The Sinking of the Titanic – Some Notable Victims: Mr. W.T. Stead’s Career

Home » W.T. Stead and The Titanic » The Sinking of the Titanic – Some Notable Victims: Mr. W.T. Stead’s Career

The Sinking of the Titanic – Some Notable Victims: Mr. W.T. Stead’s Career

The Times (April 18, 1912)

William Thomas Stead, whose “redoubtable journalistic career” (to use Lord Morley’s phrase) has been abruptly closed by the wreck of the Titanic , was born in 1849, his father being a Congregational minister at Howdon-on-Tyne, a few miles from Newcastle. He received all the regular schooling he obtained at Silcoates (Wakefield), a school much frequented by the sons of Congregational ministers.

He used to be fond of saying that he acquired there one distinction of much use to him in after life—he was known at school as the boy with the hardest shins. When 14 he was taken away from school in order to be apprenticed in a merchant’s office at Newcastle. Here he remained rising presently to the position of salaried clerk for seven years.

The firm had some dealings with Russia, and this was the origin of his special interest in that country. His real teachers were his father and himself. He was a true son of the manse; he was surrounded with a Puritan atmosphere, and Cromwell was the god of his idolatry. In after years he used to say that the greatest compliment he ever received was when Cardinal Manning said to him, “When I read the Pall Mall every night, it seems to me as if Oliver Cromwell had come to life again.” One of the novelties which he promised the public in connexion with his short-lived Daily Paper was dramatic criticism by a man who up to that time had never set foot inside a playhouse. He dated his serious call from the appearance of Dick’s “Penny Shakespeare.” His pocket-money was 3d, a week, and the missionaries claimed a third of it—the rest all went in Shakespeare. It was his own early experience that led him in after years to produce a series of Penny Poets—one of his many publishing ventures. Even as a lad, he seems to have regarded himself as appointed to set the world to rights, for one of his favourite stories was of the following remark which his father once made to him:— “You would do much better, William, if you would occasionally leave God to manage the universe in His own way.” He used laughingly to admit that he chose his telegraphic address to denote his vicegerency— “Vatican, London.”

In 1871, when Mr. Stead was 22, there was a vacancy in the editorship of the Northern Echo, Darlington. He had long been an occasional (and unpaid) contributor to its columns; the proprietor of the paper had detected in these letters and articles evidence of unusual vigour and ability, and he offered to the young merchant’s clerk the post of editor-in-chief. Stead —perhaps for the last time in his life—felt great diffidence; but the experiment proved a complete success. His great chance came with the Eastern Question and Mr. Gladstone’s agitation over the atrocities in Bulgaria. He had by this time become a fast friend of Mme. de Novikoff (sic) and the Bulgarian agitation appealed with compelling force to his ardent temperament and religious instincts. Ho came up to London in order to put himself in touch with the leaders of the crusade. He saw Carlyle among others, who used to speak of him as “that good man, Stead.” His friendship with Canon Liddon dated from the same events. Presently, when Stead settled in London, he was the Canon’s constant companion in afternoon walks upon the Embankment. Meanwhile his paper became the most powerful organ of the agitation in the North of England, and an “elector’s catechism” which ho printed in 1880—the first of many electoral sheets of the kind—had a very large circulation.


The excellent service which Stead had rendered in the Press did not escape the notice of leading Liberals in London, and when Mr. Morley assumed the editorship of the Pall Mall Gazette in 1880 he selected Stead as his assistant-editor. This combination of the two men which ruled that journal for three years was a strong one. It was a union of classical severity with the rude vigour of a Goth. Mr. Morley was political director, and wrote most of the leading articles. Stead looked after the rest of the paper, and was fertile in suggestions. Mr. Morley used to call Stead “the irrepressible,” but in fact the assistant-editor was during these years successfully tamed. When there is a potent individuality at the head of a newspaper his instruments catch the dominant note; and many an article in which outsiders supposed themselves to detect the style and temper of Mr. Morley was the work of Stead.

