Alnwick, History Society

The Barbican of Alnwick Castle
The Barbican of Alnwick Castle

At its October meeting, Andy Griffin, a popular member of the Alnwick and District Local History Society, talked about WT Stead, who has been described as “the best newsman of his generation”, though many members of the British Establishment despised him because of his sensationalism.

William Thomas Stead, always known as WT, was born in Embleton in 1849. His father, William, was from Sheffield, and became minister to the Congregational Church in Embleton in 1844 as a young man.

In his five years at Embleton, William worked hard to instil his own philosophy of life – faith, duty, and a strict morality into the agricultural labourers of the village. He married Isabella Jobson in 1846, and they had nine children. WT was their second child.

When WT was a few months old, the family moved to Howdon-on-Tyne. William Stead educated his children himself, girls and boys together.

At 14, WT became a clerk at a merchant’s office. He began to write, and many articles and letters were published in the Northern Echo. Extraordinarily, with no appropriate experience, when the paper’s editor resigned in 1871, WT was invited to take over.

He was a great innovator: he introduced banner headlines, livelier writing, investigations into issues of the day, more space for sport and the arts, and new technology, which enabled WT to get a local paper to readers nationwide. He also found time to marry his childhood sweetheart, Emma Lucy Wilson, and they had six children.

The Northern Echo was a successful campaigning paper. Gladstone regarded its support as a major factor in his victory in the 1880 General Election. It supported Josephine Butler in her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act. But ambitious WT moved to London, to become assistant editor of the Pall Mall Gazette.

The PMG was losing money at the time, but he turned it round, becoming the Editor in 1883.

The best-known of the PMG’s campaigns was against the sale of girls, who were often as young as 13. They had to be certified as virgins, an unpleasant process. WT purchased Eliza Armstrong from her mother for £5, a considerable sum. He took her to a brothel to show how easy this was to do. She was not molested in any way, but there were repercussions. WT and his accomplices were charged with abduction, and he was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment. The campaign was successful, however, as, after dragging its feet on the issue for many years, the government raised the age of consent from 13 to 16.

WT left the Pall Mall Gazette, and founded the Review of Reviews in 1890. He was interested in spiritualism, and was a pacifist, calling for co-operation among nations as an antidote to war.

He called for a United States of Europe, and a high court of justice for all nations. He was present at the Hague Conference of 1907, and in 1912, he was invited by William Taft, the US President, to attend a peace congress.

He travelled in style to the US on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. It is said that he helped many women and children into lifeboats, and gave his lifejacket to a younger man, as the ship went down. It was generally believed that, had he lived, he would have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

The next meeting of the Society will be on November 24, at 7.30pm, at Bailiffgate Museum (doors open at 7pm), when Philip Deakin will be talking about the Chillingham Wild Cattle.