W. T. Stead. A London Memorial. Journalists’ Tributes

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W. T. Stead. A London Memorial. Journalists’ Tributes

The Times (Tuesday, July 6, 1920) p. 12

Mr. J. A. Spender unveiled on the Thames Embankment yesterday the portrait bronze erected by British and American journalists to commemorate the late W. T. Stead.

A similar memorial has been raised to Mr. Stead in Now York. The ceremony took place in a downpour of rain, and after the plaque had been unveiled the company went to the offices of the Education Committee of the London County Council, where in a little room placed at the disposal of the committee they listened to an eloquent tribute to Mr. Stead from Mr. Spender, and to the written messages of other journalists and public men read by Mr. Robert Donald.

Mr. Donald presided, and among those present were Lord Milner, Mr. John Burns, Sir Horace Marshall, Sir George Frampton, Sir Harry Brittain, M.P., Sir Alfred Robbins, Dr. J. E. Stead, the Rev. Herbert Stead, Miss E. Stead, Mr. Hamilton Fyfe, Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Gilliland, Mr. John Stead, Mr. William Hill, and Mr. Arnold White.


It had originally been intended that the memorial should be unveiled by Mr. Wickham Steed, Editor of The Times. Mr. Steed, who is out of the country, sent the following letter, which was read by the chairman:—

“My dear Donald,—I am grieved not to be able to unveil the tablet to our old friend and colleague, W. T. Stead, next Monday, when I shall, unfortunately, be away from England without any chance even of using, as he would have loved to do, the wireless telephone. I had looked forward to this opportunity of paying some tribute to his memory, both as a man and as a journalist, and of bearing witness to the degree in which he possessed the two qualities which lift the exercise of our craft above a level that might otherwise seem sordid—a burning sincerity and a passion for justice. This I can say with full impartiality, since I do not remember having been in complete agreement with him on any single question; but neither did I ever detect in him the slightest taint of self-interest, other than the self-interest of which we are all guilty when we are striving for the victory of causes which we believe to be right.

“Of his achievements as a writer and an editor it is not for me to speak. Others who were directly associated with him in his daily work have qualifications in this respect which I cannot claim. But I have always owed him a debt of gratitude for the advice he gave me almost exactly 30 years ago, when, as a youth eager to enter journalism, I saw him for the first time in his ‘sanctum’ overlooking the spot where you will gather on Monday. I remember his words as if they had been spoken yesterday, and repeat them here as they may perchance be of interest, if not of value, to other aspirants to membership of the daily Press. ‘A journalist!’ he exclaimed, ‘how can I know whether you are fit to be a journalist? There is only one way to find out. Try; if you have anything to say that you feel you must say, why, say it, and send it to some editor, who will probably send it back. Don’t waste time over mere phrases. Sail right into the heart of your subject at once. When you have written your masterpiece, imagine that you have to telegraph it to Australia at your own expense, and cut out every superfluous word, above all, the adjectives. Then, if anything remains, try it on an editor and see what happens. If you do not succeed, as you won’t unless you have really got something to say that you cannot help saying, try again and again. Presently, you will find out whether you are fit to be a journalist or not.’

“Strange to say this advice encouraged me greatly, or I was convinced that I had something to say, and that it was the duty of editors to print that something. Presently some of them did, the first being the late Sir E. T. Cook, who printed in the Pall Mall Gazette a short account that I remember writing on a waiting room table at Liverpool-street Station of a lecture on old-age pensions given by Mr. J. A. Spender at Toynbee Hall, with the late Charles Booth in the chair. Afterwards, when studying in Germany and in France, the Westminster Gazette was very kind to me and really gave me my start in journalism—which I have always felt I owed to Stead’s advice.

“We surely do well to commemorate our great men, and Stead had an unquestionable title to greatness in our craft. Erratic and even fantastic as were some of his ideas and enterprises, they were all marked by a touch of genius and by child-like good faith. He refused to be abashed by disappointments. To the end he believed the best of everybody and everything. He had a faculty for ignoring obstacles that sometimes, though by no means always, helped him to overcome them. His mind was of an absolute sort; not given to subtlety, nor always appreciating the relative value of some general principles; but, above all, he was a real man, responding to every thrill of human nature, overflowing with sympathy, commanding devotion because himself devoted to others, and ever ready to laugh without malice or rancour at his own disappointments and failures. Your committee has been well inspired in erecting a permanent memorial to his work for, rightly understood, it will remain an inspiration to those who knew him and it and to those who may come after him and us.”

