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He risked his liberty to expose evil

Harold Evans marvels at the bravery of W.T. Stead

September/October 2015

Sir Harold Evans, 87, is an editor and author. He edited the Sunday Times in Britain in its campaigning heyday and went on to be the founding editor of Condé Nast Traveler in America. W.T. Stead (1849-1912) was a British editor whose pioneering investigative journalism led to the raising of the age of consent to 16

When I became editor of the Northern Echo, the first halfpenny morning daily newspaper in England, in 1963, I inherited a big chair with worn leather embossing. I was assured it was the very chair occupied from 1871 to 1880 by the great crusading editor, pacifist and eventual spiritualist William Thomas Stead. I was shown the granite boulder outside where he tethered his horse, a symbol, said a bronzed tablet, of his courage and strength of character: “His Spirit Still Lives”.

This was intimidating. At 32, I thought I was young to have custody of a newspaper. But Stead was a stripling, ten years younger, and by the time he left to take over the Pall Mall Gazette in London, he was already renowned for rousing the country against the Ottoman Turks. He remains controversial. Stead was 36 when he was sentenced on November 10th 1885 to three months in prison, convicted of the abduction and indecent assault of a 13-year-old girl. His crime sounds horrible, but it was a landmark of investigative journalism. He risked his liberty and his reputation to expose an evil that Victorian England could not bear to face: child prostitution and sexual trafficking.

The age of consent in England was only 13. The House of Lords, in 1883, had passed a bill raising it to 16, but year after year a core of hypocritical predators talked it out in the Commons. Polite society avoided the topic, as the women and girls most preyed on were the poor. Asked to intervene in 1885 by church leaders and women’s groups, Stead did not confine himself to thundering editorials, but plunged into fact-finding. He took himself and his accomplices into the gas-lit haunts of London’s slave market, talking undercover with cops, procurers and brothel-keepers.

His investigation complete, he devised a scheme to dramatise his findings. With the endorsement of church leaders, he “bought” Eliza Armstrong from her mother for £5, saw her to bed in a house of ill fame, had her virginity established by a midwife before and after her one-night stay, then shipped her off to Paris in the care of the Salvation Army. Stead told the story in a series he headlined “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, running it over four days of pandemonium – people fought for copies. Rivals assailed his integrity, and the Home Office plotted retribution for a loophole in his drama: he had failed to get the permission of the drunken husband who’d abandoned Eliza’s family.

The details of his stunt certainly offended Victorian England, but only Stead’s sensationalism could have shaken the ghastly complacencies of the time. National indignation overwhelmed what he called “the mock-uttering oracles”, and both houses of Parliament rushed to raise the age of consent to 16.

The relevance of Stead was implicit through the Sunday Times investigation and campaign for the Thalidomide children. “Let the law take its course” remained the cruel mantra of successive governments, while several hundred families struggled for a decade without compensation for the terrible injuries inflicted on their children. We would never have won compensation for the victims if we had not risked skirting the law of contempt, inviting the wrath of the Establishment, just as Stead did. 

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