W.T. Stead’s Books for the Bairns

The title of this series immediately conjures up a Scottish image but in fact Books for the Bairns were published in England by an Englishman. W. T. Stead, philanthropist, pacifist, politician, psychic and journalist was born on July 5th 1849 at Embleton Manse near Alnwick. His early schooling was given by his father, a congregational minister who taught him Latin as a second language. At the age of twelve he went to Silcoates School near Wakefield and after two years he became an office boy in a merchant’s counting house on Quayside, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His main reading at that time was the Sporting Life until the Dick’s Penny Shakespeare came out and his eyes were opened to a new world of literature. His first writing effort to be accepted was an essay on Oliver Cromwell submitted to the Boy’s Own Magazine, under the pseudonym of W.T. Silcoates. For this he received the sum of one guinea to be spent on books published by the proprietor, S.O. Beeton. At the age of eighteen he published his first periodical, The Magazinctum, a journal of the Stead Family. This magazine, illustrated by many of his own pen sketches, was privately circulated. It lasted for five years.

In 1870, J. Hyslop Bell published the first halfpenny morning newspaper, The Northern Echo, at Darlington. Stead used this as a platform to broadcast his ideas for solving the problems of the unemployed and the poor. A few months later he was offered the editorship of this daily at a salary of £150 per annum, becoming the youngest editor in England at that time. Within ten years he made the Northern Echo “the most potent mouthpiece of Radicalism and the Nonconformist Conscience in the provinces”. (1) He supported Gladstone’s protest against the clamour for war against Russia, during the atrocity agitation of 1876 and his support was, in fact, a major factor in Gladstone’s victory in the Midlothian Election of 1880. In that same year, on the recommendation of Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain, he became assistant editor of the Pall Mall Gazette and within four years had succeeded John Morley as Editor. This was the beginning of the “New Journalism”, of which he was a pioneer. One innovative feature was that the interview became standard practice. Public campaigns were initiated, illustrated and written by the editor himself, and new subjects, such as housekeeping, literature and gossip columns, were introduced.


However Stead never forgot his early years and often said that if it had not been for the Penny Shakespeare or the availability of a cheap subscription library, he would never have known the world of journalism. He was renowned for his generosity to “lost” causes and to “damsels in distress” and his philanthropy was often misguided; yet some of his schemes were equal to those of the great social reformers.

One of the foremost public criticisms of the 1880’s was the fact that the London Press did not report the real horrors of the slums or the conditions of the poor. In October 1883 Stead promoted the anonymous pamphlet “The Bitter Cry of Outcast London” through the pages of the Pall Mall Gazette. So successful was his journalism that it practically brought about the setting up of Lord Salisbury’s Royal Commission on the Housing of the Poor, over and above making the Gazette one of the most popular journals of that period. However Stead’s most famous role in social reform was “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”.

In 1885 the Chamberlain of the City of London came to see Stead entreating him to assist in the passing of a Bill against Child Prostitution through the House of Commons. Juvenile prostitution had increased alarmingly and the law as it stood was powerless. At that time any child of thirteen and over was “judged legally competent to consent to her own seduction”. (2) Even worse was the fact that children under eight were not allowed to give evidence against their assailants because they were considered too young to understand the legal oath. The public had always closed their eyes to the fact that children could be bought from their parents and sold to rich men and to continental brothels. Stead, in disguise, went into “the lowest haunts of criminal vice and obtained too ample proof of the reality and extent of the evils complained of.” (3) To substantiate his exposure of the London underworld, Stead enlisted the reluctant assistance of a woman called Rebecca Jarrett who had been a procuress before joining the Salvation Army. She succeeded in obtaining thirteen-year-old Eliza Armstrong from her mother for the price of £3 with £2 to follow. The girl was installed in a brothel and when Stead arrived, he introduced himself and was permitted to enter Eliza’s room. Immediately afterwards a Salvation Army woman and a prominent London physician examined Eliza and she was then moved to a Salvation Army Hostel in Paris to escape publicity.

