W. T. Stead: The Man Who Foresaw His Own Death?

W. T. Stead and family. Photographer unknown, late 1880s

W. T. Stead and family. Photographer unknown, late 1880s [PD]

William Thomas Stead was born in 1849, the son of a Congregationalist minister and a campaigning reformist mother. At the unlikely age of twenty-two he was appointed as editor of the Northern Echo, a regional newspaper based in Darlington in the north of England. Seizing an opportunity afforded by the excellent railroad connections on offer at the local train station, he managed to expand the Echo's distribution to national levels. In 1880 he took a post in London as the assistant editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. Two years later he became its editor, and was responsible for many of the innovations—from simple things such as the use of maps to help illustrate a story's location, through to a number of rather questionable investigative techniques—that paved the way for the tabloids of today. He is probably best remembered now for the Eliza Armstrong case, the darkest scandal to hit London in 1885.

On Monday the 6th of July 1885 he published the first of four instalments of The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, a series of articles with sensationalist headings such as "The Violation of Virgins", "The Confessions of a Brothel-Keeper", "How Girls Were Bought and Ruined", and most notably "A Child of Thirteen Bought for £5", which told the story of "Lily", a thirteen-year-old virgin who was sold into prostitution by her alcoholic mother.

His purpose was simple. Together with colleagues from the Social Purity movement and the Salvation Army, Stead wanted the government to pass a bill raising the age of consent from thirteen, as it was then, to sixteen, as it is now. His aim was to stir up a public outcry that would force the reluctant government into doing this quickly. But the articles were so lurid that W. H. Smith & Sons, who had a monopoly on news stands, refused to distribute the paper, so volunteers from the Salvation Army took to the streets to sell it instead. Copies were in such high demand that fighting broke out in front of the Gazette's offices, and a trade sprang up in second-hand copies, which went for many times more than their original price.

W. T. Stead in prison uniform. Photographer unknown; 1885 or later

W. T. Stead in prison uniform. Photographer unknown; 1885 or later [PD]

The public's response was all that Stead could have wished for. Protest meetings were organized, thousands marched on Hyde Park, and in fewer than four weeks the bill was passed, but not before rival newspapers started unearthing the true facts about "Lily".

It turned out that Lily was in fact a girl called Eliza Armstrong and the reason Stead was aware of the case was because it was he and his colleagues who had instigated her purchase in the first place. They had engineered the whole scandal, acquiring Eliza through a reformed procuress (with the sole intention of proving that it could be done) and she was now living safely with their Salvation Army friends in France. She was reunited with her parents, who claimed that they thought she had been sold into domestic service, on August 24th.

Ordinary people and politicians alike were justifiably furious at having been manipulated in such a manner. Stead and his co-conspirators were brought to trial, and on the 10th of November he and two others were found guilty of abduction and procurement. Stead received three months imprisonment in Holloway and by all accounts was a model prisoner.

Taking his lead from Georgina Weldon (who for publicity purposes had done much the same thing), on his release Stead asked the prison governor if he could keep his prison uniform, and each year on November 10th he would put it on and wear it as a badge of honour to celebrate his great "victory".

According to Stead scholar Owen Mulpetre, Stead's interest in spiritualism was initially sparked by a colleague during his time at the Northern Echo, though he didn't attend a séance until his first year at the Gazette. It wasn't until after resigning from the paper in 1890 that he began experimenting with automatic writing (writing letters whilst in a trance state), claiming that in 1892 he'd achieved some success with a series of letters purporting to be from one Julia Ames, an American journalist of his acquaintance who had recently died. This was the beginning of an abiding and deeply-felt—though thoroughly commercial—interest in spiritualism. The following year he launched Borderland, a spiritualist quarterly magazine that ran for five years. In 1909 Stead set up the gloriously-conceived Julia's Bureau, an agency where the public could contact their loved ones through a group of resident mediums that assembled regularly each day.

The Titanic leaving Belfast. Photo by Robert John Welch (1859-1936), official photographer for Harland & Wolff, April 2nd 1912

The Titanic leaving Belfast. Photo by Robert John Welch (1859-1936), official photographer for Harland & Wolff, April 2nd 1912 [PD]

Stead often joked that he would die at the hands of a lynch-mob or by drowning. In 1892 he published a story entitled From the Old World to the New, in which the survivors from a ship that had collided with an iceberg are picked up mid-Atlantic by a conveniently passing vessel. Some people interpret this as Stead foretelling his own death. They may well be right. Twenty years later, on the 15th of April 1912, William Thomas Stead met his end on the ill-fated Titanic's maiden voyage. After helping the women and children into the lifeboats, he surrendered his life jacket to one of his fellow passengers. His body was never recovered.

I am indebted to the extraordinary The W.T. Stead Resource Site, lovingly curated by Stead scholar Owen Mulpetre (BA, Mphil), for my research in writing this post.

You'll find some further details about the Eliza Armstrong scandal in my article A Girl for £5 elswehere on this site.

Next chapter: The end of an era—a brave new century dawns