Stead, William Thomas (1849–1912)

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Stead, William Thomas (1849–1912)

Stead, William Thomas (1849–1912), British journalist. William Stead was a prolific early practitioner of expose journalism in England. As an editor and writer for such periodicals as the Pall Mall Gazette and his Review of Reviews, he uncovered social ills and agitated for reform. While his writings are generally criticized for their sensationalism, Stead had a profound effect on turn-of-the-century English politics and journalism.

Stead was born into a large family at Embleton Manse, Northumberland, England. His father, a Congregational minister, educated Stead and his siblings at home, instilling in them a love of literature and a reverence for the Bible. Stead also received two years of formal schooling at Silcoates, a school for clergymen's sons near Wakefield in West Yorkshire. At the age of twenty-one, after briefly working as a clerk to the Russian vice consul in Newcastle, Stead became the editor of the Darlington Northern Echo; he held this position from 1871 to 1880. In that period he succeeded in making the paper a powerful provincial voice of radical political views and Nonconformist religious sentiment.

In 1880 Stead was invited to London to work as assistant editor to John Morley on the Pall Mall Gazette. During his nine-year stay with the Gazette, Stead launched sensational, successful press campaigns to forge a strong Royal Navy, to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act, to raise the age of consent for girls from thirteen to sixteen years, and to ruin the political careers of Sir Charles W. Dilke and Charles Stewart Parnell, both of whom Stead considered immoral. Stead was also an outspoken proponent of home rule for Ireland, British Imperialism, and women's rights.

Under Stead's editorship the Pall Mall Gazette became one of the most powerful dailies in Great Britain. Throughout his career at the Gazette, Stead popularized the techniques of what Matthew Arnold would later term "the new journalism," making generous use of illustrations, headlines, and the personal interview, all of which were relatively new to British journalism at that time. In 1889 Stead left the Gazette to found his Review of Reviews, a monthly that featured summaries of news, essays, and stories drawn from various foreign and domestic periodicals and books. Stead used the Review, as he had the Gazette, as a personal pulpit from which he preached his numerous social and religious causes.

Stead's most notorious expose was The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, published serially in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 and compiled into pamphlet form later that year. In a four-day series of articles, Stead detailed in explicit terms the widespread and profitable activities of the vice underworld in London, focusing especially on child prostitution and white slavery. The series culminated with Stead's account of the purchase of a girl for five pounds, intended to demonstrate the ease with which children could be obtained by procurers.

The enormous public outcry against the articles intensified when it became apparent that this account was, as George Bernard Shaw later called it, a "put-up job" perpetrated by Stead himself. Enlisting the help of members of the Salvation Army, including the services of a converted procuress, Stead purchased thirteen-year-old Eliza Armstrong from her mother for five pounds, had Armstrong certified a virgin by a midwife, and installed the girl in a bordello. Before any harm could be done to the girl, she was removed from the house and sent to live with Salvationists in Paris. Stead and his cohorts were convicted on kidnapping charges; all received light sentences except Stead, who was made to serve three months in Coldbath Prison and Holloway Gaol.

Although his reputation and credibility were somewhat tarnished by the Maiden Tribute scandal, Stead continued to be a prominent critic of vice. Journeying to Chicago in 1894, he made a thorough investigation of the city's underworld, publishing a five hundred-page account of his findings titled If Christ Came to Chicago: A Plea for the Union of All Who Love in the Service of All Who Suffer. In 1895 Stead began publishing his "Masterpiece Library," a series of volumes aimed at making important literary works accessible to the working class and, especially, children. About one hundred pages each and profusely illustrated, the "Penny Poets," "Penny Novels," and "Books for the Bairns" series presented condensations or retellings of classics and biblical stories. The series sold over fourteen million copies during its more than thirty-year publication run.

In his efforts as a publisher of inexpensive pamphlet editions of his exposes and of the classics, Stead is regarded as a herald of the present era of cheap, accessible paperback books that place a diversity of reading matter within the reach of all classes of people. In later years Stead protested vociferously against the Boer War in South Africa; he also devoted himself increasingly to his interest in spiritualism, editing Borderland, a journal devoted to occultism, and publishing Letter from Julia, a volume of epistles that he claimed were transmitted to him by a deceased woman named Julia Ames. Stead died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

In Stead's time the general public reacted to his journalism with distaste for his methods but appreciation for his sincerity and, usually, the realization that his exposes were truthful despite their often sensational tone. His detractors attacked his lack of regard for Victorian standards of propriety, or, questioned the truthfulness of his work. Although they often deplored his opinions and way of presenting information, Stead's associates agreed that he was a rigorous truth-seeker who thoroughly researched and believed in everything he published. Present-day critics praise Stead for his revitalizing role in British journalism, asserting that his work represented the advent of an aggressive new generation of correspondents who would not only report about political and social issues but would also raise those issues, effectively claiming an active role in revealing corruption and engendering change. Such works as If Christ Came to Chicago are recognized as models of journalistic research, requiring months of probing information sources as various as tax rolls, crime-ridden locales, the testimony of relief workers, and the statements of prostitutes and street people. While his writings and the political issues he covered have been largely forgotten, Stead's influence continues to be felt by any reader who buys an inexpensive paperback book or picks up an illustrated, headline-punctuated newspaper.