Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W T Stead, Britain’s First Investigative Journalist

By W Sydney Robinson

From the publisher’s website: A major work by a brilliant young biographer, Muckraker details the tenacity and verve of one of Victorian Britain’s most compelling characters. Credited with pioneering investigative reporting, W. T. Stead made a career of ‘muckraking’: revealing horri­fic practices in the hope of shocking authorities into reform. As the editor of the Northern Echo, he won the admiration of the Liberal statesman William Gladstone for his fierce denunciation of the Conservative government; at the helm of London’s most influential evening paper, the Pall Mall Gazette, he launched the career-de­fining ‘Maiden Tribute’ campaign. To expose the scandal of child prostitution, Stead abducted thirteen-year-old Eliza Armstrong (thought by many to be the inspiration behind Eliza Doolittle, from friend George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion), thrusting him into a life of notoriety.

Labelled a madman in later life for dabbling in the occult, W. T. Stead conducted his life with an invincible zeal right up until his tragic demise aboard the Titanic. Revealing a man full of curious eccentricities, W. Sydney Robinson charts the remarkable rise and fall of a true Fleet Street legend in this enthralling biography


Muckraker. The Robson Press, May 2012. ISBN13: 978-1849542944

Reviewed for the SPR by: Tom Ruffles


I

Timed to coincide with the centenary of W T Stead’s death on the Titanic, W Sydney Robinson’s biography tells the story of his complex life and career as a self-promoting editor and investigative journalist.  Stead was energetic and prolific, packing an astonishing amount into his life, and this is an entertaining and lively, though by no means definitive, portrait.

William Thomas Stead was born in Northumberland in1849.  His father was a Presbyterian minister, and Stead was moulded by this non-conformist background.  He felt that he had a moral purpose in life, and combined devout belief in a very personal God (always referring to Him as the “Senior Partner”) with indignation about injustice and a sense of personal mission to rectify it.  This reformist zeal mixed ambition with a thick skin and no sense of personal embarrassment.  Robinson brings out his eccentricities: as a child he was nicknamed “Queer Bill” as he was careless of dress and had a habit of running anywhere.  He was, by his own account, considered “daft”, and he retained odd habits throughout his life.  Yet he was taken seriously by monarchs and politicians, ready to overlook his personal defects.

In his early years he was extremely successful, thanks to his energy and supreme self-confidence, famously elevating himself above the Prince of Wales in claiming to have “the best position in the Empire”.  He began on Darlington’s Northern Echo, of which he was editor at 22, and even in London, running the Pall Mall Gazette, had the air of an outsider.  As a newspaperman he was innovative, for example running the first 24-point headline, using sub-headings and maps, and promoting, though not creating, the newspaper interview (for which Stead relied on his memory, dictating the conversations afterwards).

As a result of these innovations and a willingness to take risks, the Gazette achieved an extraordinary influence.  Stead was a muckraker, certainly, but there was a lot of muck to rake.  Yet his own boots were not pristine.  He could be unscrupulous with the truth, ready to distort the facts to serve his purposes.  Stead is the perfect antidote to any notion that today’s scumbag tabloid journalists have somehow regressed from some higher standard to which their forebears adhered.  Opportunistic and often cavalier with details, he was flamboyant, but gauche and frequently naive in dealings with power-brokers.  He often over-estimated his capabilities as a key player, as much manipulated as manipulator.

He considered that ends justified the means, if they were his of course, but he was a loose cannon, frequently a cause of despair even to his sympathisers.  Sometimes he was a clear force for good, such as his 1876 exposé of Turkish atrocities against the Bulgarians, his fulminations against urban poverty, or the campaign for world peace that permitted him extensive foreign travel.  Often, the outcome was more ambiguous.  Like his mentor William Gladstone, he was obsessed with prostitution, and he is most famous (apart from the manner of his dying) for his 1885 exposure of child prostitution to expedite the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, by conspiring to purchase a 13-year old girl.

‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ highlighted in the most sensational way possible a very real social evil, while simultaneously exploiting and terrifying the girl and thoughtlessly creating chaos which led to several imprisonments, including his own.  And apart from the boom in the Pall Mall Gazette’s circulation he achieved, the results were mixed.  The age of consent was raised from 13 to 16, so while the means were dubious, the ends were of enduring value to subsequent generations of young girls; while an unintended consequence was the criminalisation of male homosexuality for the next 80 years.  Thus it can be difficult to determine the overall value of a moral crusade, even if Stead always regarded himself as a martyr to the cause, to the extent of annually marking the anniversary of his conviction by proudly wearing his prison uniform (it has always struck me as odd that he was allowed to keep it, and one wonders if he had a duplicate run up afterwards).

