W.T. Stead by Millicent Garrett Fawcett

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W.T. Stead by Millicent Garrett Fawcett

The Contemporary Review (June, 1912) Reprinted in Frederick Whyte, The Life of W.T. Stead, (London: Johnathan Cape, 1925) vol. II, pp. 349-351

All who care for justice to women, and who desire to see the law and its administration make sure that, as far as possible, the world shall be a place of happiness and safety for children, have lost a stalwart friend in the death of W. T. Stead, who went down, on April 16 (sic), with the Titanic. I first became aware of a new note in journalism – at any rate in London journalism – in the early eighties.

Here was somebody writing with a pen touched with fire about the things that really mattered – clean living, and the protection of children from the deepest of wrongs; and the pen did not give the impression of being guided by sentimentalism: it was evidently wielded by a man who had made a careful study of facts, and was prepared to give battle to defend the right. I do not think I ever heard his name till everybody heard it in 1885, when all London – and, indeed, all the world – rang with the shameless and cruel traffic for immoral purposes in little children, exposed for the first time in the Pall Mall Gazette. This traffic could have been, and ought to have been, stopped by law; but the Bill dealing adequately with these horrors, though it had been passed more than once through the House of Lords, had been, session after session, talked out, counted out, and blocked out in the House of Commons. It was counted out no more after Mr. Stead carried out his plan of insisting that all the world should know that these devilish things were of common, everyday occurrence in a so-called Christian country. When he undertook his chivalric campaign, the age of consent in Christian England was thirteen; little children of thirteen could therefore legally consent to their own ruin, and no legal redress could be obtained from those who were worse than murderers. Many other offences of the deepest villainy were unrecognized as such by the law, and therefore were liable to no legal punishment. All this was changed by the action Mr. Stead took. He was blamed for his sensationalism, for his want of good taste. But he knew what he was doing, and his training as a journalist told him that in order to rouse the torpid conscience of the House of Commons, shock tactics were necessary. I remember well his personal description of how he had been worked up to take the action which he did take. As a young man he had been greatly influenced by Mrs. Josephine Butler, and her great crusade against the immoral Contagious Diseases Act. It was Mrs. Josephine Butler who came to him with her heart-rending story, drawn from facts in her own experience, of the sale and purchase of young children in London for the purposes of immorality. Stead felt her message as a call for personal service. “Whereupon, Oh King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the Heavenly vision,” he might have said – the Heavenly vision of trying to get God’s will done on earth as it is in Heaven. But though he was full of the spirit which leads to personal service, he was careful and cautious in regard to facts. He felt he must make the groundwork of positive knowledge firm beneath his feet. He went, therefore, with his story, Mrs. Butler’s story, to Sir Howard Vincent, then Head of the Criminal Investigation Department. “Just tell me,” he said, “are such things possible?” The reply was: “They are not only possible, they are of common occurrence.” Stead broke in, “It ought to rouse hell,” and Sir Howard rejoined, “It does not even rouse the neighbours.” Stead determined it should rouse the neighbours and the whole country, and through them the miserable indifference of the House of Commons to villainy which was contaminating the life-blood of the nation at its source. He made a plan for the fictitious, but apparently real, sale of a child, safeguarding himself and her at every stage by the presence of trustworthy witnesses of his bona fides. He also took into his confidence beforehand the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Manning, and other high ecclesiastics. He then spread broadcast in the columns of the Pall Mall Gazette, of which he was the editor, the whole story. He accomplished what he set out to accomplish. The House of Commons boggled no more over the Criminal Law Amendment Bill: there were no more counts out and talks out of that long-delayed measure. The sons of Belial did what they could in the House to minimize its stringency, but they were no longer masters of the situation, and the Act which was finally passed was an enormous improvement on anything which up to that time had found a place in the statute book.

The enemy furiously raged together, and going over the whole of Stead’s story told by himself with the utmost circumstance and publicity, discovered a joint in his armour of precautions, and that he had actually, in his crusade, committed a technical breach of the law. A grateful country sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment as an ordinary criminal. But he was almost immediately made a first-class misdemeanant, and went on editing the Pall Mall Gazette from his cell in Holloway.

The effect of his heroic action did not cease with the passing of Act. Many good men and women, foremost among them Mr. and Mrs. Percy Bunting, determined that the deep feeling which had been aroused should have a permanent expression. The National Vigilance Association was formed with Mr. W. A. Coote as Secretary. Its object was to see that the new law was set in motion, and to secure further improvements and developments in it. The International work now going forward with the object of preventing the White Slave Traffic is due to the National Association, and thus indirectly, to W. T. Stead. The House of Commons shows its old indifference and supineness in relation to this great work: the Bill has been put up for second reading by the Member in charge of it again and again. It is always blocked. The Government, while expressing entire approval of it, declines to take it up: it needs behind it the electoral force which it would receive if women had votes. No one was more clear on this point than Mr. Stead: he constantly recurred to it. The last time I saw him was on March 28. I was, with other women, walking up and down the pavement outside the House of Commons while the men inside were killing the Conciliation Bill. We exchanged a friendly greeting, and I well knew that with his whole heart and strength he wished us well.

It is pleasant to read what everyone is saying of him now: that to him death was but the passage from one room to another of his Father’s house; that it was quite certain that he would be among the last to leave the ship, that among the tragic uncertainties of this tragic event there was, at any rate, one positive certainty, and that was that he would never seek his own safety at the cost of others, but would die, as he had lived, heroically. No one pretends that he was faultless; but he had a great and generous heart, a boundless and intense vitality, and the spontaneous desire everywhere and always to protect and cherish the weak. We may be thankful for his life, “We are a nation yet,” as long as we can breed such men as he was.