W. T. Stead on his Childhood & Early Career

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W. T. Stead on his Childhood & Early Career (April 15, 1893)

Quoted in J. W. Robertson Scott, The Life and Death of a Newspaper, (1952), pp. 90-96

In 1850 we left Embleton, near Alnwick, where I was born (1849), for North Shields, whence we came to Howden, about five miles from Newcastle, on the north bank of the Tyne, where my father was Congregational minister until he died. I remember the Russian War, and how sorry I used to be for the horses that were killed. Somehow, I have been very sorry for horses, women and birds, but men have not touched me. When I was a child, and stories used to be told of carriage accidents and so forth, I never manifested the slightest interest in the fate of the people in the carriage, but I would cry bitterly if the horses broke their legs or got hurt.

Before 1864 I fell in love – with Queen Elizabeth. I remember distinctly feeling about her exactly what you would feel about a woman you are in love with; i.e. you are greatly interested to hear everything about her that you can, you believe that she is the peerless ideal of all women, and you regard all her enemies as your enemies. To this day I have never been able to get over the feeling of exultation that Mary, Queen of Scots, had her head cut off. I could not deny that Mary was better looking than Elizabeth, although I did occasionally deny even that in those days.

I think I was about eight when I first fell in love with a girl. I do not know anything about her except that they called her Lizzie, and that she wore a dimity apron, which was rather stiff. I remember the apron, because the first time I kissed her I had a battle for it. My sister, who valiantly assisted me, held her on one side, while I succeeded, in spite of vigorous scratches, on the other.

My first real serious love affair was when I was between ten and eleven, when I fell in love with a girl called Lydia, who had long golden curls, bright blue eyes and a beautiful white and red complexion. She was the belle of the village, and all the boys were crazy over her. Alas, she was two years older than I was, and when you are eleven, two years are a lot. I never dared to breathe my affection. In the wintertime I used to walk at a distance behind her, and put my feet into the footprints she had made in the snow, and feel inexpressibly happy. It was about this girl that the fight occurred to which Benjamin Waugh alludes, but, like most historians, he ignores that very vital consideration, precise truth, in order to make it appear that my battle was on behalf of her modesty or from general devotion to ideal virtue, whereas it was really inspired by a very devoted love for the girl herself.

Up to 1861, my sister and I got all our teaching from my father, who taught us Latin and to read French, although he did not know it at all as a spoken language. In 1861, I went to school at Silcoates, near Wakefield. It was a school for Congregational ministers’ sons, and I had not been there for two months before a remarkable revival of religion broke out in the school, and nearly all the boys, excepting half-a-dozen, professed to be converted. Some twenty, I think, joined the chapel, myself among the number. I had previous to that time had an occasional but very intense sense of my sinfulness, and I remember at one time sobbing so bitterly after I had gone to bed at the thought of my lost condition, that my mother had to come up, and I had to have a great deal of comforting before I could get to sleep. I was a little more than twelve when I joined the Congregational Church and I have remained a member of that Church ever since. The Congregationalists, as the heirs of Cromwell, Milton and the Pilgrim Fathers, and the representatives of extreme democracy, which knows neither male nor female, and makes the votes of the whole church the supreme and only authority in the Church, have always attracted me.

When I was at school I became an enthusiastic devotee of cricket, and also learnt the principles of self-government, for the boys were left very much to themselves.

I left school in 1863, and was apprenticed as office boy in the counting house of a merchant on the Quayside, Newcastle. We had an hour for dinner, during which I got in a good deal of reading. Then I competed for prizes in a boys’ paper. I got a prize for an essay on Oliver Cromwell. That essay was decisive for me, but I was obliged to cease reading as I feared I was going blind.

Then occurred what I always regard as my second conversion. From that time to 1869 I was intensely ambitious with a personal ambition that made me wish to make a name for myself. I wanted to write the history of the Puritan movement between where Froude left off and Macaulay began. That was the dream of my life for some years. When my eyes went bad, and I had the whole of Cromwell’s life, letters, and speeches fermenting in my head, it grew upon me that this dream of ambition was unworthy and un-Christian. I attempted to make out that I did not want to write this history so much to make a name for myself as to do justice to Cromwell, etc., which was largely true, but I gradually woke up to the conviction that all that was wrong and that I must put away all idea of ever writing the book, or of making a name for myself and simply set to work to labour for those who were around me. I set to work to organise social and religious agencies in the village, becoming a kind of lay curate to my father. My class of lads in the Sunday School was the social microcosm where I studied human nature and the organisation of society. I sometimes think that I have hardly gained a single idea since I left school. I have learned a great many more facts, and to know a great many more people, but my standpoint or outlook upon life, my conception of what is possible and of what ought to be done, in other words, my ideal and objective were fixed by the time I was twenty. I am today what I was in 1869.