Whatever the verdict, the ‘Maiden Tribute’ campaign was the high point of his authority, after which the muckraking among the private lives of the rich and famous took precedence.  It is easy to accuse him of hypocrisy, campaigning about loose morals in others while not possessing particularly tight ones himself.  Perhaps more charitably, however, he could be characterised as a man of principle, who, possessing profound religious beliefs, was only too aware of his original sin, and therefore his excusable, if lamentable, failure to adhere to those principles.

Always ready to flout public opinion to make a point, he was brave in his opinions, however unpopular, for example his quixotic support for the enemy during the Second Boer War, though to indicate his inconsistency, this came after a close, and lucrative, relationship with arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes.  Unfortunately his journalistic ambition often outran his political and business sense.  As he grew older and more eccentric he lost his touch, and with it his powers of persuasion, even when his judgements were sound.  Eventually he became a figure of fun in the industry.  His death on the Titanic stopped the slide of his reputation before he could damage it further, while making him part of one of the biggest stories of the century.

 

II

From a psychical research point of view, Stead’s chief interest is his Spiritualism, and alas this is one area which Robinson treats rather lightly – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the focus on journalism indicated by his title.  There are, however, some references, and these can be set in the context of his character as drawn by Robinson, so the book is still useful to those whose primary interest is in Stead’s extensive involvement in the paranormal.

His outrageous flirtatiousness, present from youth, eventually morphed into a serious obsession with attractive young women, and Robinson refers to the “nubile staff” employed during his later years on the Review of Reviews, with hardly any other men in the office.  This, Robinson feels, linked to his interest in Spiritualism as his young acolytes competed for his attentions by demonstrating their psychic abilities, and persuading him that he possessed them as well.  They clearly imposed on him financially, so there may be some truth to this, his desire to associate with attractive females allowing them to play on his gullibility.  Marie Belloc said of him that he was a “credulous man, inclined to believe anything he was told”, to which Robinson appends, “– at least by a woman.”

Julia’s Bureau, a messaging service linking this world with the next which opened in early 1909, naturally gave him the opportunity to associate with women on intimate terms.  But Robinson sees the motivation for its inauguration not only in Stead’s fascination with the deceased journalist Julia Ames, the ostensible promoter of the scheme from the Other Side, but also in the death of his son Willie in December 1907.  Robinson also thinks that Stead’s interest in automatic writing gave him the means to express repressed emotions, and perhaps, less persuasively, betrayed symptoms of schizophrenia (though a case could be made that Stead's general behaviour exhibited symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome).

Of Stead’s children, apart from Willie there is not much sign.  Robinson says that the children “rebelled against him”, which is a considerable surprise given the warm, affectionate tone of his daughter Estelle’s hagiographic My Father: Personal and Spiritual Reminiscences (a good source of information on Stead’s automatic writing and on Julia’s Bureau), a book which Robertson has used as a key source.

Ada Goodrich Freer features heavily in his section on Stead’s Spiritualistic interests, though Robinson relies on Trevor Hall’s unsympathetic biography for his background.  He does give some information on their business arrangement in setting up Borderland, the first issue of which was dated July 1893.  Goodrich Freer was appointed co-editor on a salary of £200, and a promise that she would be given full ownership from 1900 (“once all initial risks and expenditure had been made by Stead”, Robinson acidly remarks).  As the magazine expired in 1897, the transfer never took place.

Apparently there was some gossip at the office that they were having an affair, which is why Goodrich Freer insisted that Borderland should have its own office in Pall Mall (rented at considerable expense) rather than share the one used by the Review of Reviews.  Intriguingly, a footnote adds that when Frederic Whyte was preparing his biography of Stead (1925), Estelle told him that “it would mean a great deal to my mother” if he were to omit any reference to Goodrich Freer.  She had taken the same line herself in My Father, which has no mention of the adventuress.  It is unclear whether the two actually had an affair – it seems unlikely – and similar ambiguity surrounds Stead’s close relationship with Annie Besant, trade unionist and later prominent Theosophist.

 

With its pacey narrative, Robinson gives a clear overview of Stead’s career and the forces that motivated him, and Muckraker will assist those who may have wondered why this Stead who went down on the Titanic was so noteworthy.  There is much more to say, though, especially about his Spiritualism, which was such a significant element of his life.  For all his flaws, it says something for Stead’s personality and achievements that he is remembered today, which is more than can be said for most other Victorian members of the Fourth Estate, and his name will live on after today’s hacks have filed their last copy.