Stead then published in the Pall Mall Gazette, from the 6th July 1885 to the 12th July 1885, the Report of the Secret Commission into the Criminal Vice of London under the title of “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”. It was sensational journalism at its best and the country rose up in a flurry of moral indignation. The Criminal Law Amendment Bill, given up as hopeless just a few months previously, was passed into law as quickly as possible. It raised the age of consent to 16, allowed girls of any age to testify against procurers and finally increased penalties for both domestic and “white slavery”.

However, even Stead could not have foreseen a greater finale: Eliza’s mother suddenly decided she wanted her daughter back. It was disclosed that Rebecca Jarrett had failed to obtain the necessary legal consent of the father and in an even greater wave of publicity, Stead and his “accomplices” were judged guilty of abduction. (In fact, it was found out later that the child had been born out of wedlock and therefore the father had no legal rights over her anyway.)

Stead was sentenced to three months in prison and though his first three days were spent rather uncomfortably in Coldbath-in-the-Fields Prison, the rest of his time was spent in Holloway Jail, where he was given preferential treatment. As always he used his circumstances to his best advantage. He edited the Gazette from his cell showing pictures of the jail with his New Year’s greeting card and on his release published a threepenny pamphlet entitled My First Imprisonment. Thereafter, on each anniversary of his imprisonment, 10th November, he would parade through London wearing his prison clothes as a reminder to everyone of his triumph over evil.

Stead also will be remembered for his work on behalf of the British Navy. His famous series of articles, “The Truth about the Navy”, in the Pall Mall Gazette aroused such public fervour that within ten weeks the Gladstone government granted a £5.5 million supplement to strengthen the navy. Stead believed that “on the supremacy of the British Navy depends the peace of the whole world” (4) and that “it was not by the abandonment of force on the part of the advocates of law and of peace that anything could be done, but by the use of force in the defence of law and for the suppression of anarchy”. (5) His obsession that Britain should have a navy twice as large as Germany’s, led to his famous phrase “two keels to one”, which will always remain in navy parlance. Along with his advocacy of male and female compulsory conscription, his campaign strengthened naval defence at a most opportune time.

Stead had always been a Russophile and had always tried to reflect these views in the Pall Mall Gazette. In 1888 he went to Russia where he stayed with Leo Tolstoy and talked with Nicholas II about peace and liberty. During his absence he sent letters to be published in the Gazette. On his return he found these letters and articles had been edited and printed in small type and placed in such a way that they were unnoticed. In direct confrontation with the owner who was not keen to promote pro-Russian propaganda, Stead decided to reprint his writings on the front page and on account of his obstinacy, almost lost his job. In the end he took a reduction in his salary of £200 per annum.

In 1890 Stead left the Pall Mall Gazette and launched his own monthly journal, Review of Reviews. Through its pages he continued his campaign for social reform. He advertised lists of orphaned and abandoned children under the heading “Baby Adoption” and many found good homes. He was the instigator of the English-Speakers’ Correspondence Club and the Village Subscription Libraries. It was Stead’s idea to have boxes outside railway stations where newspapers and books could be thrown away to be distributed to hospitals, etc. He assisted greatly in the writing of General Booth’s famous book In Darkest England and The Way Out which outlined a scheme to employ men in towns and to transfer excess urban populations to rural parts of England and abroad.

