July 5 is the birthday of William Thomas Stead (1849-1912). I was flabbergasted to learn about this fascinating man only recently — flabbergasted not only because of how he died (I pride myself on being a fairly knowledgeable Titanic buff) but because of his significance while he lived. But better late than never!
Stead was widely regarded as the greatest newspaperman of his time. When he was only 22, he became the youngest newspaper editor in Britain (the paper was the Northern Echo). He’d only been a journalist for a year at the point. The ambitious Stead grew the paper to a national circulation, to the extent it was considered a factor in Gladstone’s election in 1880. That year he became assistant editor at the Pall Mall Gazette, one of the most powerful newspapers in the country, assuming full editorship in 1883.
Stead was known as a crusader. Matthew Arnold termed his revolutionary editing style “The New Journalism”; it was also nicknamed “Government by Journalism”. Stead was a pioneer of the idea that the news could effect outcomes; that news could impact public opinion in such a way to change laws to bring about social progress or other desirable goals. His most successful accomplishment along these lines became known as the Stead Act, a law made by Parliament to raise the age of sexual consent in Britain from 13 to 16, a result of his 1885 series of articles called The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. The circulation of the Gazette grew to such an extent during this series that the newspaper itself ran out of paper to print it on; copies were actually re-sold at inflated prices. (As a result of this story, for which he actually purchased a child in order to prove sexual slavery was taking place, he did three months in prison. That’s being rather too technical, don’t you think? He was actually fighting to stop the practice).
Stead was also interested in poverty, and matters of war and peace. He is said to have met with William Randolph Hearst a year prior to the Spanish American war to discuss his tactics and techniques. I learned about him when I encountered his fascinating 1901 book The Americanization of the World, in which he posits the interesting premise that Great Britain and America should merge, or re-join. With their combined empires (America had recently acquired former Spanish colonies), the two nations would undeniably rule most of the planet. Typical of the liberals at the time, Stead’s attitude toward the darker peoples of the world was one of benevolent paternalism. I think he actually uses Kipling’s phrase “The White Man’s Burden” in the book. Thus he is okay with empire, so long as the objective is the well-being of those being “protected”. Time has since disabused most enlightened people of that fallacious, pie-eyed outlook.
Stead left the Gazette in 1889 to found two new periodicals: The Review of Reviews (a news magazine) and Borderland, a spiritualist quarterly (he was a prominent and vocal devotee).
In 1912, he was travelling to New York on the Titanic to take part in a Peace Conference. The ironies of his dying in this manner are multiple: One: who better to have covered the story? Had he survived, the reportage would have been incredible. And had he not taken the trip at all, his magazine would have covered it. In fact, he had previously published an article about the issue of ocean liners having insufficient life boats! Also: the idea of a prominent spiritualist dying in this manner is bound to bear fruit, and it finally did. Ten years after he died, Stead’s daughter claimed to have spoken to him with the assistance of a medium. The resulting “revelations” were published as the book The Blue Island: Experiences of a New Arrival Beyond the Veil. And so you see, the ultimate irony is, perhaps he did report on the sinking, after all…IF you believe…
Today he is memorialized in New York with the plaque in Central Park, near 91st Street and Fifth Avenue: