In the past few years, amateur paedophile hunters have rarely been far from the headlines of Britain’s tabloid newspapers. ‘The nation is in the grip of an extraordinary phenomenon involving possibly thousands of have-a-go investigators,’ said The Daily Mail in June last year. Sometimes caught on the wrong side of the law, ‘perv-snarers’ (The Sun) have been prosecuted for blackmail or for making wrongful accusations leading to the suicide of the individual they targeted. Some have even been accused of child abuse themselves.
From the icy depths of the North Atlantic where his body lies, Victorian newspaper editor, W T Stead might raise a wry smile at these headlines. For not only is he regarded as the ‘father’ of tabloid journalism, his own notorious attempt to expose a child prostitution ring backfired spectacularly and landed him in gaol.
William Thomas Stead (1849 – 1912) grew up in Howdon near Newcastle upon Tyne where his father was the Presbyterian minister. Later in life, Stead would describe himself as ‘a humble Tynesider,’ but this reflected his hatred of London elites more than the lowliness of his own origins. The Stead children grew up in a comfortable if austere home where little interrupted the scripture-focused home-schooling by their father. Young William was not academic but full of confidence and energy. Through persistence and a burning sense of his own destiny, he ingratiated himself with influential newspaper men in the North East and at 22 was put in charge of the Northern Echo to become the youngest newspaper editor in Britain.
Here, Stead honed his skills as a journalist and his taste for iconoclasm. Whilst rival publications were essentially vehicles for leader writers, the Northern Echo was packed full of local, national and international news in a tiny typeface. Later, Stead became known for his radical use of large fonts. His headline ‘TOO LATE!’ (on the failure to relieve General Gordon in Khartoum) was the first ever to use 24 point type. Stead declared that the purpose of a daily newspaper, ‘while keeping the public informed about everything that needs improvement…should be at once lively, amusing and newsy.’
At the Northern Echo, campaigning also became the heart of Stead’s journalism. The paper was notorious for its graphic coverage of ‘Bulgarian atrocities’ and for its campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts which coerced suspected prostitutes into examination and treatment for venereal disease. This campaign combined Stead’s hatred of inequality and his questionable fascination with the ‘evil of prostitution,’ and it brought Stead into contact with the social reformer Josephine Butler, a connection that would later become crucial to his fate.
After almost a decade in Darlington, Stead moved his growing family to London for a job at the Pall Mall Gazette (or PMG) becoming editor in 1883. His first campaign against the squalid living conditions of the poor helped to transform the staid gentleman’s periodical into a popular daily. By 1885 Stead, always restless and zealous, was on the look out for a more spectacular cause.
I came across ‘The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon’ whilst researching my novel The Conviction of Cora Burns. Searching for an appropriate time-frame for my fictional narrative as well as a crucial plot-point, I read about Stead’s crusade and the subsequent court case. I then realised that I had found one of those historical jigsaw pieces that make the novelist’s inter-weaving of fact and fiction so satisfying.
In 1885, the Criminal Law Amendment Bill that proposed raising the age of female sexual consent from 13, was failing make headway in parliament. This bill had been discussed in both houses for a number of years but in a strange parallel with modern bills against ‘upskirting’ and female genital mutilation, it had been frustrated by a few MPs who claimed to be protecting constitutional rights. Stead railed against the ‘debauched sinners’ within parliament who were using ‘feudal privilege’ to ‘corrupt the daughters of the poor.’ He had no doubt that the ruling classes were fuelling a proliferation of London brothels that exploited children, although proving this was rather harder. With a further abortive reading of the bill in May 1885, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
The plan, put simply, was to purchase an under-age virgin. Stead did his best to befriend brothel-keepers, even renting a room off the Strand for use at any time of the day or night. He confided to his mistress, ‘I go to brothels every day & drink & swear & talk like a fiend,’ but he was able only to prove that the cost of sleeping with a very young woman, (not a child) was between £10 and £20. More radical steps were needed.
Here Stead’s connection with Josephine Butler, and through her to Salvation Army’s Bramwell Booth, became invaluable. With their help, a thirteen-year old girl was found in the slums of Marylebone who might be ‘procured’ for cash from her ‘desperate’ parents. The reality of Eliza Armstrong’s family situation was rather more complicated. Her mother was initially reluctant to let Eliza go into service with an apparently respectable wife of a commercial traveller but she relented before any money changed hands. Poor Eliza was then whisked away and subjected to a forcible examination of her virginity. She was later drugged with chloroform and taken to the south of France. Stead, who had watched this deeply unethical ‘investigative journalism’ from the side-lines, was cock-a-hoop. His subsequent ‘Maiden Tribute’ articles with sub-headings like; ‘A Child of 13 Bought for £5’ and ‘I Order Five Virgins,’ could not be printed fast enough; crowds wanting copies thronged the street outside the PMG offices.
Inevitably, the whole scam fell apart when news of Eliza’s whereabouts got back to her parents. Stead had been intercepting Eliza’s letters home but unwisely printed extracts of them in the PMG which the Armstrongs’ neighbours then read. Stead and Booth were put on trial for abduction at the Old Bailey in November 1885. Booth was acquitted but Stead was found guilty and sentenced to three months in Coldbath Fields gaol. After his initial outrage at being prosecuted at all, Stead served his sentence gleefully because the public sensation surrounding his ‘Maiden Tribute’ had resulted in the urgent passing of Criminal Law Amendment Bill into law. The Act raised the age of female sexual consent to16 where it has remained ever since. Stead, in celebration of his self-styled triumph, would ever afterwards wear his prisoner’s uniform on 10thNovember, the anniversary of his conviction.
Stead’s appetite for journalism never waned and his death at the age of 62 was tragically newsworthy. Because, when the iceberg was struck, Stead was one of the few people on the deck of RMS Titanic. Heroically, he gave his life jacket to a fellow passenger and helped others into the scarce life boats. He was last seen, silent and meditative on the doomed ship’s deck, perhaps regretful that he could not report this final scoop nor live to see the gargantuan newspaper headlines that would report the disaster, and his own demise.
The details of Eliza Armstrong’s subsequent life are unknown. She is thought however to be immortalised as Pygmalion’s Eliza Doolittle. During Stead’s trial, the young George Bernard Shaw was one of the few in Fleet Street to stick up for Stead’s dubious methods. Stead himself, perhaps like some of today’s ‘paedophile hunters,’ never had any doubt that the ends had justified his means.
(This article first appeared in HISTORIA magazine)