Out & About …

… on the North York Moors, or wherever I happen to be.

W.T. Stead and the birth of tabloid journalism

On this day, April 10th, 1912, the luxurious liner Titanic embarked on its maiden voyage from Berth 44 at the White Star Line dock in Southampton, with the destination of New York. A total of 920 passengers were on board, comprising 179 First-Class, 247 Second-Class, and 494 Third-Class passengers.

Among the First-Class passengers was William Thomas Stead, better known as just W.T. Stead, a journalist who was born in Embleton, Northumberland. Even though he isn’t a household name now, he was once a celebrated figure. Stead’s father was a fervent preacher and Stead himself started his career as a clerk in a shipping company. However, his true passion lay in becoming a journalist.

He began by writing highfaluting articles and sending them off to newspapers all over Northern England, including the Northern Echo, which was established on 1st January, 1870. In the following month, Stead’s first article was published in that paper. Later that year, at the young age of 22, Stead was appointed editor. He had never been to Darlington before and, at first, he was unsure about joining the paper, having been raised in Northumberland.

Despite his initial hesitation, he did become the editor, using his position to publicly criticise anyone he didn’t like, especially those who identified as Conservatives. He went on to become a pioneering journalist, being the first to introduce the tabloid style of journalism and headlines that we see in newspapers today. He also began to interview ordinary working-class individuals instead of just focusing on grandiose politicians.

In 1874, he achieved his first political victory. He passionately supported the Liberal party and his efforts resulted in all 13 seats in County Durham being won by Liberal MPs, which was especially noteworthy as it went against the national trend. The election was won by the Conservatives, and as a result, Benjamin Disraeli became the new Prime Minister while William Gladstone was left to retire in disappointment.

After this success, he moved to London where he became the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. This newspaper was a precursor to the London Evening Standard and gave him a national platform to express his opinions. He referred to this platform as his “pulpit” from which he could “attack the devil“.

The devil Stead chose to tackle first was incredibly controversial — child prostitution. He claimed that thousands of working-class children were being forced into brothels, where they were abused by members of the upper classes. He was the first social reformer to take a stand on this issue and collected evidence by visiting the brothels in London. Stead famously wrote that he felt as though he was living in hell.

This is when Stead became really controversial, because, with the help of the Salvation Army, he bought a 13 year old girl called Eliza Armstrong for £3 in cash from her drunken, dissolute mother. He took Eliza to a doctor, who intimately examined her and said that she was a virgin. This made her price in the brothel much higher, and so Stead gave the mother another £2. So £5 in total.

Eliza was taken to a brothel, where she was undressed and prepared for bed for her first customer. As was customary, a handkerchief impregnated with chloroform was placed over face to make her woozy and to dull the pain of what the first customer was about to do to her. That first “customer” was Stead himself. This is what he later wrote:

“A few moments later the door opened, and the purchaser entered the bedroom. He closed and locked the door. There was a brief silence. And then there rose a wild and piteous cry–not a loud shriek, but a helpless, startled scream like the bleat of a frightened lamb. And the child’s voice was heard crying, in accents of terror, ‘There’s a man in the room! Take me home; oh, take me home!’ “

Stead intentionally ended his narrative at that point, leaving the reader to imagine the worst possible scenario for the 13-year-old girl. However, the reality of the situation was not as appalling as it may seem. By bringing Eliza with him to the brothel and witnessing her being put to work, Stead had successfully proved that it was indeed possible to purchase a girl from a working-class family and force her into this line of work without any repercussions. This highlighted the grave injustice and lack of protection for vulnerable individuals in society.

Stead fled London with Eliza and found refuge at a Salvation Army safe house in Paris. He began writing an exposé about the dark and corrupt activities of London’s streets. This extraordinary piece was published over the course of five days in his newspaper, The Pall Mall Gazette. Stead titled it ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon‘, drawing inspiration from Greek mythology, specifically the minotaur who lived in the middle of the labyrinth in Babylon. The minotaur was only satisfied when innocent virgins were sacrificed to it every morning, which Stead used as an analogy to describe the situation in London. To make the article more accessible to all readers, Stead included attention-grabbing crossheads written in a tabloid style such as “Strapping Girls Down” and “The Violation of Virgins“.

The serialization of the story in the newspaper was a huge success. In fact, it was so popular that by the fifth day, the printer’s ink supply had run out in London. To ensure that they could print the final day’s edition, Stead had to make arrangements to transport large barrels of ink on the East Coast mainline train to London.

