprecedented, hysterical even, and the government was forced to enact the Criminal Law Amendment Bill which, among other things, raised the female age of consent from 13 to 16. Ironically, Stead himself became the new law's first victim. As part of his exposé, he had staged the purchase of a girl called Eliza Armstrong (Lily in the PMG) in an ill-concieved attempt to show how easily such impoverished victims could be acquired. His actions left him open to prosecution and he was subsequently sentenced to three months in prison for abduction and indecent assault.
Thereafter, Stead's journalistic reputation never fully recovered and his growing fascination with spiritualism exposed him to the ridicule of many of his peers. He left The Pall Mall Gazette in 1890 to found the highly successful international periodical, Review of Reviews. But he continued to be controversial (he founded and edited the spiritualist quarterly, Borderland in 1893) and he continued to be outspoken, particularly about war. He bitterly opposed the Boer War of 1899-1902 (a position which lost him much public support) and was several times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Tragically, in the year in which many thought he would be the actual recipient of the Prize, William Thomas Stead lost his life, with fitting drama, aboard RMS Titanic on the morning of April 15, 1912. His body was never recovered.
But the Howden lad had left a high watermark. At The Northern Echo, he had shown that even a provincial newspaper could play on the national stage, and in London his "New Journalism" had paved the way for the powerful tabloid journalism of the twentieth century.
Sadly, the evils that Stead fought against - vice, poverty, war and inhumanity - would also continue to prosper, making his watchwords in 1871 as valid today as they were in Victorian times:
"Society...outwardly, indeed, appears white and glistening, but within is full of dead men's bones and rottenness".
© Owen Mulpetre 2012