The American Ambassador, in a letter regretting that a previous engagement prevented him from being present, said:— “It would indeed have been a satisfaction for me to pay my personal tribute to so distinguished a journalist, who did so much to better the relations between our two countries.”


Lord Northcliffe wrote:—”I regret exceedingly that unavoidable circumstances prevent my being able to participate in the function to-morrow. Stead had so many friends that you will have no difficulty in finding many worthier than I to honour the memory of a remarkable man. It was my great fortune to know Stead from many angles. A mighty affectionate creature he was—especially to young men, and to those he loved to criticize, of whom I was one.

“An aspect of his personality that I have not seen referred to was his wonderful general knowledge. He and I spent a day in parts ot Roman Britain— Silchester among other places—and packed away in that great brain of his was a vast store of knowledge of the early history of England. How much he did to relieve the tedium of the dull evening newspapers of the early eighties was but part of a great revolution which he effected in journalism. When he passed so mysteriously, I was one of many who felt that they had lost a true friend. I was in possession of perhaps the last letter that he wrote, suggesting, on the eve of his departure in the Titanic, a series of articles from America for one of my newspapers. Again, let me say how deeply I regret an absence not of my own seeking.”

The letters from Lord Morley and Lord Fisher, printed in The Times yesterday, were also read.

Mr. Robert Donald, in a short speech, said that they were met to do honour to a great personality and the greatest journalist of his age. The memorial which had been unveiled by Mr. Spender was a tribute by journalists to a master of their craft. Mr. Wickham Steed, who, it had been hoped would have been with them, entered journalism on the advice and with the encouragement of Mr. Stead, and had attained the highest position in his profession.


Mr. Spender said that he knew Stead for 30 years, and during the last 15 of them a week never passed without his spending at least an hour in his company. When Stead came to London there was some danger that journalism would be strangled in its own traditions, but he broke the bonds, widened its scope, and embraced a great new range of human interests and emotions.

“We who are living now,” Mr. Spender continued, “can scarcely realize the various objections which were taken to the new journalism in those days. Elders were very tenacious of their traditions. They vehemently opposed any departure from the code which prescribed a certain schedule of subjects as alone of public interest and worthy to be dealt with in a newspaper. Into this world came Stead, with his overflowing vitality, his unbounded curiosity— curiosity which in later years stretched beyond the confines of space and time—his unsleeping interest in everything human, his impetuous temperament, and his positive preference for shocking and even scandalizing people if he could rouse the complacent into thought. His predecessor was Lord Morley, and from Lord Morley he may have learned something of that seriousness in which, in spite of his exuberance, he invariably approached great public affairs. With him he had very distinguished young men who differed from him wholly in temperament and education, but who were captured by his genius, carried on by the tide of his splendid indiscretions, and who worked with him to produce results which were unique in the history of journalism.”

Stead’s great qualities, Mr. Spender added, came from a man overflowing with warm affection and emotion. It had been contended in recent days that journalism was a mere branch of commerce. There was no one who would more scornfully have repudiated that phrase than Stead. Again and again he staked his whole fortune and career on forlorn and unpopular causes. In his warm chivalry for men and women, particularly women, he even brought himself into conflict with authority. Let those who had one-half of his zeal for the right cast the first stone Stead never resented any criticism of himself however, harsh, except one, and that was that he did what he had done in order to sell his paper. To him journalism from beginning to end was a vocation abounding in opportunities, but weighted with solemn responsibilities.

The memorial has been executed by Sir George Frampton. It is affixed to one of the terraces on the embankment nearly opposite the Temple Station of the District Railway. Beneath the bust portrait of Mr. Stead, is the following inscription:—

“W T. Stead. 1840-1912. This memorial to a journalist of wide renown was erected near the spot where he worked for more than 30 years by journalists of many lands in recognition of his brilliant gifts, fervert spirit, and untiring devotion to the service of his fellow-men.”