W.T. Stead by Sidney Whitman

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W.T. Stead by Sidney Whitman

Quoted in Sidney Whitman, Things I Remember: The Recollections of a Political Writer in the Capitals of Europe (NY, 1916), pp. 228-232

The Press is so often accused of breeding discord that my journalistic recollections would be incomplete without an appreciative reference to one whose life’s work was devoted towards furthering peace and goodwill, freedom and justice among men, even when his championship of the latter exposed him to vilification and slander.

My recollection of Mr. Stead takes me back nearly thirty years, when I was wont to attend Madame Olga Novikoff’s “At Homes.”‘ She would speak in glowing terms of her good friend, Stead – who, together with Mr. Gladstone, supported her efforts to bring about the better understanding between England and Russia which has now become a potent reality. Others were less favourably disposed towards “that good man Stead” in those days. His agitation in the Pall Mall Gazette over “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” had caused much public discussion. It led to his detention in Holloway Prison, thus enabling him to get a foretaste of what martyrs may expect:

“Truth for ever on the scaffold,
Wrong for ever on the throne.”

Many people expressed their “doots” about Mr. Stead’s judgment. They saw in him nothing more than a notoriety-hunting journalist, anxious for his daily sensation. He was a rabid Nonconformist, they said, a crank whose head had been turned by success. To-day there would be few of this body of critics who would care to recall their earlier estimates of a man whose calm and selfsacrifice in the hour of death have hallowed his memory in the eyes of his countrymen.

William Stead was of a truth a thinker and reformer who found in journalism a unique pulpit enabling him to stamp his personality on his time. Few men in any walk of life have seen so many of their aims come to fruition in their own lives. Mr. Stead was among the first and most effective agitators for an enlargement of the British Navy. The first of the great naval programmes which built up our supremacy on the sea owed more to his advocacy than to that of any other man, and his burning conviction that our Navy was our all in all never left him, even in the times when he was the most earnest, if also the most flamboyant, advocate of peace between the nations.

He also preached the federation of the British Empire to a world not free of the notion that Colonies were a rather troublesome possession. The outcome of his work in this direction is to be read in the way in which the Colonies have rushed to the aid of the Mother Country. Only few realised in this country that he was a force more potent than diplomats and statesmen in influencing the good relations between Great Britain and the United States. A prolific contributor to American journals, he exercised a direct sway through the American edition of the Review of Reviews, which enjoyed in the States a popularity and authority even greater than that of the parent magazine.

Inevitably William Stead encountered opposition and detraction. The majority, which never has and never will see things, is always against the seer who can peep into the future. As has been said by a great thinker: “Wise men of all times have said the same thing, and fools, that is to say the vast majority, have always done the same thing–namely, the exact opposite. And thus it is likely to remain.”

In Mr. Stead’s case, as in that of so many other remarkable men, it may be truthfully said that mediocrity is ever the persistent depredator of the “first-rater.” It is as if a sure instinct – animal-like in its unerring keenness – impelled the time-serving commonplacer to scent a dangerous rival in the first-class man. And it is by the aid of such detractors, rather than by the incense of his panegyrists, that we are often able to get at his inner spiritual value. We need the green hue of envy, the black venom of the detractor, as a background to light up the countenance of strong men.

Of the journalist, as of the actor, it may confidently be said that posterity rarely weaves wreaths in his honour. But I make bold to say that nobody who knew Mr. Stead would willingly let his memory fade. It would be obviously impossible to obliterate the good work he did in his life; we need only remember the stupendous energy, the immense output of the man, the number of subjects he made his own and upon which he left his mark – every one of them fraught with some deep human interest or high national aim – in order to feel that, take him all in all, we shall not easily look upon his like again.

I came into personal touch with Mr. Stead shortly after joining the Herald, and the last time I enjoyed the privilege of being in his company was one Sunday evening at his house in Smith Square, shortly before he started on his illfated journey on the Titanic. Several American journalists were among the invited, besides a member of the Young Turkish Parliament and sundry other personages of both sexes interested in one or other of Mr. Stead’s pet schemes for social improvement. A friendly discussion on Eastern affairs took place, over which Mr. Stead presided with his genial good humour; altogether a most pleasing gathering. “I hope to see you all here again on my return from the United States,” were his parting words. Alas! a wish never to be realised.

Among the many proofs, if such were needed, of Mr. Stead’s genuine fibre was his sense of humour. Not every sincere man possesses this priceless gift of the gods, but genuine humour almost precludes insincerity, for its basis is an honest estimate of things and of one’s own self. Humour thus confers immunity from “swelled head.” It was in connection with this danger – against which the journalist has ever to be on his guard – that Mr. Stead told me the following anecdote about Lord Northcliffe.

“You must, please, not believe that success has turned my head, or that I fancy myself a genius,” said his lordship one day to Mr. Stead. “I believe, however, that I possess one little gift which suffices to account for all I have accomplished. This is that when I am in a railway carriage and look at my fellow travellers I feel I can instinctively tell what they want, and somehow I know how to supply them with it.”

Mr. Stead believed Lord Northcliffe to be sincere when he spoke thus, but was of opinion that in making this statement he overlooked his own phenomenal ability – let us say his genius – as a newspaper organiser. But, whether Lord Northcliffe was serious or joking, there can be no doubt that this trifling incident does in truth go a long way towards explaining the extraordinary success of the greatest journalistic provider of our time; whilst at the same time it illustrates the difference between Mr. Stead, whose journalism was propagandism at white heat, and the man who gives the public what he believes the public want.