In 1883 Mr. Morley retired from the editorship, and Stead succeeded him. The six years that followed were those during which, as Stead used to say in his characteristic fashion, he was engaged in “running the British Empire from Northumberland-street.” He undoubtedly made his paper a great political force, and by a succession of shocks or spasms, rendered its daily doings the talk of the town. His first great political coup had far-reaching effects. To Stead, more than any other man, was due the sending of Gordon to the Sudan. Political memoirs record that on January 10, 1884, Lord Granville telegraphed to Sir Evelyn Baring asking whether Gordon might not be of use, but they omit to mention the impelling force under which the Foreign Secretary acted. This came from Stead. He had been seized with the idea of “Chinese Gordon for the Sudan,” and acted upon his inspiration with characteristic vigour. On January 8 Gordon was at Southampton, on his way from Palestine to take charge of King Leopold’s expedition to the headwaters of the Congo. Stead went down to see him, “interviewed” him at great length, and advocated his despatch to rescue the garrisons with much force and eloquence. The suggestion was warmly taken up in the Press, and the Government acted upon it.

Stead’s assumption of the editorship of the Pall Mall Gazette coincided with the publication of Seeley’s “Expansion of England” and he was in those days a persistent “Liberal Imperialist.” He invented the phrases “Cut and Run” and “Scuttle” to express his contempt for the policy of “Little Englanders.” A younger generation should remember that there was no man who had done more in the Press to popularize the Imperial idea than Stead, the Pro-Boer of later days. Imperialism (as he conceived it) made him “a Home Ruler before Mr. Gladstone”; and the Liberal leader, who had been stung and estranged by Stead’s taunts about “the policy of scuttle” sent him a public message of reconciliation and approval at the time of the Home Rule “Kite.” But Mr, Gladstone’s satisfaction with his unruly follower was short-lived. Stead believed in Home Rule as a first step towards federation all round; and from this point of view he was a fierce opponent of the exclusion of the Irish members from the Imperial Parliament as proposed in the Bill of 1886.

One direction in which Stead took his own line was towards a strong Navy. His “Truth about the Navy,” though it appeared at a time when the agitation of 1884 about the Franchise was at its height, created a decisive impression, and compelled the Government to introduce Supplementary Navy Estimates in the autumn Session of that year. The case had been presented with all the resources of journalistic emphasis, but Stead had behind him and behind the scenes the expert knowledge of naval officers who have since risen to high distinction. His crusade was a complete success because he was sure of all his facts. In the last few years he returned to the subject, and pressed for “Two keels to one” as against Germany.

The case was different in the next “sensation” with which Stead startled the town. This was the notorious series of “revelations” to which he gave the name “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” Long ago, at Darlington, he had taken a strong line against the Contagious Diseases Act, and he had formed friendships with Mrs. Josephine Butler and other Abolitionists. Early in 1885 information had been brought to him about the “white slave trade.” What could he do to help the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill then before the House of Commons, with very slender chances of becoming law that Session? He resolved to apply the same methods of personal inquiry and “sensational journalism” which had been successful in regard to the Navy. Impulsive, reckless, careless of his own reputation as he was in most respects, he took one precaution in the idle hope of protecting himself from subsequent misrepresentation; before entering into the labyrinth, he confided his purposes to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, and Lord Dalhousie. They warned him of the dangers, and, while witnesses of his bona fides, were in no way responsible for his methods. Having collected his information, Stead determined to publish it broadcast. He had convinced himself that nothing except an open appeal to the public conscience would suffice to carry the Bill and to create the public opinion necessary for its due enforcement. A storm of execration burst upon his head; the revelations, it was said, ought not to have been made if true, and besides they were “a pack of lies.” One of the most shocking of the revelations was the story of a little girl who, it was alleged, had been sold by her parents. The editor of Lloyd’s News presently discovered the facts, which were that the girl had been procured by an agent of Stead, and without the guilty knowledge of the parents. Stead was placed on trial for abduction. He had been deceived by his agents, and he had overstepped the limits of justifiable sensationalism by describing as a typical incident what was in fact an experiment of his own. He was sentenced by Mr. Justice Lopes at the Central Criminal Court on November 4, 1885, to three months’ imprisonment. After a few days he was made a first-class misdemeanant, and he conducted his paper from a not incommodious cell in Hollowly Gaol. He became a great friend of the Governor, who presented him, on liberation with the suit of prison clothes which he had worn at Coldbath Fields. For many years Stead held a reception of his friends and admirers on the anniversary of his conviction, and on those occasions he always wore his Order of the Broad Arrow. Whatever may be thought of his methods, it cannot be denied that his crusade did in fact carry the Criminal Law Amendment Act and give impetus to international efforts towards checking the “white slave trade.”