In 1893, just after his first attempt to launch The Daily Paper which was never published because it was just not up to the standard of other well established papers, he crossed the Atlantic to visit the World’s Fair in Chicago. That November he arranged a conference in order to preach his beliefs to the Chicago public. It was a resounding success. Extending his stay considerably, he wrote and published, If Christ came to Chicago, a 500 page book costing fifty cents, in which he proclaimed that faith in Christ by every town-dweller would “lead directly to the civic and social regeneration of Chicago or any other great city”. (6) The book used all Stead’s ploys of sensational interviews and lurid descriptions of the disreputables, the degenerates, the “Boodlers” and also exposed mass corruption in the running of the city. In the hysteria that followed, he met all local Christian leaders and spoke with theologians, anarchists, gamblers, saloon keepers and the leaders of the Woman’s Christian Temperence Union in America. He organised a Civic Federation and realised a sum of $640,000 from Chicago citizens and supporters. With this money he appointed a band of 3,000 men, nicknamed “Stead’s Brigade”, to do major construction work in Chicago. He did manage to work alongside his chosen men for three hours, but unused to manual labour, he caught a chill. Thirty years later the establishment of a People’s Palace, a Labour Exchange, Sports Grounds, Theatres and an Art Institute, many miles of boulevards and acres of parks were attributed to Stead’s energetic work.


Spiritualism was an accepted pastime of the late nineteenth century. Bernard Shaw and Arthur Conan Doyle were among many names associated with such happenings. Julia Ames only met W. T. Stead twice and corresponded a few times with him in her lifetime but soon after she died in 1892, her close friend came to see Stead to ask if he could get in touch with her through Telepathic Auto-Handwriting. Stead describes this phenomenon: “By that I mean I can, after making my mind passive, place my pen on paper and my hand will write messages from friends at a distance; whether they are in the body or whether they have experienced the change called death makes no difference.” (7) He regularly received messages from both sides of the “world” which culminated in his book Letters from Julia; an enlarged edition was published in 1905 and 1914 with the title After Death. In 1894 Stead began one of his most controversial publications Borderland, a psychical quarterly. In his introduction he states that “what the Society for Psychical Research has done for a select few, Borderland aspires to do for the great public! In this age we are democratising everything and one of the last things to be democratised has been the study of the spook.” (8) Unfortunately most eminent scientists, theologians and journalists were scathing in their criticism. Professor James Giekie wrote “judging from the disastrous effect produced by occult phenomena on some people I have met, I am inclined to fear that the publication of your Borderland, however well intentioned, may tend to increase the population of our lunatic asylums.” (9) As always, Stead disregarded his critics and though the journal was discontinued in 1897, his “Borderland Subscription Library” remained popular.


In 1898 the Emperor of Russia issued his Peace Rescript, and Stead, who had always been a pacifist, launched his biggest campaign for World Peace using the Tsar as his spearhead. Stead travelled through most of Europe’s capitals gathering an international consensus of opinion and on his return he organised the Peace Crusade in St James’s Hall, London. During the next few months his crusades raised over £5000.

In his role as a pacifist, he published one of the first peace magazines, War Against War! A chronicle of the International Crusade of Peace, from 13th January-31st March 1899. As always, Stead wrote to the most celebrated names of his era and then published their messages of support in the paper. Such names as Andrew Carnegie, Earl Grey, Lord Rosebery and Gladstone were all featured. For one penny a week, subscribers were bombarded with sermons of peace from all over the world. The “Crusaders Picture Gallery” page had character sketches of Nicholas II and Count Leo Tolstoi among others. (An advertisement even proclaimed that “Neave’s Food” had been used for some time in the Russian Imperial Family!) Maps showed where meetings for the Crusade of Peace were being held and reports followed from each meeting. Descriptive accounts such as the effects of modern bullets and other related war wounds were shown in graphic detail. In every issue subscribers were lectured thus: “what are you going to do to help the cause of Peace? Have you done anything at all? Help in the house, at work? It is only upon such individual strenuous efforts that the hope of the world lies.” (10)

Stead visited Russia again before playing a prominent part in the International Peace Conference held at The Hague in 1899. Soon afterwards the outbreak of the Boer War in South Africa forced him to return to London. Fired with his success in Holland, Stead took the initiative in forming the famous Stop the War Committee. Mr. W.M. Crook, the editor of the Echo who had been forced to resign because of his pro-Boer views, Lloyd George and Keir Hardie were all members. Stead’s “Stop the War” campaign was doomed to failure but he was revered because of his courageous fight against English public opinion. His pro-Boer partiality also severed his long friendship with Cecil John Rhodes. (Previously Rhodes had made Stead an executor of his will, but now removed his name.)