When WH Smith saw the scandalous headlines, they promptly refused to sell the newspaper and deemed it distasteful due to its pornographic content. However, banning a newspaper for being provocative and risqué tends to generate interest and curiosity, prompting people to rush out and buy it. As a result, there was a chaotic scene of people attempting to obtain the forbidden newspaper, which was deemed too explicit for public consumption.

Stead’s approach was to hold “indignation meetings“, something he learned to do in Darlington up in the North East. He organized one of these meetings in Hyde Park, where a staggering 250,000 people showed up to listen to his passionate ranting and raving about the abuse of young children. His message was clear: the Government needed to take action to stop this horrific practice.

The Government responded swiftly by passing the Criminal Law Amendment Act through Parliament. This new law increased the age of consent from 13 to 16, a provision that remains in effect to this day. While Stead believed that this law did not entirely solve the problem, he argued that it was a step in the right direction. By raising the age of consent, girls of 16 were now in a better position to make informed career choices. In contrast, he had previously exposed how girls as young as 13 could be sold by their own mothers into brothels, and no one could do anything to prevent it. This landmark legislation is widely regarded as the world’s first Child Protection Act.

Stead made a lot of enemies because of his actions. Some MPs and members of the House of Lords profited from the sex trade and others indulged in their fantasies at certain places. In addition, Mrs Armstrong drank all the money that Stead had given her, which caused Mr Armstrong to be angry, also he appeared negatively in the headlines. As a result, he went to the police and claimed that Stead had taken his daughter without his permission and had taken her to a foreign country. Armstrong went with the British police to Paris to find Eliza, but he was not the best witness since he succumbed to the Parisian ladies of the night, got drunk and disorderly twice while looking for his daughter and was arrested by the Gendarmerie. Nonetheless, he eventually testified that Stead had taken Eliza without his permission.

Stead was charged with abducting a girl under 14 years old and found guilty by the jury. The judge had stated that Stead’s intentions didn’t matter and the only thing that did matter was whether he had the father’s permission to take Eliza to Paris, which he did not have. Stead was sentenced to 9 weeks in prison doing hard labor.

Stead considered this as a success and a triumph – it was exactly what he had hoped for. He was a man who had willingly sacrificed his own freedom to rescue young girls from abusive establishments. On the anniversary of his imprisonment, November 15, 1885, he would don his convict’s uniform and wear it proudly as he walked to work. He did this to show off his bravery and dedication to his cause. He even walked through the streets of London and Chicago in his uniform, boldly displaying his sacrifice.

By the mid-1880s, Stead had become the most influential journalist in the British Empire. He was changing society’s values and morals in significant ways. He was responsible for the world’s first Child Protection Act, and his sensational headlines sold millions of newspapers. He championed various causes, including cleaning up Chicago and hosting the world’s first Peace Conference in the Hague. He advocated for women’s rights, imperialism, a United States of Europe, and even for everyone to speak Esperanto. His voice was heard globally, and he firmly believed in spiritualism.

The spiritualist movement saw Stead writing for spiritualist newspapers that were circulated around the world. In his columns, he often discussed ghosts that could physically touch human beings. He believed that if a ghost could touch someone, it proved that they could receive messages from beyond the grave.

In 1912, Stead had dinner with a spiritualist friend the night before he was due to travel to America on the Titanic. During their conversation, he shared that he felt there was a deeper purpose behind his journey that he did not yet understand. He believed that God had mapped out his journey, and that there was a greater reason for him being on board the Titanic.

Stead boarded the Titanic in Southampton and sent a postcard to his daughter when it docked in southern Ireland, expressing that something important was waiting for him. He awaited his “marching orders” and the nature of this work would be disclosed in good time. And so the ship set sail full steam ahead to New York, and oblivion.

There were 707 survivors from the disaster and such was Stead’s fame that many wrote him into their survival stories. He was reportedly playing cards with a well-known American actress, discussing the beauty of the approaching iceberg with a New York lawyer, and even receiving a spiritual message from beyond the grave warning him of the ship’s doomed fate. As the Titanic sank, Stead reputedly convinced the bandleader to play his favourite hymn, “Nearer My God To Be.” The last known witness, a survivor who escaped on the final lifeboat, saw Stead standing in silence on the deck, appearing to pray.

After his death, Stead supposedly communicated with spirits worldwide about his demise, stating that he was hit by a falling chimney. He spun increasingly sensational tales to each new spiritualist he contacted, and they eagerly sold their exclusive stories to newspapers, resulting in significant sales.

There is a contrived link with WT Stead to today’s featured image of Roseberry Topping. His brother, John Edward Stead, lived in Redcar and worked for  Bolckow Vaughan as a metallurgist. I am sure William would have visited his brother and both would have been familar with the iconic hill.






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