I had in 1865 and 1868 written two leading articles, one on the assassination of President Lincoln, the other upon the disestablishment of the Irish Church. The former was published in a little Jarrow weekly paper, the other in the Sheffield Independent, but after that I did not write any more until 1870. My eyes got better, for the dimness of sight was caused simply by nervous exhaustion, but I never contemplated the possibility of depending for my living on my pen. My mother, whose shaping influence upon me was constant and abiding, had developed, I think from reading Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, a terror of any human being ever depending for the necessities of life upon literary work. When I built my castles in the air in this period, what I dreamt of was to be in a situation where I should get away from the office as early as possible and have my nights to myself. The position of a bank clerk, with £150 a year, and free to leave the bank between 4 and 5, seemed to me to come near the zenith of human felicity. When I was out of my apprenticeship I was engaged as junior clerk at £60 per annum in the office where I served my time.

The love affairs I had between 1861 and 1871 were numerous. But I should mention two things: one was that I fell in love with my present wife when I was about thirteen, in a romantic, distant kind of way, and that when I fell in love with her again I was about seventeen. As, however, she was of my own age I did not make much progress. School girls of seventeen are very difficult to get on with. One of the most useful love affairs that I ever had was when I was about eighteen. The sister of the village doctor came to stay with him. She was about twenty-eight or twenty-nine, and, finding the village rather dull, took a great deal of notice of me. She was the first woman outside my own family who ever said a civil word to me. My devotion to the other girls was one-sided.

I was a somewhat eccentric youth, who had an objection to wearing gloves, and always preferred to run, weekdays and Sundays, rather than to walk. The spectacle could be seen of the minister’s eldest son running home as soon as chapel was out, through the streets, which were thick with people leaving their respective places of worship, at as hard a gallop as his legs would carry him. It was thought in the village that I was a little daft, and the girls did not care to receive the attentions of a suitor who was more or less looked down upon and ridiculed by local public opinion. However, I did not care. I liked the lift that comes from running as hard as you can and like it to this day.

I remember very well telling Morley when I came to London, that if I felt cold any day I would not hesitate at running as hard as I could from one end of Pall Mall to the other, and noting with some amusement the expression that came over his face. It all recurred to me vividly yesterday, when after having had a rather exciting conversation with a friend whom I left at the corner of the Athenaeum Club, I ran up part of Regent Street full tilt, pretty much for the same reason as I suppose a mainspring uncoils when it has been wound too tight.

The doctor’s sister played and sang Scotch airs. I fell deeply in love with her. She was the first woman to whom I ever said the word “love”. I remember the occasion as well as if it were yesterday. It was between 11 and 12 o’clock. We were setting home. The stars were shining.

Up to that time it had always been more or less of an effort to me to write letters. I could write essays but I always preferred to talk than to write. After some months of very delicious experience, during which I was allowed to make love to her, she accepted the calf love of the hobbledehoy as a kind of pleasant homage which in no way interfered with her attachment to the naval officer to whom she was expecting to be married. She left our village for Edinburgh. I felt as if the sun had gone down in mid-heaven. Out of the misery of the parting I wrote her immense letters three times a week, and the exercise and the straining always to write my best did me more good than anything else. I often advise young people, who ask me what would be the best school in which to learn to write well, to fall in love with a clever woman a dozen years older than themselves, who lives at a distance from them, and can only be communicated with by writing. It is love that makes difficult things easy, and constrains you to do things that otherwise you would never attempt.

About 1870 I had very much laid upon my heart the misery of the vagrant class. I helped a very clever scoundrel. I gave him what I could, wrapped him up in an old coat, gave him an old bible, and was very friendly and brotherly to him. When he ascertained that he had got as much out of me as I had to give he vanished, carrying off with him all the portable property of his fellow lodgers in the lodging house where I had maintained him, but leaving behind him, as a souvenir, my poor little bible.

Thinking over this, I came to the conclusion that nothing could be done except by organisation, and, reading at that time some chance paragraph as to the way in which the Blackheath Mendicity Society had attempted to grapple with the evil, I wrote a letter to the Northern Daily Express advocating the formation of a Charity Organisation or Mendicity Society in Newcastle. The editor inserted it, and I sent round marked copies to leading people. Someone wrote a letter replying to mine. I replied, writing a longer letter which, to my great delight, the editor put in as a leading article. We got up a town’s meeting. My employer undertook to act as secretary on the understanding that I wrote his speeches for him, and the Charity Organisation Society of Newcastle came into being. I believe it is still in existence. I became consumed by a great zeal to establish Charity Organisation Societies everywhere.