During the years of the Boer War, 1899-1902, the Review of Reviews had lost many subscribers because of Stead’s views. Disregarding all these pointers, Stead again resurrected his Daily Paper. His idea was to “build up an organised living link for mutual co-operation for all kinds of social services” (11) and to give him “an opportunity of daily utterance in London’s own political affairs”. (12) It was issued at midday to catch those who did not buy a morning or evening paper but this was not popular. The first issue was late and the contents of the paper were not up to standard. Almost facing total bankruptcy, Stead had a complete nervous breakdown. His doctor recommended a complete rest and on his advice, Stead took a long voyage. Accompanied by his daughter Estelle, he went to South Africa to see the state of the country after the war and was welcomed by Dr. Jameson and Olive Schreiner. Unfortunately Stead had still not learnt discretion and caused a public outrage in South Africa and England when he described the Boers as heroes of the war and outlined a plan for a publication detailing their sufferings throughout the war. Stead laboured on regardless, presuming he was the saviour of the British Empire, but accomplishing little. He was forced to return to England to face the liquidation of his Daily Paper debts.

He devoted his last years to his International Peace Pilgrimage, attending conferences in New York and the Hague. In 1876 he had fought verbally against Turkey during the Bulgarian Atrocities, but in 1911 he fought with Turkey for arbitration, visiting the Sultan and Grand Vizier and impressing upon them the need for a policy of peace and reform. Funds ran out and without them, his inspiration for the Pilgrimage faded. In 1912 he received an invitation from the National Men and Women’s Religious Forward Movement to speak on World Peace on April 22nd at the Carnegie Hall in New York. He cabled back accepting the invitation with the words “I expect to leave by the Titanic on April 10th and hope I shall be back in London in May”. (13) Fifteen hundred lives were lost on the Titanic; W. T. Stead’s was one of them. Twenty six years previously, he had written an article in the Pall Mall Gazette, spectacularly describing the imaginary disaster of a modern liner which did not have enough lifeboats. Two days after his death, this article was reprinted. I am sure Stead would have approved of his sensational epitaph.


Stead was a prolific letter writer and followed this through by becoming the foremost publisher of paperbacks in the Victorian Age. He realised the gap in the book market and the gulf between the rich and poor, and decided to make books available to all men, women and children regardless of class. In this ambition, he succeeded admirably.

In 1895 he had established “The Review of Reviews Circulatory Library”; for £6 per annum any subscribing centre could obtain the loan of a box of fifty books (postage paid) from his office every quarter. The centre would then lend books to its subscribers at 2d per week or 5s per annum. Stead’s library was very different from others as it contained a large number of children’s books. At the same time he launched the “Masterpiece Library”, whose aim was to produce “within the compass of about a hundred clearly printed pages, the cream of the literature of the world”. (14) “Penny Poets” was the first series; its first title, a ninety-six page edition of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, sold 200,000 within four months. Board school teachers and public elementary schools were lavish in their praise and the press gave excellent reviews of the new series. H. W. Morley, the editor of the London Daily Chronicle, urged Stead to add a “Penny Novelists” series and in January 1896 Stead began the “Penny Popular Novels”.

Stead realised that if he was to succeed in his aim for books for everyone, he had to publish a series that would appeal to young children and be cheap enough for them to buy. He was aware that he would never have reached the pinnacle of success if books had not been made available to him at an early age. He was also anxious to preach his gospel of the true Christian way of life to the receptive minds of the young. Two months later, in March 1896, the first number of Books for the Bairns was published. Aesop’s Fables contained sixty-four pages with almost two hundred line drawings by the Irish artist Brinsley Le Fanu. These illustrations were meant to say in pictures what the child was as yet unable to read and within a year sales rose rapidly to 150,000 a month. The titles that were published (see bibliography below) were from a wide range of well-known classics. All reflected the Victorian moral principles: Christianity, devotion to the monarchy and goodwill to all.

