William Stead, the son of a Congregational minister, was born in Embleton on 5th July 1849. William spent his childhood at Howden. Educated at home by his father, William grew up with strong views on religion. He spent two years at Silcoates School (1861-3), near Wakefield, but at the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a merchant in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Encouraged by his friend, John Copleston, he became a journalist. In April 1871 he succeeded Copleston as editor Darlington Northern Echo. Two years later, on 10th June 1873, he married a childhood friend, Emma Lucy Wilson (1849–1932). Over the next few years they had four sons and two daughters.
Stead was a strict Puritan who favoured social reform. He declared soon after becoming editor of the newspaper, "the Press is the greatest agency for influencing public opinion in the world" and that "the true and only lever by which thrones and governments could be shaken and the masses of the people raised". Stead successfully made the Darlington Northern Echo the most influential voice of Nonconformity in the North of England. His newspaper supported several causes including universal education, votes for women, repeal of the Contagious Acts and Irish Home Rule.
Stead was also a strong supporter of the Salvation Army and the Liberal Party. He later admitted: "When I was editing the Northern Echo I was a thorough-going Gladstonian of a very stalwart fighting kind, with a wholesome conviction that Tories were children of the Devil, and that the supreme duty of a Liberal journalist was to win as many seats as possible for the Liberal Party. We were very successful, and even in the dark hour of Conservatism in 1874 we achieved the almost unprecedented feat of carrying all the Durham seats for the Liberal Party."
His biographer, Joseph O. Baylen, has argued: "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, universal male and female suffrage, repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, ‘social purity’ in politics, collective bargaining in industrial relations, and the eight-hour working day for coal miners. He also advocated radical foreign policies, calling for international arbitration, home rule for Ireland, ‘sane’ British imperial expansion, self-determination for the Balkan Slav nationalities, an Anglo-Russian entente, and Anglo-American amity."
Stead moved to London in 1880 where John Morley employed him as a journalist on the Pall Mall Gazette. Three years later, Morley was elected to the House of Commons and Stead was promoted to editor. William Stead now had the opportunity of developing his ideas on journalism. Henry Massingham commented: "When Mr. Stead, who had served under Mr. Morley with a warm affection for his chief, with great ability, but with a constant sense of repression, succeeded to the editorship, the nature of the rebound can be measured by the difference in the character of the two men. Mr. Morley, old-fashioned, cold and formal in manner, though not at heart, keen and sensitive, but never exuberant; Mr. Stead, flamboyant, expansive, full of ideas transmuted by the rough and ready alchemy of an impressionable nature, a born subeditor, a brilliant, incisive, though not faultless writer, and a man of impetuously daring temperament - it would indeed be difficult to imagine a more sweeping mental and moral contrast."
The Pall Mall Gazette under the editorship of Stead, featured banner headlines, shorter paragraphs in a readable style, with considerable use of illustrations, diagrams and maps to break up the text. Stead published a high percentage of human interest stories and used the paper to campaign for various causes. He wrote in his private journal that he intended to "lead the leaders of our race in its upward striving, hearing new words of command in every cry of the sorrowing and goaded."
In 1883 the Pall Mall Gazette carried a series of articles on the subject of child prostitution. Stead now joined with Josephine Butler and Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army to expose what had become known as the white slave traffic. In July 1885 Stead purchased for £5, Eliza Armstrong, a thirteen year-old daughter of a chimney-sweep, to show how easy it was to procure young girls for prostitution. Stead published an account of his investigations in the Pall Mall Gazette entitled Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.
In September, William Stead and five others were charged with unlawfully kidnapping a minor and committed for trial at the Old Bailey. Stead was found guilty and was imprisoned for three months in Holloway Prison. As a result of the publicity that the Armstrong case generated, Parliament in 1885 passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act that raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen and strengthened existing legislation against prostitution.
Stead supported the growth of the trade union movement and played an important role in the success of the Matchgirls Strike in 1888. He condemned the action of the police after the Bloody Sunday affair. This brought him into conflict with William Gladstone and other members of the Liberal Party. However, he also upset the socialists who organized the demonstration. Henry M. Hyndmanlater admitted: "For myself, I never could stand the man. His mind, his ethic, his manners, his methods, alike revolted me. He was that not uncommon variety of self-conscious ascetic, a Puritan chock-full of guile, and in his way utterly unscrupulous. At one moment when we were at odds with the Tory Government, and it was quite possible serious trouble would come of it, Stead took, or pretended to take, our side, and undoubtedly did us some good. We all of us thought he meant what he said, and that in all good faith he did what he did.
