William Thomas Stead  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

William Thomas Stead (July 5, 1849 - April 15, 1912) was an English journalist best remembered for the Eliza Armstrong case.


Early journalism

He attended Silcoates School in Wakefield, but was early apprenticed in a merchant's office at Newcastle-on-Tyne. He soon gravitated into journalism, and in 1871 became editor of the Darlington Northern Echo. In 1880 he went to London to be assistant editor of the Pall Mall Gazette under John Morley. When Morley was elected to Parliament, he became editor (1883-1889).

He made a feature of the Pall Mall extras, and his enterprise and originality exercised a potent influence on contemporary journalism and politics. He also introduced the interview, creating a new dimension in British journalism when he interviewed General Gordon in 1884. He distinguished himself for his vigorous handling of public affairs, and his brilliant modernity in the presentation of news. However he is also credited as originating the modern journalistic technique of creating a news event rather than just reporting it, as his most famous 'investigation', the Eliza Armstrong case was to demonstrate.

Eliza Armstrong case

In 1885, he entered upon a crusade against child prostitution by publishing a series of articles entitled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. In order to demonstrate the truth of his revelations, he arranged the 'purchase' of the thirteen-year-old daughter of a chimney sweep, Eliza Armstrong.

Though his action is thought to have furthered the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, it made his position on the paper impossible. In fact, his successful demonstration of the trade's existence led to his conviction and a three-month term of imprisonment at Coldbath Fields and Holloway prisons. He was convicted on grounds that he had failed to first secure permission for the "purchase" from the girl's father.

Further career

In 1886, he started a campaign against Sir Charles Dilke, 2nd Baronet over his nominal exoneration in the Crawford scandal. The campaign ultimately contributed to Dilke's misguided attempt to clear his name and consequent ruin.

On leaving the Pall Mall he founded the monthly Review of Reviews (1890), and his abundant energy and facile pen found scope in many other directions in journalism of an advanced humanitarian type.

He started cheap reprints (Penny Poets and Prose Classics, etc.), conducted a spiritualistic organ, called Borderland (1893-1897), in which he gave full play to his interest in psychical research; and became an enthusiastic supporter of the peace movement, and of many other movements, popular and unpopular, in which he impressed the public generally as an extreme visionary, though his practical energy was recognized by a considerable circle of admirers and pupils.

With all his unpopularity, and all the suspicion and opposition engendered by his methods, his personality remained a forceful one both in public and private life. He was an early imperialist dreamer, whose influence on Cecil Rhodes in South Africa remained of primary importance; and many politicians and statesmen, who on most subjects were completely at variance with his ideas, nevertheless owed something to them. Rhodes made him his confidant, and was inspired in his will by his suggestions; and Stead was intended to be one of Rhodes's executors. At the time of the Second Boer War he threw himself into the Boer cause and attacked the government with characteristic violence. His name was struck out (see his Last Will and Testament of C. J. Rhodes, 1902).

The number of his publications gradually became very large, as he wrote with facility and sensational fervour on all sorts of subjects, from The Truth about Russia (1888) to If Christ Came to Chicago! (1894), and from Mrs Booth (1900) to The Americanization of the World (1902).

Stead was a true pacifist and campaigner for peace. He extensively covered the Hague Peace Conference of 1899 and 1907 (for the last he printed a daily paper during the four month conference). He has a bust at the Peace Palace in The Hague. Stead was an Esperantist, and often supported the language in a monthly column in Review of Reviews.


Stead claimed to be in receipt of messages from the spirit-world, and to be able to produce automatic writing. His spirit contact was alleged to be a girl named Julia. In 1909 he established Julia's Bureau where inquirers could obtain information about the spirit world from a group of resident mediums. In many of his spiritualist lectures and writings Stead sketched pictures of ocean liners and himself drowning.

After his death, a group of his admirers founded a Spiritualist organization in Chicago, Illinois called the William T. Stead Memorial Center. The resident Pastor and Medium was Mrs. Cecil M. Cook. Most of the many books published by the Center were written by the Wisconsin-born journalist and author Lloyd Kenyon Jones.

Death on the Titanic

Stead boarded the RMS Titanic for a visit to America to take part in a peace congress at Carnegie Hall at the request of William Howard Taft. After the ship struck the iceberg, Stead helped several women and children into the lifeboats. After all the boats had gone, Stead went into the 1st Class Smoking Room, where he was last seen sitting in a leather chair and reading a book.

A later sighting of Stead, by survivor Philip Mock, has him clinging to a raft with John Jacob Astor IV."Their feet became frozen," reported Mock, "and they were compelled to release their hold. Both were drowned." This story was proven false because Astor was crushed to death when the first funnel fell.

Stead had made two possible premonitions concerning the Titanic. On 22 March 1886, he published an article named "How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor", where a steamer collides with another ship, with high loss of life due to lack of lifeboats. Stead had added "This is exactly what might take place and will take place if liners are sent to sea short of boats". In 1892, Stead published a story called From the Old World to the New, in which a White Star Line vessel, the Majestic, rescues survivors of another ship that collided with an iceberg.

Bar in his honour

A Lloyds No.1 bar named the William Stead was opened in Darlington on 21 August 2006 in honour of the Northern Echo writer (the Northern Echo building is directly opposite the bar). The bar features a plaque by the main entrance which commemorates the achievements of William Stead.

See also

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