Journalists' tribute to Titanic victim WT Stead

Yesterday the Chartered Institute of Journalists honoured 'Britain's first investigative journalist' – 100 years after WT Stead died on board RMS Titanic.

Although some 1,500 people lost their lives on the liner, Stead has been described as the most famous Englishman on board.

CioJ president Norman Bartlett was due yesterday to lay a wreath at the memorial to WT Stead on Victoria Embankment in London (which was paid for by the CIoJ) before a service at St Bride's, Fleet Street, commemorating the 'journalist of the century."

William Thomas Stead used journalism to campaign for social justice and against corruption and wrote: 'I felt the sacredness of the power placed in my hands to be used on behalf of the poor, the outcast and the oppressed."

He launched his journalistic career in 1870 at the Northern Daily Echo in Darlington, where – as editor from 1871 – he was determined to use the paper as an 'engine for social reform".

Stead's biographer, Joseph Baylen wrote: 'As an innovative and unconventional editor Stead made the Northern Echo one of the most renowned north country dailies by committing the paper to most of the agenda of the radical Liberals, the political leadership of Gladstone, and the religious and social endeavours of the Salvation Army. He also committed the Echo to advocating compulsory primary and secondary school education."

Stead railed against the Turks for putting down a Bulgarian rebellion in 1876 and denounced Prime Minister Disraeli and his 'whole tribe of eunuchs'for their inaction.

In 1880 Stead moved to London where he took up a position as assistant editor to John Morley at the Pall Mall Gazette before taking over as editor in 1883, when Morley was elected to parliament.

Writing in this month's CIoJ Journal, Robin Morgan said: 'His religious fervour had evolved into outright sensationalism and his exposure of slums that year resulted in new housing legislation, while a campaign to strengthen the Royal Navy resulted in a massively expensive refit of the fleet. His style was undeniably 20th century tabloid with banner headlines, short, readable paragraphs with considerable use of illustrations. He was the first to employ women journalists on equal pay."

Arguably Stead's most notable achievement came in 1885 when he exposed London's child sex trade with a story headlined – 'The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon". The story uncovered London's 'vice, stinking brothels, fiendish procures, drugs and padded rooms, where upper-class rakes could enjoy to the full the exclusive luxury of revelling in the cries of an immature child."

The ensuing public outcry led to the enactment of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill which, among other things, raised the age of consent from 13 to 16.

As part of Stead's expose he staged the purchase of Eliza Armstrong – a 13-year-old chimney sweep's daughter – to demonstrate how easily a child could be acquired.

However after failing to tell the child's father it was a stunt, Stead was arrested and sentenced to three months in Holloway for kidnapping – continuing to edit the Pall Mall Gazette from his cell.

In 1890 Stead left the Gazette and founded the highly successful Review of Reviews advocating the expansion of the Empire and Home Rule for Ireland, later supporting the Suffragettes of the early 1900s.

Stead became an advocate of Spiritualism in the 1880s and from 1893-7 ran the journal Borderland, which reported on ghosts, psychical experiments and messages from the dead.

In 1912 Stead was invited to attend a peace congress at Carnegie Hall in New York by US President William Howard Taft.

With Titanic about to make its maiden voyage, Stead opted for a first-class ticket for cabin C87 and set sail from Southampton on 10 April.

Stead spent much of his time on board with John Jacob Astor IV whose cousin William Waldorf Astor had owned the Pall Mall Gazette, and who bought The Observer in 1911.

When the boat struck the iceberg late on the night of 14 April the two men are said to have returned to their cabins, dressed and went up on deck. Astor had seen his wife off in a lifeboat and as the Titanic sank, the two men are thought to have jumped into the sea. According to one source, Astor and Stead were last seen clinging to a raft. Stead's body was never recovered.

The CIoJ's Morgan came up with the idea of holding yesterday's service.

He said: 'I was going through some old and dusty minute books from the Institute of Journalists and this flyer fell out from the pages. It was the appeal that the Institute had launched in 1912 after he died on the Titanic, appealing for shillings and half crowns, specifically to erect this memorial to him.

'It was the reputation and the respect he had from his peers at the time of his death that brought about the monument in the first place."

Picture caption: Descendants of the pioneering journalist W.T. Stead attended a CIoJ ceremony yesterday (Sunday) to mark the centenary of his death aboard the Titanic. CIoJ President Norman Bartlett (left) laid a wreath at Stead's memorial on the Victoria Embankment in London. Afterwards, members of the Stead family and the Institute went to St Bride's, the Journalists' Church in Fleet Street, to hear the Venerable David Meara pay tribute to Stead and his lasting legacy to British journalism in his sermon. Photo CAMILLA GREENWELL

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