My Father: W. T. Stead

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My Father: W. T. Stead

Henry Stead, (The Review of Reviews for Australasia, May, 1913) pp. 243-245

In the notes I hope to give about my father during the next six months in these columns, I intend to touch chiefly upon his private life and make but indirect mention of his public work and achievements. These will be fully dealt with in the biography now in course of preparation.


Father was always intensely human, had immense energy and an enormous amount of exuberant vitality. He was a man whose presence could be felt the moment he came into a room, so greatly did he vitalise all those with whom he came into contact. He was exceedingly popular with children and youths, and especially was he worshipped by little girls. With all his marvellous journalistic instinct and great intellect, he was really just a big boy in many things all his life. He never enjoyed himself better than when, surrounded by youngsters, he picnicked and boated, built sand castles and bathed, at the seaside cottage he loved so well.


He was a son of the manse, but brought up to enjoy much freedom of thought, and encouraged, with his brothers and sisters, to look upon his father and mother as companions. The latter was a very remarkable woman who left her impress on him throughout his life. The stipend of a Congregational minister in a Tyneside village was but meagre, and father always attributed his wonderful ability to ferret out from the daily papers just those things which mattered, to having had to recount to his father, when he got back from New- castle in the evening, all the leading news items he had seen in the paper he was able to get the loan of in town.


He was gifted with a truly marvellous memory, although he used to say it was ruined during the Bulgarian agitation which he led whilst editing the Northern Echo, by the attempt to remember addresses of three or four hundred helpers in the cause. After he had finished his leader and notes he used to sit down and address copies of the paper to enthusiastic workers all over Great Britain , without ever referring to an address book. He may have “ruined” his memory, as he said, but most people would consider themselves well equipped with a tithe of such ruins. I remember well during the height of the Boer War his speaking at one of the debating societies in the Temple. The hostile audience was composed of keen, budding lawyers, with a sprinkling of Q.C.’s, and he was challenged constantly to substantiate his facts. The way in which he did so amazed his audience; not once could he be tripped up. In many instances he even gave his opponents the actual page as well as the title and date of the Blue Book in which they would find his authority. He had no notes to refer to, he seldom needed any, and as he left the hall, despite the fact that at that time he was one of the most execrated men in public life, his opponents could not but cheer him to the echo.


He was taught by his father at home until he reached his teens, when he was sent to Silcoates, at Wakefield , a boarding-school for ministers’ sons. He had an exceedingly bad time there at first, and vowed that did he ever have children they should never be sent to boarding-school. He used to be pulled across the playground on his back by the hair of his head, and experienced other similar uncomfortable attentions until his tormentors found that he was plucky to the backbone. He does not appear to have achieved much distinction in study, but earned the reputation on the cricket field of never funking, though his legs were black and blue through keeping wicket to fast bowling without any pads. He introduced over-arm bowling into Silcoates, and lost the first match in which he did so, because the umpire no-balled him each time he bowled with his hand above his shoulder!


After two years he returned to Newcastle and entered the storehouse of a merchant, who traded chiefly with Russia , with no prospect except to rise to clerk from office-boy. He began to write for different papers, and tried for prizes offered for essays, but only once did he achieve success. I have often wondered whether any of those editors who “turned down” the copy of the un- known office-boy came to the great journalist for advice in later years! The prize he did win was a silver watch for an essay on his favourite hero, Oliver Cromwell. This watch he always cherished and would never exchange for a gold one. Its fate was curious. In 1900 he made his famous tour round Europe , interviewing Emperors and Kings. I accompanied him on that occasion. We left Rome after a strenuous week, en route for Paris , and changed trains at the French frontier. We then discovered that he must have left his watch in the sleeping-car. Fortunately I remembered the number of the carriage, and telegraphed to Rome about it. We spent the evening with Baron de Coubertin — of Olympic fame — in his villa on the Riviera , and arranged to have the watch, if found, sent on to him. Now comes the irony of the thing. The watch was found, and reached him safely. He despatched it registered to London , and that was the last seen or heard of it!


