Stead by Albert Shaw

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William T. Stead

Albert Shaw (The American Review of Reviews, June, 1912) pp. 689-698

When the pages of this Review were closed for the press last month it was practically certain that William T. Stead was not one of the rescued survivors of the Titanic. There was a bare chance that a few passengers had been picked up by sailing vessels of the fishing fleet off the banks of Newfoundland, but this faint hope was, after a few days, shown to be futile. Some days before the great ship sailed, Mr. Stead, in the course of a letter to the editor of this magazine, had written as follows:

The general feeling of unrest which is surging over the world just now is profoundly disquieting many minds, although it is raising high hopes in others. Mrs. Besant, with whom I am lunching to-day, is very confident that the signs of the times foreshadow the second coming of the Divine incarnation; while in the other camp there is a general conviction that the end of all things is near at hand. It is a mighty interesting time to live in, although somewhat trying to one’s nerves. We have got enough coal in our house to last another ten days, and then we are done. If things settle down into something like decent order here, I think I shall start for New York on the Titanic, which sails, if it can get coal enough, on April 10. It will be her first voyage, and the sea trip will do me good, and I shall have a chance of seeing you all for a few days. I should not remain more than a week in America.

The great coal strike, with its profound social and political bearings, had engaged Mr. Stead’s time and attention. No one grasped its significance more fully, and no one wrote about it with more complete knowledge or clearer understanding of its meaning than did he. His sympathies were strongly with the solution that was reached by act of Parliament. His interpretation of the meaning of that solution will be found in five pages from his pen that came to us in time for use in the May number of the Review, and which we published under the title: “A World’s Object Lesson from British Democracy.” England had put into her laws and social institutions two new principles,—namely, the minimum living wage as a human right, and the settlement of industrial deadlocks by government action when the whole public welfare is involved.

It was characteristic of Mr. Stead that he should have gloried in a solution that to his mind meant much for the improvement of general conditions. For forty years as a journalist and reformer he had been working with pen and voice for the upbuilding of the British democracy. And he had toiled with a completeness of faith and a single-minded intensity of conviction that made him even more the prophet and the preacher of righteousness than the great journalist. Yet no man of his time had a better knowledge of the art and method of journalism, and in the use of the press as the organ of modern democratic opinion he was almost, if not quite, unequaled.

Mr. Stead had begun his journalistic career while still very young. His father was a Congregationalist minister in the north of England, and the family income was too small to give the promising son a university education. But his father was able to give him something far better, for he inspired his boy with great intellectual, moral, and social ideals. A more eager mentality than that of young Stead could not have been found in the whole realm. His reading was well directed and voluminous, his memory was prodigious, and a certain amount of schooling sufficed to give some discipline and direction to his further work of self-education. As a means of self-support, while still in his teens he entered a business establishment, but constantly wrote for the local press. This writing was so original and strong that it led to his appointment as editor of a daily paper called the Northern Echo, published at Darlington, near Newcastle-on-Tyne, when he had scarcely more than entered upon his majority. This was in 1871, and his work at Darlington continued for nearly ten years. It was during this time that Mr. Gladstone aroused the conscience of England by his attacks upon Lord Beaconsfield’s government for its complacent attitude toward Turkey in the matter of the Bulgarian atrocities. Great leaders in church and state rallied about Mr. Gladstone, and no one wrote on behalf of the persecuted Bulgarian Christians more earnestly and brilliantly than W. T. Stead. His work brought him recognition, and he was regarded as a man with a future. His association with the leaders in this work that supported Russia in her campaign against Turkey, and that brought Mr. Gladstone back into power, led to his removal to London.