About that time the Northern Echo of Darlington, a new halfpenny paper, had just appeared or was about to appear. I sent a leader to the editor which he put in and wrote a letter thanking me for my contribution. He inserted various sentences of his own from which I dissented, and I wrote to tell him so. This brought about a correspondence and he asked me to write more. That marks my initiation into journalism. I wrote occasional notes and leaders and a series of articles upon America and the Americans. The contribution that attracted most attention was about Christianity and Democracy, and the proprietor of the paper was much struck by it, and made inquiries as to the writer.

I was not paid for any of these contributions. After having written for about nine months I modestly ventured to suggest that, as I was writing about three leaders a week and half a dozen occasional notes, the labourer might be worthy of his hire. The editor replied saying that he was very sorry but that there was no fund available to pay for outside contributions, and that if I insisted on payment he would simply have to fall back upon his own unaided pen. He sent me a book by Miss Yonge with a shorthand inscription which I subsequently learnt was “May your soul be bound up in the bundle of life.”

I still had no intention of becoming a journalist, but one day I was much astonished by a visit of a stranger who turned out to be Mr. Hyslop Bell of the Northern Echo. After a few preliminary words, he offered me the editorship of the Echo at a salary of £150 a year. I asked if the editor was leaving. He said that he was going to go, and that his place had to be filled. I said I would take no further step until I had communicated with him, as he was my friend. Mr. Bell demurred a little but ultimately gave way. I wrote to the editor and told him of the offer that had been made and said that if it would in any way help him for me to refuse to entertain the idea, I would refuse. He said that it would not make any difference: that he was going anyway. Then came negotiations, in the course of which I once or twice refused to accept the proposal, but finally agreed under strict conditions. I was to have a fortnight’s holiday. I was not to be required to write anything that was opposed to my convictions. I was never to be required to do any Sunday work, and I was never to be expected to work later than 9 o’clock. But that arrangement didn’t last. I became editor of the Northern Echo in July 1871 and remained there until 1880, when I became assistant editor of the >Pall Mall Gazette under Morley.

In 1873 I married my wife, whom I had fallen in love with for the third time, and we have six children. When I was editing the Northern Echo, I was a thoroughgoing Gladstonian of the very stalwart fighting kind, with the conviction that the Tories were children of the devil, and that the supreme duty of a Liberal journalist was to win as many seats as possible for the Liberal Party. In the Northern Echo I preached just the same as I preach now, advocating Industrial Arbitration and Imperial extension, much to the horror of the good Quakers who, I believe, found the money with which the Echo was established. I also was a heretic on the subject of capital punishment, and was always a very strong opponent of Sir Wilfrid Lawson’s Permissive Bill. On the other hand I was from the first a vehement supporter of Mrs. Josephine Butler in her crusade against the Contagious Diseases Acts. I remember very well how, before I went into journalism at all, my mother used to go canvassing our village for signatures against those Acts. It was one of the subjects upon which I have always been quite mad. I am ready to allow anybody to discuss anything in any newspaper that I edit: they may deny the existence of God, or of the soul, they may blaspheme the angels and all the saints, they may maintain that I am the latest authentic incarnation of the devil; but the thing I have never allowed them to do was to say a word in favour of the C.D. Acts, or of any extension of the system which makes a woman the chattel and slave of the administration for the purpose of ministering to the passions of men.

It was curious that I failed to obtain extraneous literary employment all the time I was on the Northern Echo. I was shut down, and kept down, to my halfpenny paper. My efforts to get literary work or external engagements were total failures, and a very good thing it was for me too. What made me was the Bulgarian Atrocities, in the setting forth of which I took a leading part in the north of England. I was tremendously excited about it. I did not approach the Eastern Question with any of the Russophobia which affects so many minds. One of the first articles I wrote for the Echo was in favour of more reasonable relations with Russia. The part which I took in getting up public meetings and generally rousing the North against Lord Beaconsfield brought me in contact with Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Bright, and Mr. Forster, and afterwards with Madame Novikoff. For nearly three years I hardly published an issue in which I did not solemnly commit Lord Beaconsfield to the devil. I loathed Jingoism. The Electors’ Guide which I got out just before the Election had a great vogue and I am rather proud of it to this day as a sample of journalistic pemmican. I have never done anything so good in that way since.