Even in early days father fully appreciated the power of the Press. He wrote letters to the local paper about a plague spot in Howdon, accurately described as “clarty gutter.” Having done this he put into practice a custom he followed ever after. He saw that the paper containing his letter reached those people who ought to move in the matter. After you have written something certain people ought to read, see that they have it thrust upon them, was with him a great doctrine, and much of the success following his articles he attributed to this. The clearing of “clarty gutter” was, I think, his first successful effort for the welfare of the community at large; others followed rapidly.


His principal ran for public office in Newcastle , and achieved considerable fame for the cleverness of his speeches. No one knew that they had been written for him by his office-boy! Soon father’s articles began to be accepted, the first, I think, by the Sheffield Independent, and ere long he was writing regularly for the Northern Echo. He received no pay for these articles, which were sufficiently brilliant to be used constantly as leaders in that paper, but they brought him the offer of the actual editorship of the Northern Echo when he was 22. He had therefore the extraordinary experience of starting at the top of the tree without ever having to go through the drudgery of a newspaper office. His wonderful ability of getting hold of the essentials immediately enabled him on this occasion, as on so many others when far greater issues were at stake, to come through triumphantly. His political articles speedily drew Mr. Gladstone’s attention, but after the proprietor had once induced him to attend a local ball in order to write it up, he vowed that never again would he risk offending all his lady readers. Father’s ideas of describing a dress were amusing, to say the least; in fact, he seldom noticed what people wore. A very sore point, I believe, to many who hoped to impress him by their toilettes after he had become famous.


My earliest recollection of my father is characteristic of him. It is of driving in our little pony trap with two Salvation Army lasses from our home al Granny Hill [Grainey Hill] to Darlington , father and the two of them singing at the top of their voices, “We’ll Roll the Old Chariot Along,” a performance which caused immense joy to the ragged urchins who pursued us. It was entirely typical of him to be helping these two girls. They were having a pretty horrible time of it, “storming” Darlington , therefore he rushed to the rescue. In those days the Salvation Army was being persecuted most vigorously and those who stood up for its soldiers came in for a fair share themselves. My father ever championed the oppressed and battled for those who had none to help them. This assault by the Salvation lasses on Darlington brought father and General Booth together for the first time, a connection which lasted throughout the rest of their lives, and which was of untold good to countless thousands the world over. The beginning of the friendship arose out of a letter father sent the General, up- braiding him for allowing two frail girls to attempt such a [H]erculean task in the slums of the northern city. “If,” he said, “they die from the strain — and one of them is consumptive — you should be tried for manslaughter!” To which the General replied: “You would never make a general, for a successful commander must not hesitate to sacrifice his soldiers if thereby the fortress is won.” Father did much for the lasses at Darlington, and ever after always held out a helping hand to any Salvation soldier he came across.


We had a good deal of ground round our house, which was a mile away from its neighbour and several from Darlington . Although I was a very small boy when we left it for London , I can still remember the joyous times we used to have with father when the hay was cut, and how he used to show us the wonders of nature, never allowing us to touch a bird’s nest, but encouraging us to find as many of them as possible.   He used to ride a pony called “Jessie” down every night to his office in Darlington , and return in the early hours of the morning. He had an utter disregard for convention in any shape or form, and he used to tell with glee how when, owing to a bad fall, this pony had to be shot, he invited the doctor and one or two other friends to dinner and regaled them on horse without their discovering the fact! I believe some of them never forgave him for it, though.


We used to look forward to thunderstorms, because then he took us all out into the porch and we were keen to count the interval between flash and clap to tell the distance the storm was away. This he did with all of us save my youngest sister, who has not now the same joy in a thunderstorm that he inculcated into us. The only other memory I have of Darlington in which he finds place, was an episode which occurred in chapel. We went regularly to the Congregational Church, of which body he was a devout member all his life, and occupied the front pew in the gallery. Father, although physically immensely strong, had rather a weak back, which was the cause of his liking to “sit on his shoulders,” to quote the late Edmund Garrett’s witty description of his chief. In order to assume his favourite position in church, father used to prop himself up by putting his knees against the front of the gallery beneath the hymn-board. On one occasion the pressure was too great, and the congregation was scandalised to see, and hear, two of the front boards in the gallery suddenly crack outwards! Father always attended chapel regularly, morning and evening, to the end, and sang with a whole-hearted vigour good to hear, although, alas! the mellow and sonorous voice, when raised in song, was usually hopelessly out of tune!