In 1880 Mr. John Morley, now Lord Morley, became editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, and Mr. Stead was invited to become his assistant editor. Mr. Morley, after two or three years, went into Parliament and gave up the editorship, Mr. Stead being appointed to succeed him. Whereupon great things happened in London journalism. Mr. Stead put amazing energy and fertility of resource into his editorial work, and surrounded himself with young men of talent and brilliancy who helped him make the paper the most alert and the most interesting in England, while also leading its contemporaries in intellectual and literary qualities. It was in those days that Mr. Stead’s sensational but well-informed work achieved the reconstruction of the British navy. The Pall Mall Gazette led in every field of moral, social, and political progress. It was the apostle of friendship rather than enmity between England and Russia. Its daring exposure of conditions under which young girls were forced into “white slavery” led to the enactment of better laws and to permanent social reforms, although Mr. Stead went to jail for three months on a technical charge resulting from methods used by his assistants to obtain evidence.

Meanwhile Mr. Stead had established interviewing as a feature of London journalism, and he was the most remarkable interviewer yet produced by the modern newspaper. His interest was so intense, his intelligence so alert, and his memory so remarkable, that he could transmute a conversation in which no notes were taken into an extended report of almost flawless accuracy. As an illustration of his methods at that time a personal incident may be related. The present writer, then a young Western editor, had been spending the greater part of the year 1888 in England, where his opportunities for observation and study had been due in large part to the friendship of Mr. Bryce—then in Parliament and now ambassador at Washington—and the late Sir Percy Bunting, editor of the Contemporary Review. Mr. Bryce and Mr. Bunting had repeatedly advised the young American that he must know Mr. Stead as the most active and potent personality in English journalism, even though, in their opinion, rather self-willed and prone at times to kick over the traces of the Liberal party, of which they were prominent members. An introduction to Mr. Stead lead to an immediate invitation to spend the night with him in his suburban home at Wimbledon. The first impression made by the Pall Mall editor was that of an astonishing vitality and energy. Though like a whirlwind in getting the last forms of his afternoon paper to press, he was effective and methodical in spite of the rapidity of his mental and physical movements.

Arriving at Wimbledon in the autumn twilight, Mr. Stead sprang into a swing suspended from the branch of a great tree behind the house, and swung himself violently back and forth till he had somewhat satisfied his need of exercise and fresh air. After dinner he led the visitor into a narration of what had seemed novel and important to an American familiar with the problems of American cities in the new undertakings that were transforming Glasgow. A great deal had been going on in Glasgow with which the rest of the world has now for twenty years been catching up. But at that time nobody had studied it or written anything about it. And the American editor had spent a number of weeks in a very minute study of the great Scotch town.

Two or three days later a package of proofs came in the mail to the American’s London lodgings. Mr. Stead had cast the conversation into the form of an interview on the social reforms of the municipality of Glasgow, which was so complete and accurate that only a few corrections were needed. It was so long that it was broken into two parts and appeared in successive numbers of the Pall Mall Gazette.

Although editor-in-chief of the paper, Mr. Stead gave his own personal touch to any and every part. He could make brilliant copy more rapidly, perhaps, than anyone else, —certainly than anyone else in England. He would brook no interference from the owners of the paper, and on that account he gave up the editorship at the beginning of the year 1890. He had already formed the conception of the Review of Reviews, and brought it out at once as an illustrated monthly having its own opinions but also reviewing the world’s more significant discussions and presenting a resume of the more important steps in the making of contemporary history. It was a successful periodical from the beginning, and Mr. Stead continued to edit it until his death. On the very day of the sinking of the Titanic his pen was busily engaged, and he was presumably writing an article to be mailed back for the next number of the Review on his arrival in New York.

It was upon Mr. Stead’s suggestion, and with his help, that the American Review of Reviews was founded by its present editor in the following year,—namely, early in 1891. Although wholly independent of each other in editorship and control, and quite different in method and appearance, there has been close and unbroken cooperation between Mr. Stead’s English Review and its American namesake. A great number of invaluable articles from his pen have appeared from time to time in this magazine, written especially to inform American readers about English or European personages and affairs.

Mr. Stead had never crossed the Atlantic until, in the autumn of 1893, he accepted an urgent invitation from his American colleague to come as his guest and see the great exposition at Chicago in its closing days. Mr. Stead at that time had been trying to start a daily newspaper in London, which he had been obliged to discontinue through lack of necessary financial support. This failure was a great disappointment to him, and the moment was one of fatigue and depression such as he had never experienced before. It is only when this is understood that the circumstances of his visit to Chicago can be fully appreciated. His fatigue was so great that he had given a promise not to speak in public during his entire visit.