Not a bit of it. The whole affair was carried on, so far as he was concerned, for the greater glory of himself and his newspaper. The night before the great meeting in Trafalgar Square he published an article obviously meant to do the Socialists as much harm as possible, because it might advertise his journal."
Henry Scott Holland disagreed completely: "He was a most lovable man. He had something of the child about him, which drew and endeared... The note of everything about him lay in his moral impetuosity. It carried all along. There was no power on earth that could check, or damp, or repress it. It had the invincible confidence of inspiration in it. It stormed its way through. And, then, it had at its service an intelligence that knew no reserves, and accepted no repression, and revelled in largeness of scope, and in audacities of venture, and in swiftness of action, and in defiant concentration of all its power upon the immediate purpose."
Stead also retained the support of others such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett: "Here was somebody writing with a pen touched with fire about the things that really mattered - clean living, and the protection of children from the deepest of wrongs; and the pen did not give the impression of being guided by sentimentalism: it was evidently wielded by a man who had made a careful study of facts, and was prepared to give battle to defend the right. I do not think I ever heard his name till everybody heard it in 1885, when all London - and, indeed, all the world - rang with the shameless and cruel traffic for immoral purposes in little children, exposed for the first time in the Pall Mall Gazette. This traffic could have been, and ought to have been, stopped by law; but the Bill dealing adequately with these horrors, though it had been passed more than once through the House of Lords, had been, session after session, talked out, counted out, and blocked out in the House of Commons. It was counted out no more after Mr. Stead carried out his plan of insisting that all the world should know that these devilish things were of common, everyday occurrence in a so-called Christian country."
Stead helped Annie Besant to form the Law and Liberty League and used the Pall Mall Gazette to try and save Florence Maybrick and Mildred Langworthy from the gallows. He also took up the case of Elizabeth Cass. Stead was also a strong supporter of women's rights. A good friend of Annie Besant, Josephine Butler and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Stead was proud of the fact that he was the first editor to employ women on the same pay as men.
Stead also took a deep interest in exploring different ways to reduce poverty in Britain. He campaigned against the Poor Law, advocated old age pensions and supported the charity work of the Salvation Army. In 1890 Stead helped William Booth to write In Darkest England and the Way Out.
Stead left the Pall Mall Gazette in January, 1890, and established the Review of Reviews. As his biographer, Joseph O. Baylen, pointed out: "Established in a brief partnership with George Newnes, which was soon to be superseded by a loan from the Salvation Army and a subvention from Cecil Rhodes, the journal was a highly successful venture, with counterparts quickly instituted by Stead in the United States (1891) and Australia (1892). In the Review of Reviews, as in the Pall Mall Gazette, he advocated the union of English-speaking peoples, the expansion and federation of the British empire, Irish home rule, and the maintenance of morality in government and politics."
Stead worked hard for an end to the arms race and was fully committed to the principle of arbitration and to the International Court of Justice. In 1899 he advocated an end to conflict with South Africa and as a result of his membership of the Stop the War Committee and his special periodical, War Against War in South Africa, Stead was accused of being pro-Boer.
Stead attempted to establish a morning newspaper in 1904 but this ended in failure and brought him to the brink of bankruptcy, from which he was rescued by the generosity of several friends. He continued to work as a journalist and reported on the Russian Revolution of 1905.
In 1906 Emmeline Pankhurst sent Annie Kenney to meet Stead. According to Fran Abrams: "Perhaps Emmeline knew of Stead's fondness for young girls, which Sylvia experienced too. On one occasion Annie had to appeal to Emmeline to ask him not to kiss her when she went to his office. But Annie liked Stead, and he quickly became a father figure. Before their first meeting was over she was sitting on the arm of his chair, telling him all about her life. He responded by telling her she must come to him if she was ever lonely or in trouble. Later he even let her use a room in his house in Smith Square to rest during Westminster lobbies and demonstrations, and he lent her £25 to help her organise her first big London meeting." Annie became very close to Stead and used to spend time with him at his house on Hayling Island in Hampshire. In one article Stead argued that Annie Kenney was the new Josephine Butler.
In 1912 William Stead was asked to speak at a international conference on world peace and international arbitration at Carnegie Hall. Stead accepted and decided to travel to America on the Titanic. It was later reported that he made no attempt to get into the final lifeboats and was last seen standing upright on the deck in prayer. Henry Scott Holland commented: "It added a strange thrill to the horror of the ocean-agony to hear that W. T. Stead had gone down to his death in the silent depths of those icy waters. Such an end became him. He belonged to the sudden and supreme hours, when all that man has is at stake. He understood the vehement, the spasmodic. He was at home in heroic moments of storm and stress, in the daring ventures of the human spirit."