This episode in Stead’s life brought him as many friends as enemies. He became one of the best-known personages of the day, and he made frequent appearances on the platform. He was looked to as a knight-errant, and the offices of his paper were the resort for some years of all who were in distress. Some were deserving, others were not. In 1889 he resigned the editorship of the Pall Mall Gazette in order to found the Review of Reviews. This gave Stead a powerful pulpit. He would probably have made an even greater political mark if he had not dabbled in spiritualism. His “Borderland” and “Letters from Julia” did much to undermine his influence; but here, again, he made as many adherents in one direction as he lost in another, and “Julia’s Bureau” was besieged.

Of his political efforts not already mentioned, the most constant was an advocacy of a good understanding with Russia. In 1885 he had opposed the idea of fighting over the Penjdeh incident; his articles and pamphlets, in the compilation of which he was assisted by the late Mr. Lessar, contributed not a little to a friendly settlement. His “Truth about Russia” (1888) sought to correct many misunderstandings. The book (first published in the Pall Mall Gazette) was the result of a visit to Russia, during which he was received by Alexander III. In 1898 he again visited Russia in order to have audience of Nicholas II. Stead used to tell how after having had his full say to on exemplary listener he began to take leave, remarking that he would not detain the Tzar longer, as he was sure that his Majesty must wish to join his good wife and the children. The Tsar shook hands, saying with a good-natured smile that this was his first experience of being dismissed from an audience. It was after this talk with the Tsar that Stead embarked on the “Peace Crusade” which occupied much of his later years. He founded and edited a weekly paper, War against War. He attended the Hague Conferences and threw himself into Arbitration propaganda. This was probably a principal reason of his strong opposition to the South African War. He was the most militant and least compromising of all the Pro-Boers. His line was the more marked because of its apparent conflict with persona and policies in South Africa with which he had formerly been in sympathy. Lord Milner had been for some years his assistant on the Pall Mall Gazette, and Stead had proclaimed his confidence in his friend’s judgment. He had, moreover, been an apologist for the Jameson Raid. He was also a great friend of Cecil Rhodes. Mowbray House, on the Thames Embankment, where the Review of Reviews had its offices, was always one of the first places to which Rhodes resorted on his visits to London, for the inspiration of a sympathetic and congenial mind. Stead was ever fertile in ideas, and the more grandiose the conception, the more it appealed to him. The will of Cecil Rhodes impressed everybody with its marks of originality and imagination; it is not so generally known that the ideas were in large measure Stead’s, though it is on record that Rhodes at one time intended to appoint Stead his sole trustee.

Stead continued to conduct the Review of Reviews with great vigour. His “Character Sketches” and Chroniques of the Month had all the originality, force, and freshness which characterised his work as a daily journalist. He continued to go everywhere and see everybody, and the amount of miscellaneous work which he accomplished knew no diminution with the advance of years. He had founded also a very successful American Review of Reviews, and though in later years the control of this had passed into the hands of Dr, Albert Shaw, Stead retained a financial interest in it. He was deeply interested in American politics and problems, as was shown by his “If Christ came to Chicago,” “The Labour War in the United States,” and other works. He had joined the Titanic in order to address a meeting in Now York on “The World’s Peace” and to take part in the “Men and Religion Forward Movement.


The influence of W. T. Stead on daily journalism in England was great. He struck the personal note. He acclimatized the “interview.” He developed the “crossheads.” He extended the scope of the special article and the signed contribution. He introduced pictorial illustration. All these were the outward signs of the current of fresh vigour and greater vividness of presentment which were an expression of his personality. His taste was not impeccable; but he had at command a wealth of allusion, and he was a master of nervous, vivid language. He had a most ingenious and fertile mind; he was a subtle dialectician; and his copiousness was prodigious. He was accessible to all-comers, though a notice at the bottom of the stairs used to run, “As callers are many and time is short, the former are asked to economize the latter.” His correspondence was enormous and he kept all his letters. He did not write shorthand—an idle feat in one possessed of an unusually retentive memory. He was beloved by all who worked with him, for he was always helpful and indulgent and his flow of good spirits was unfailing. His conversation was apt to be monologue but he was a brilliant and most entertaining talker— full of vivacity, spontaneity, and picturesque phrasing. He was frankly egotistical; but he had a keen sense of fun, he enjoyed nothing more than a laugh at himself, and those who know the man at closest quarters liked him best. His generosity was unbounded and his death will be mourned by a large number of persons of all sorts and conditions whom he had befriended, encouraged, and stimulated. He married Emma L. Wilson in 1873. His eldest son, a young man of much charm and promise, died a few years ago; but he leaves a widow, daughters, and other sons.