Stead wrote a foreword to most of his Books for the Bairns. Some of these preludes make interesting reading. In number seven, Cinderella, he states that at that time, severe criticism was directed at fairy tales. He quotes the critics’ description of fairy tales as “pestilent stuff full of false science and erroneous views encouraging all sorts of superstition”. Stead counteracts this, by saying he wants to send his collection of fairy tales “to a hundred thousand households confident that good not evil would come from popularizing these delightful romances of childhood”. He concludes, “there have been many collections of fairy tales; they have been the Perquisite of the Rich but with Books for the Bairns, I will make them the Privilege of the Poor”. In More Nursery Rhymes, number nineteen, Stead states that he has made a small alteration in the rhyme of Mother Goose. Instead of calling the rogue to whom Jack sold his goose, “a rascally Jew”, he has changed it to “Screw, to avoid hurting the people who have been most cruelly used for nearly two thousand years”. Warming to his theme of racial prejudice in Fairy Tales from China, number fifty-two, he preaches, “I hope you may never grow up to despise other people because they are not like yourself: they are often better than you”. Even so, Stead’s description of negroes as “little darkies” and “curly-headed woolly pated blackies”, in the introduction to Old Brer Rabbit, number six, would certainly not be accepted in today’s language.

In The Enchanted Doll, number forty-nine, the message is “try to love the boy or girl you dislike most and crush the nasty feeling of grudging envy – for LOVE is the Good Fairy of Life”. In Gulliver’s Travels, number eleven, Stead describes Dean Swift as a man who uses his writings “to strike men and women and make them feel sometimes if they had been lashed in the face with a whip”. He goes on to say, “Swift’s objective was to hold up to men and women, a glass in which they could see all their weaknesses and so in the end despise their faults”. Introducing Brothers Grimm, number 123, Stead writes that “they only gathered up the stories of common poor folk, who had no books. Wise, great and rich men never cared to listen to such nonsense but these stories have done good to you and me and have brought mirth and joy into millions of homes”. He continues by asking his “Bairns” to “pass their books to the poor”.

On the subject of patriotism, in number thirty-six, Great Events in British History, he preaches “that in order to make life worth living for the millions, there must always be some who are ready to die for their fellow men”. Again in number forty-three, King Arthur, he says, “God grant that when you come to pass hence, you may have been like King Arthur, tender, brave and chivalrous, loving-hearted and just”. He describes Tom Thumb, number thirty-nine, as “a true-hearted son who cared more for his humble home and his loving mother than for all the splendours of the King’s Court”. On the appreciation of Mother Nature he encourages his “Bairns” to “always do to your pets what you would wish your parents to do to you” and in the Story of The Robins, number nine, his sermon is on the robbing of birds’ nests. In the Quest of the Golden Fleece, number 101, his introduction becomes rather awesome for the young when he explains that “though there are no real live fiery dragons living now, there are others in the shape of DISEASE, WAR, DRUNKENNESS and GAMBLING”. However, as the years passed fewer lectures appear in the Books for the Bairns as his involvement with world affairs grew. His sermons had found an international clientele and his aim was to reform the world.

