Journalist William Stead Exposed Victorian Hypocrisy
For all its moral rectitude on the surface, there was a seamy side to Victorian London. William Thomas Stead worked to expose this to public view and paid for his crusade with a spell in prison.
A Journalist With Passion
William Stead was born in 1849 and took up the journalistic trade in 1870 by contributing to a start-up newspaper called The Northern Echo. The publishers liked what they saw and appointed Stead to edit the paper in 1871, even though he was only 22 and had no experience running a daily.
He used the newspaper’s platform to campaign for social justice and political reform. He called it a “glorious opportunity of attacking the devil.”
He favoured sensational stories and is sometimes regarded as the person who invented investigative journalism. Others have named him, in a less complimentary way, as the “father of tabloid journalism.” His methods sometimes took him outside the boundaries of ethical behaviour, such as hiring private investigators to gather dirt on his targets.
In the absence of provable facts, he was quite happy to publish rumours.
His writing and campaigning caught the attention of the London newspapers and he was invited to take the job of assistant editor of The Pall Mall Gazette.
In 1883, he took over as editor when his predecessor, John Morley, was elected to Parliament. The Gazette was a journal “written by gentlemen for gentlemen” and Stead aimed to shake things up a bit.
The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon
He shook them up spectacularly in July 1885, when he wrote a three-part series about child prostitution in London.
He went undercover in the poverty-stricken East End of London to expose the sordid trade that supplied teenage virgins for the entertainment of wealthy men.
He drew his title from an Ancient Athenian legend. After a disastrous military adventure, Athens was required to send a tribute to the victor, Crete. Every nine years the tribute was paid in the form 14 virgins, seven female and seven male. They were selected at random by lot. On arrival in Crete, the children were thrown into the Labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur monster or permanently enslaved by it.
In the opening article in the series on July 6 Stead wrote “This very night in London, and every night, year in and year out, not seven maidens only, but many times seven, selected almost as much by chance as those who in the Athenian market-place drew lots as to which should be flung into the Cretan labyrinth, will be offered up as the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.”
The Purchase of Eliza Armstrong
The make his point about the lurid business of procuring maidens for sex, Stead arranged to buy the virginity of a 13-year-old girl.
He recruited the help of the Salvation Army whose people worked with those euphemistically referred to as “fallen women.” For most, prostitution was not a choice but the only alternative for many women to the miserable conditions of the workhouse or starvation.
Stead’s helpers might have come from a Dickensian central casting, if there had been such an outfit at the time. Rebecca Jarrett was a brothel keeper who had reformed her ways and now worked with the Sally Ann. She still had her contacts in the sex trade and called on the services of Sampson Jacques, a pimp and procurer Madame Louise Maurez (or Mourez).
These two unsavoury characters took 13-year-old Eliza Armstrong into their “care,” having paid her “drunken, dissolute” mother (Northern Echo) Elizabeth, £5 (about £450 in today’s money).
The child having been bought, the pimp and procurer told Stead that what he referred to as a “dainty morsel” was ready for him.
It was, apparently, standard practice to knock the unfortunate girl about to lose her virginity woozy with chloroform.
Roy Hattersley (The Guardian) described what happened next: “Fortified with champagne - for no better reason than his belief that it was the seducer’s favourite drink - Stead tiptoed into her room. She awoke at once and he beat an embarrassed retreat.”
But that’s not quite how the scene played out in “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” As with many tabloid journalists who followed him, Stead chose to embellish the story. Here’s how it appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette:
“All was quiet and still. A few moments later the door opened and the purchaser entered. There was a brief silence and then a wild and piteous cry - not a loud shriek but a helpless startled scream like the bleat of a frightened lamb.”
Eliza was taken from the brothel by the Salvation Army unharmed. She was well looked after and had a fairly conventional life thereafter with marriage and children.
Stead had a genuine disgust of the child sex trade. He was revolted by the notion of wealthy men deflowering youngsters made vulnerable by their poverty. And, it was only wealthy men who could afford the tariff. The purchase of Eliza Armstrong was part of his campaign to get the age of consent raised from 13 to 16.
The demand for the newspaper shot up and the Gazette ran out of newsprint; second-hand copies sold for 12 times the cover price.
When the series started vast numbers of people were horrified, but for different reasons. There were those who reeled in shock that such a horrible business existed. There were others who did not appreciate William Stead scraping away at the veneer of Victorian respectability.
The St. James Gazette, perhaps miffed that they had missed the story, opined that it was “the vilest obscenity ever issued from a public press.”
The Times huffed and puffed that “the name of England has been blackened before the whole world, while the continent grinned with joyous delight.”
His old newspaper, The Northern Echo wrote in 2012 that “Some felt he had broken all the taboos by discussing sex in public; others felt he had sensationalised sex just to sell papers. More sinisterly, some Parliamentarians were aggrieved that he had ended their harmless fun.”
The nation’s dominant newsagent, W.H. Smith refused to sell Stead’s newspaper.
When Salvation Army members and young vendors began selling the paper on the street police started arresting them. Stead retorted that “Instead of waging war against street boys … let them prosecute us.” The justice system responded with a your-wish-is-our-command reaction and arrested William Stead and his accomplices.
The Trial of William Thomas Stead
The case turned against Stead because he was sloppy about details. At the time, a 13-year-old was still the property of her parents and only the mother’s agreement to sell Eliza was obtained. There was also some doubt as to what the mother believed was going to happen to her daughter; she may have been led to believe Eliza was going into service as a maid.
William Stead, Rebecca Jarrett and Louise Maurez were found guilty of abduction and procurement. The two women got six-month sentences, while Stead was given three months. He wore his imprisonment proudly as a symbol of his martyrdom.
Every year thereafter until his death, William Stead wore prison clothes on the anniversary of his conviction.
As a result of the articles, thousands of people protested in favour of the need to raise the age of consent. The leaders in Parliament became the followers of the people and rapidly passed a bill stating that the age of consent was now 16.
Funds were raised among the public to pay for Eliza to be trained for domestic service. A house was bought for her parents and her father was set up in business as a chimney sweep.
In March 1886, William Stead wrote a short story for The Pall Mall Gazette entitled How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid Atlantic, by a Survivor. The main character, Thompson, is a sailor aboard a liner on its maiden voyage to New York from Liverpool. He’s concerned there are not enough lifeboats to save everyone on board if there's trouble. Sure enough, the steamer collides with a sailboat and sinks; most of those aboard drown. In April 1912, William Stead was a passenger on the Royal Mail Steamship Titanic when she hit an iceberg on her maiden voyage to New York. Of the 2,200 people aboard, Stead was one of the 1,500 who were lost because the ship did not have enough lifeboats. By the sparse accounts available Stead acted heroically, helping women and children into lifeboats.
“LONDON’S lust annually uses up many thousands of women, who are literally killed and made away with – living sacrifices slain in the service of vice. All I ask is that those doomed to the house of evil shall not be trapped into it unwillingly, and that none shall be beguiled into the chamber of death before they are of an age to read the inscription above the portal: ‘All hope abandon ye who enter here’.”
William Thomas Stead
- “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon I: the Report of our Secret Commission.” W.T. Stead, The Pall Mall Gazette, July 1885.
- “July 6, 1885 --- Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” Tom Hughes, Victorian Calendar, June 29, 2011.
- “Skill for Scandal.” Roy Hattersley, The Guardian, October 16, 1999.
- “It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down: TITANIC Premonitions.” Fairweather Lewis, April 14, 2010.
- “WT Stead: Sensationalist or a Saint?” Chris Lloyd, Northern Echo, April 10, 2012.