But he had recently started in England a so-called “civic federation” movement, which had been productive of immediately useful results in a number of English cities and towns, where he had succeeded in bringing about a sort of informal union of all kinds of societies and forces that were working for the betterment of the community, so that their efforts might be mutually helpful. This idea had been taken up in the American Review of Reviews from Mr. Stead’s English work, and the result had been the beginnmgs of similar organizations in a number of American towns. The plan had appealed strongly to many people in Chicago who were anxious to have the exposition year followed by a well-considered and permanent program for social and moral progress. Mr. Stead was recognized as the apostle of such movements, and when called upon to expound his views he could not decline what seemed to him a call of duty and an opportunity for usefulness.

He spoke, not once, but many times. Chicago was to him a new and astounding phenomenon. In studying the conditions that needed reform, he was perhaps over-impressed, as a stranger must needs be, by novelty and contrast. He did not quite understand the wholesome forces that were dominant after all in American life; at any rate, he preferred to hold up to American communities a picture of their worst shortcomings. If he did not quite understand Chicago, it is true in like manner that Chicago did not quite understand him. He wrote a book, which he called “If Christ Came to Chicago.” Many good and sensitive Americans felt that this scathing exposure of vice and crime lacked balance and proportion. Mr. Stead, of course, would not for a moment have denied that an American might have gone at that time to London or Liverpool and found conditions of misery, poverty, brutality, sin, and crime far worse that those existing in Chicago. Generally speaking, it seems better for the visitor to fight evil in his owrn country, where he is responsible, than to expose it in another country at the very moment of his first landing upon its shores.

But Mr. Stead did the thing that he saw fit to do. He was a genius, a moral enthusiast, and a law unto himself. He had made his exposure of vice in London ten years before, upon his own sensational plan, and he had shocked many good people, but had accomplished valuable results. The Chicago visit caused him to be misunderstood in America; and it certainly diminished for a number of years the influence which his valuable political and social articles might otherwise have gained. Yet the great National Civic Federation grew out of his suggestions.

From the psychological standpoint, and quite apart from moral considerations, the intensity of Mr. Stead’s Chicago crusade was due to reaction from the failure of his daily paper, into which he had thrown himself for a number of weeks with an almost superhuman effort to achieve success by sheer brilliancy and personal power. He had started the paper on faith. He had informed the Lord that if He wished the daily paper to be a success He would have to see that it obtained either a divinely appointed financial backer, or else—and preferably—so large a public support that it would need no capital.

It was a splendid act of faith, and it ought to have succeeded. Mr. Stead’s attitude toward the Lord in this matter was very much like that of Senator Jonathan Bourne’s attitude toward the people of Oregon. Mr. Stead’s paper more than swallowed up in a few days the profits of the successful Review of Reviews, and failed; although the people of London ought to have had vision enough and generosity enough to have tided it over and made it all that it might readily have become, a very great and brilliant success.

A prophet is sometimes without honor, for the moment. Yet great progressives are also optimists by nature, and they recover their faith both in the Lord and in their fellow men. Mr. Stead, during the Chicago episode in 1893, felt that he did not want to go back to England at all. It took some firm arguing to show him that London must remain the only possible center for his activities and his worldwide interests and influence. He could not have adapted himself in detail to the institutions of any country but his own, although so ready were his sympathies and so large was his grasp that he could comprehend the principles and the spirit of national life in all countries. He had begun with a great gospel of the mission of the English-speaking world. He was a tremendous Imperialist. It was his expression of the meaning of England, and the influence of Anglo-American ideas, that had created in Cecil Rhodes the ambition to paint with British red as much as possible of the map of Africa.