In 1907, Stead brought out a new series of thirteen paperbacks entitled Collection Stead, a French edition of some of the most popular titles from the Books for the Bairns. In France the Books for the Bairns had been sold successfully to French schools for the teaching of English. Stead thought that using the French edition alongside the English edition would facilitate the teaching of the respective languages in both countries. All thirteen titles were translated into French by Mile. Latappy and were published in Paris, using the same illustrators and in the same format as their English counterparts. The cost of each number was twopence, post free, while schools were charged ten shillings per hundred including post and packing. In 1910 W. T. Stead made arrangements with the same French publisher in Paris to reissue the first thirteen titles again and to continue producing more French titles. Simultaneously they were printed in a French series entitled “Les Livres roses pour la jeunesse”: each title was given the same running number in both series. However, the First World War made it increasingly difficult to continue and though “Les Livres roses pour la jeunesse” carried on for a number of years, Collection Stead ended with number 191 in 1916. From 1915-1916, most titles dealt with war subjects and it is interesting to note that two of the titles, 150-151 La Guerre sur mer and La Guerre dans les airs correspond to War at Sea and War in the Air, the second and third titles of the Puffin Picture Book Series published in 1940 during the Second World War.

The “Penny Novels” and the Review of Reviews were phased out at the turn of the century but Books for the Bairns continued. In 1899, Stead made a successful appeal for benefactors to buy for the poorhouse children a set of fifty Books for the Bairns at nineteen shillings the set. When he died in 1912, the editorship was taken over by his daughter, Estelle. The series ended in 1920 with the final number 288, entitled The Story of Bent Pin, where it was stated that it was the last issue at present, but that all titles were still available by post from the “Stead Publishing House”. On 30th January 1923, Estelle Stead introduced the new Series of Books for the Bairns at twopence each. These were weekly titles with large coloured letters and figures on a white background. A different colour was used with each issue. At 8¼” x 5¼” they were larger than the first series which measured 7¼” x 4½”. However, when on 7th August 1923, they were discontinued with issue 28 entitled The Wonderful Ship, not even offers of free crystal wireless sets could attract customers. In 1926-27 Ernest Benn Ltd. reissued twenty-five titles at sixpence each and offered the remainder stock of Books for the Bairns at inflated prices which did not find many sales. Ernest Benn’s edition had an entirely different cover in a dull blue and was slightly bigger than the original. These also failed to capture the children’s imagination because by then other publishers had realised the lucrative market of children’s books. Though many publishers succeeded with hardback children’s books, it was not until 1940, when Allen Lane began the “Puffin” series, that W. T. Stead’s sales enterprise and instant success were ever matched in the paperback industry.

Copyright © 1987 Sally Wood Lamont M.B.E

Webmaster’s Note… This article was first published as “Biography of W.T. Stead”, in Sally Wood-Lamont’s, “W.T. Stead and his Books for the Bairns”, (Salvia Books, Edinburgh, 1987). My thanks to the author for permission to reproduce her work here.


1. Baylen, J.O., 'Stead's Penny "Masterpiece Library"', Journal of Popular Culture, 9(3), (1975), p. 710.
2. Robertson Scott, J.W., The Life and Death of a Newspaper, (London 1952), p. 126.
3. Ibid, p. 127
4. Stead, Estelle, My Father, (London 1913), p.112.
5. Whyte, Frederic, The Life of W.T. Stead, Volume I, (London 1925), p.155
6. Stead, W.T., If Christ came to Chicago, (London 1894), p.XIV.
7. Smith, W.S., "The Astounding William T. Stead", Christian Century, July 3rd,80,(1963),p.857.
8. Borderland, A Quarterly Review and Index, Volume 1(1), (July 1894), p.7.
9. Ibid,p.17.
10. War Against War! A Chronicle of the International Crusade of Peace, 4, (London Feb. 3rd 1899), p.49.
11. Whyte, Frederic, The Life of W.T. Stead, 2 vols, II, (London 1925), p.235.
12. Robertson Scott, J.W., The Life and Death of a Newspaper, (London 1952), p.158.
13. Whyte, Frederic, The Life of W.T. Stead, 2 vols, II,(London 1925), p.313.
14. Baylen, J.O., "Stead's Penny 'Masterpiece Library'", Journal of Popular Culture, 9(3), (1975), p.712.

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