W.T. Stead by Mark Fooks

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W.T. Stead by Mark Fooks

Quoted in John Kensit,The Life of Mr. W.T. Stead: Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette (1885) pp. 10-14

Until the advent of the Eastern Question Mr. Stead had not achieved more than a local reputation in connexion (sic) with the Northern Echo. The intensity of his political convictions, as shown by the fervour of his writings, had been previously manifest to Liberal political circles in Durham and Yorkshire and adjacent counties. The advent of the struggle between Russia and Turkey—the political pour-parlers and discussions which preceded and accompanied the war, and especially the conviction that the action was right which was taken by Mr. Gladstone in what was known as the Bulgarian atrocities, and in antagonism generally to the course pursued by Lord Beaconsfield’s Government— first brought Mr. Stead into recognition amongst the leading statesmen of the Liberal party. On all those questions he wrote strongly and he wrote well. It was not only with Mr. Gladstone himself with whom the clever young editor was in frequent personal and epistolary communication, but he rapidly made the acquaintance of nearly all the Liberal leaders, who, while they recognised his high journalistic ability, were impressed, as all are who come into contact with him, by his singular earnestness and sincerity of character, and the candour, frankness, unconventionally and charm of his manner.

Though not devoid of the logical faculty, his forte is not so much in hard logic, as in a ready grasp of facts. With the facts before him, conclusions are formed almost simultaneously. Hence, the ordinary evolution of thought required to mature conclusions, which is common to nearly all public writers and thinkers, seems hardly to be requisite with Mr. Stead. The deduction is made, the opinion is formed, almost instanter upon the presentment of the fact, and a ready pen, rushing over folio after folio, presents in little over an hour from its inception, the idea of the writer in a column of leader. There is no hesitation shown—no doubt. The statement is authoritative, didactic, forceful. The style, judged by the very highest literary standards, may not be of the purest, but this is of secondary importance to this literary Vulcan, who beats out his sentences—frequently at white heat—in such clear, sharp, nervous English, that he who runs may read, and can never fail to understand. Mr. Stead does not write for the purpose of filling out an allotted space of the leading columns of his journal, in the laissez-faire, gingerly fashion of too many of his brethren of the press. He has something to say, and he says it. He is clearly not studying the convictions or prejudices of his reader. The reader must take his chance; and, as Mr. Stead would say, in his plain and vigorous Saxon, can like it or lump it. There is a lesson to be taught, a duty to be enforced, a government to be warned, an administrative weakness to be shown up, an evil to be exposed. The readiest means to the end are taken; there is no beating about the bush; the fewest words are employed; point and directness are visible through all that is written.

Everyone who has come into private or professional contact with Mr. Stead, from the time when, as a very young man in the country, working his way as an unknown editor, to his filling the editorial chair of one of the leading London journals, invariably has nothing but praise for his personal and official bearing. No man can be more considerate towards his colleagues and subordinates; no one more ready to give an encouraging word or a helping hand. His frankness, uniform kindness, equality and evenness of temper, place all who are associated with him at their ease, whilst they have nothing but admiration for his untiring and restless energy, which they may strive but vainly to emulate. At a fair computation, Mr. Stead is capacitated to do, and ordinarily does, the work of two or three men. Is a fact to be verified? a statement to be proved? none can equal the industry and ardour with which he sets about the task. Much that might be delegated to subordinates, of little more than mechanical labour of this description, is done by himself. He either will not wait, or cares not to delegate the duty. Hence, in the earlier stages of his connection with the Pall Mall Gazette, while Mr. Morley was editor, he gained the soubriquet throughout the office of the “irrepressible.” When connected with the Northern Echo, at Darlington, there were critical occasions when he was known to have written half the paper himself.