So strongly committed had Mr. Stead been to the ideals of British rule in Africa, as elsewhere in the world, that many of his friends could never understand why, in later years, he opposed so intensely the objects of the Jameson raid and the subsequent war, that resulted in the conquering and absorption of the two little Boer republics. Mr. Stead would have been delighted with a voluntary federation of the different political entities of South Africa under the egis of the British flag. But he felt that Mr. Chamberlain, as colonial minister, had dealt unfairly with the Boers, and that the war was the result of a conspiracy in which the business affairs of the Chartered South African Company had been discreditably involved. His passion for justice was greater than his zeal for the British Empire. By a singular coincidence, Mr. Chamberlain had sent Alfred Milner, now Lord Milner, to be governor-general and British representative in Cape Colony, and Milner had been one of Mr. Stead’s editorial assistants in the early days of the Pall Mall Gazette. His attitude as a pro-Boer cost him many friendships and a considerable part of his popular support. Yet he hammered away with the same brilliancy and power that he had shown when opposing the Disraeli government and defending the Bulgarians in 1875. The enmities of that period are now forgotten, and the men whom he criticized have, in these last weeks, paid tribute to his sincerity and patriotism.

Mr. Stead’s last visit to the United States was in 1907, when he participated in the meetings of the Peace Congress. Nobody in these recent years had been more active and zealous than he for the cause of international harmony. He had written constantly upon various phases of this great question, and had for a time published a special periodical which he called War Against War. He had felt strongly that the action of Italy in attempting to seize Tripoli had been wholly unjustified; and he had been the leader in the attempts of the peace societies to secure a reference of the questions at issue to the Hague Tribunal.

His interest in this matter had led to his being invited by the Turkish Government to come to Constantinople and aid in getting the Turkish cause presented for international arbitration. The last interview between Mr. Stead and the present writer was in Paris, one day last October, Mr. Stead leaving that same evening by the Oriental Express for the Turkish capital. His energy and enthusiasm were as great as they had been in the 80s, when he was working for the maintenance of the British navy and a good understanding with Russia. His visit at Constantinople was intensely interesting. He was even invited to speak on international peace in the great mosque of San Sophia,—an opportunity which his sense of courtesy toward Mohammedan feelings led him to decline.

He had been for a number of years past an earnest worker for a good understanding between England and Germany, and he had been instrumental in bringing a large body of German editors to visit England. Yet he had never ceased to believe that until world conditions are much better than they are it would be necessary for England to maintain her naval supremacy. He was, moreover a firm believer in the wisdom of maintaining the navy of the United States as an agency of peace and a beneficent factor in the harmony and progress of the whole Western Hemisphere.

In private life Mr. Stead was always a man of the utmost simplicity. He was generous to everyone who seemed to be in distress, and his kindness was lavished in particular upon those who deserved it so little that nobody else would help them. For, as he always reasoned, deserving cases could usually find help and relief, while the really needy were the others. He was like an elder brother to his sons and daughters, and a delightful companion and loyal friend to those who had come into the circle of his life. He had always been a believer in extending to women every legal and political responsibility, as well as every right, that had been granted to men.

His great interest in psychic research and “occultism,” so called, is well known. Many of his friends had deplored his activities as a spiritualist, and doubtless in certain circles his influence was diminished by his editing, for some years, a periodical called Borderland and his publishing what he regarded as communications from the spirit world. As for those of us who have not given much study to these matters, and who are not influenced by the things which brought absolute conviction to Mr. Stead’s mind, it is at least permissible to be tolerant and to admit that some of our fellow men may be gifted with natures more sensitive than ours and more perfectly attuned to things not of this world.

Besides his incessant contributions to the daily press and to periodicals, Mr Stead wrote a very large number of books and brochures. While most of these were journalistic in their method, they were of extraordinary influence and power and of lucid and brilliant style. Three of his four sons were trained by him in practical journalism and the business of publishing. The eldest of these, his namesake, died several years ago. The other two, Alfred and Henry, will continue to carry on the Review of Reviews and the business of Stead’s Publishing House. Besides three sons, there survive Mrs. Stead and two daughters.