W.T. Stead by his daughter Estelle

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W.T. Stead by his daughter Estelle

Quoted in J.W. Robertson Scott, The Life and Death of a Newspaper (1952) pp.220-224

The name Stead is of Swedish origin. I believe one branch of the family came over in the fifteenth century and settled in Yorkshire.

Father had the blue eyes and rugged features of the North, quite a Viking type. His mother belonged to Northumberland. As a boy he was fond of birds and painted them.

The story that in Northern Echo days he used to ride into Darlington on a donkey is not quite correct; it was a pony!

He read the Spectator to us on Sunday afternoons, ending up with the Bank Rate! My mother followed with stories. To ensure that we had been listening, each of us in turn had to fix on some name or episode mentioned; also after chapel at our meal we had to do the same, taking the sermon as our subject. It was a game very much in the manner of ‘Twenty Questions’. Every morning each child had to bring to the breakfast table an interesting fact chosen out of the morning newspapers.

Father had fluent but ungrammatical German. He saw to it that all his children had a really good knowledge of French and German. He adored children and had a wonderful way with them, as he had with grown-ups. His Books for the Bairns were the genuine result of his affection for children.

He was continually bringing people to Cambridge House, our home at Wimbledon, not only to dinner but to stay. There always seemed to be visitors and my mother’s life was not easy, for he would telegraph at the last moment – there was no telephone then – that he could not get away from the office, and she would have to entertain strangers, about whom she knew little, to dinner.

Though in many things my father and mother were not sympathetic, there was a strong bond between them, and I remember him saying that he would not have married anyone else. He gave mother a valentine every year.

He was always being pestered and plagued by men and women who appealed to him, for he was most sympathetic and soft-hearted. He gave his money away with goodwill to everybody who asked and seemed deserving.

One of the worst cases was that of a Russian Princess who told him that she had been sent to him by the Tsaritsa. In all she must have got £15,000 from him on, it appeared, the security of estates that she owned in Russia. The way he parted with his money was so notorious that the time came when mother had to see that he went out with very little in his pockets. My mother undoubtedly had a better flair for character than my father. She died at eighty-two in 1932.

My father was a demon for work. In the early morning, before going to the office, and after dinner at night, he would be writing. He seldom had much time to spare for holidays, but once he went with my mother on a tandem tricycle to the Lake District. Whenever possible, he would retire to our cottage at Hayling Island and plough through masses of arrears.

He was fond of sailing and the coastguards said they always kept a sharp look-out because he was so venturesome. But he never had an accident, whereas my brothers had several, and at times my father had to go to their rescue. He was a strong breast-stroke swimmer, a keen walker and, to the scandal of Wimbledon in the early days when we were small, would make us all run down the hill on the way to chapel. At one time he was very keen on photography and the walls of our cottage at Hayling were adorned with the results. He also liked gardening. He would have left a fine library had he not lent his books to all and sundry. He had the ability, when in good health, to go to sleep at any time.

He was very sensitive and it hurt him that so few of his Pall Mall staff fully sympathized with him. It is well that it should be explained that he was subject to terrible fits of despondency, when he felt that he had not the power to go on. Then he would suddenly recover. Harmsworth and a brother came to him for ideas before starting the Daily Mail. Many people got ideas for their schemes from him for he never minded having his brains picked. His motto, “The union of all who love in the service of all who suffer”, was chosen when he was discussing with Mrs. Besant the idea of a Civic Church.

I never remember him giving much time to preparing his speeches. He would think about what he was going to say but seldom make notes. He had such a wonderful memory.

He took to smoking cigars in the P.M.G. days because when interviewing he found that if he smoked with people he could get them to talk more freely. When in South Africa he began smoking a pipe, using Boer tobacco, but as he could never keep it alight, he gave it up.

With regard to The Daily Paper, his idea was, as he wrote in the Review of Reviews, “to band together all the readers in a great cooperative partnership for the achievement of common ends; to make the newspaper itself not merely a nerve centre for the collection and distribution of news but for the inspiration, direction and organization of the moral, social, political and intellectual forces of the whole community.” He particularly wanted to interest the housewife and so he arranged for delivery in mid-morning after the men had gone to work. The Daily Paper experiment was a complete failure. After seeing the first number to press he broke down completely. By the loyal support of those around him the paper was kept going for some weeks but it was soon clear that it was impossible to continue. The doctor advised a voyage to South Africa. Nothing seemed to rouse him until we got to Teneriffe when he suddenly decided that there was a good reason for the failure. After that he worked hard, reading and dictating in the morning and romping with the children on board in the afternoon.

When in South Africa, Lord Milner would not receive us because of a speech that father made in Cape Town. Rhodes had long been dead and we stayed at Groote Schuur with Dr. Jim. We also stayed with Smuts, Botha, ex-President Steyn and Hertzog, and there is no question that the work that my father did helped to make a good settlement.

When I wanted to go on the stage my father took it very badly and sent me to South Africa again, this time to tell stories in connection with the Books for the Bairns. When I came back and still persisted he gave way. Up to this time, of course, he had never seen a stage play. Benson said, “Send her to me and I will put her through it good and strong”, so I joined Benson’s company.

My father always felt that he got his directions straight from the “Senior Partner”. He talked about the “Senior Partner” long before he took up spiritualism. How did he get his directions? No doubt it was something like the way in which the Quakers feel they get a lead. His visit to the Tsar was one of the instances in which he felt that he had a clear lead.

It was well perhaps that my father died when he did. Had he lived he would have been a disappointed and thwarted man. His physique would not have stood the conditions in which he found himself. His head worried him. He felt he could not do as much as he used to do and that he had lost his influence.

His intention, if he had come back from America, was to have written his memoirs, which he was always looking forward to doing. He could have kept in touch with people he could help and might have recognised that he had done his share and could well be quiet. But would he have been willing?

A portrait of my father was offered to the National Portrait Gallery and refused. There is a copy of the Thames Embankment plaque in New York.

When my brother William died in 1907 my father was just going to make over the Review of Reviews to him. Henry edited the Australian Review of Reviews for some years and died in 1922; he is buried in Tahiti. Alfred, who had a brain more like father’s, was not sympathetic to him. He travelled a great deal and wrote several books. Jack, who hated the idea of journalism, became a professor at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich and died in 1949.