Mr. Stead has what is of surpassing value to him as a journalist—an unusually retentive memory. On one occasion he was noticed at a meeting—his reporter being absent—to be listening to a speech of a member of Parliament. He is not a shorthand writer. He had only a half sheet of note paper, and filled but one side of it with less than a dozen lines, merely giving the subjects, and their order, upon which the speaker dwelt. Next day he had elaborated a speech of a column and a half entirely from memory. This, reading wonderfully like the utterances of which it purported to be a transcript, the question was asked of a professional shorthand reporter who was present whether it were an accurate report. The reply was, “Wonderfully so; I compared the more important portions with my notes, and found it just about verbatim.” This marvellous reproductive power of memory is neither accidental nor exceptional. On another occasion some three or four columns of a leading statesman’s speech were reproduced nearly all in the same manner from a few stray-notes. This retentiveness of memory seems to be equally-marked as regards remote as well as immediate events and occurrences. No leading politician can offer an opinion or announce a policy which does not seem to be for years after registered upon the mind of the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. Many a time are inconsistencies pointed out where public men have tripped, or swallowed their former professions, by means of this unfailing tablet upon which the data are recorded. Repeated instances of this surprising faculty on one occasion elicited from the former brilliant literary chief who presided over the Northumberland Street oracle—Mr. John Morley—the observation, “Why, Stead, you arc the most dangerous man to politicians in all London.” That the Pall Mall Gazette has practically introduced the system of “interviewing” into-English journalism, had its inception, there is little doubt, in the extraordinary memory of Mr. Stead who it is well known has done the leading interviews himself, and from memory. This was the case with General Gordon who was intercepted at Southampton on the eve of what proved to be his last departure from English shores. Not a note, I believe, was taken, or but the merest fragment, at the time of the interview, and Mr. Stead on his return to London at midnight dictated with marvellous fidelity to a shorthand writer the very lengthy and intensely interesting communication of the opinions of the Soudan hero which shortly after adorned the pages of the Pall Mall.

It may easily be conceived that a man of this mould who believes in himself and in a higher power, who regards himself as a politico-moral daily teacher of, and a preacher to, men—one who has a mission to fulfil—who inherits in himself in some degree the sacred fire which animated the old Prophets, as the Rev. Price Hughes has said—who is moved to perform his work from motives in which personal and ordinarily material considerations have but so small a share, is one well cut out for a Reformer, and a martyr if need be. He does not court martyrdom, but few men could suffer it with such grace and placability should it befall as an accident or concomitant of his position or work. For him, “stone walls do not a prison make,” especially with the knowledge he has of the sympathy and love of the great mass of the weakest and the poorest of the men and women of the land whose daughters he stretched forth his hand to save when there was none to succour. It is from such men that the world’s heroes are made. Like the Apostle of old, or Garibaldi or Mazzini in modern times, they “counsel not with flesh and blood.” “The call of duty is the call of God,” said Mr. Stead in his speech in Hyde Park, “whenever a call comes home to your heart to do some unselfish thing for your sister or your brother be they never so poor, and miserable, and vile, remember that that call comes to you from the great heart of God, and if you turn a deaf ear you deny Him and are none of His.”

Those who know Mr. Stead’s character and inner life most intimately, are unanimous in the statement that no man or scarcely woman can be more sensitive even to idealism in all that relates to moral purity. Ever since his introduction to journalism he was one of the most pronounced advocates for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. The journal of which he was the Editor at Darlington, was made conspicuous as a vehicle in promotion of repeal, and for everything which tended to the increase of moral purity. The honour of womanhood is with him a kind of Gospel. It was under the influence of such high moral sanctions that he was, doubtless, led to face the dangers—personal, professional, and otherwise—involved in the work of the “Secret Commission.” Like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion himself, he must have suffered deeply in exploring what he termed “The London Inferno.” No pruriency of motive, no desire of notoriety, no expectation of profit from the extra sale of his journal entered into his calculations. Here was the road of duty. Hard and dark, hideous and dangerous though the way might be it must be traversed. Writing at the time, in a private letter, he made this characteristic remark, referring to the work of the revelations:—”But oh, the agony of the thing! You know what a woman I am in these things, and therefore can judge how I suffered.”