A small group of people attended a wreath-laying ceremony arranged by the Chartered Institute of Journalists at the memorial to W.T Stead on Victoria Embankment in London before a service at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, commemorating the “journalist of the century.”
William Thomas Stead used journalism to campaign for social justice and against corruption and wrote: “I felt the sacredness of the power placed in my hands to be used on behalf of the poor, the outcast and the oppressed.”
He launched his journalistic career in 1870 at the Northern Daily Echo in Darlington, where – as editor from 1871 - he committed the Echo to advocating compulsory primary and secondary school education, denounced the Turks for putting down a Bulgarian rebellion in 1876 and derided Prime Minister Disraeli and his “whole tribe of eunuchs” for their inaction.
In 1880 Stead moved to London where in 1883 he became editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. There, he introduced banner headlines, short, readable paragraphs with considerable use of illustrations and was the first to employ women journalists on equal pay.
Arguably Stead’s most notable achievement came in 1885 when he exposed London’s child sex trade with a story headlined “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”. The story uncovered London's “vice, stinking brothels, fiendish procures, drugs and padded rooms, where upper-class rakes could enjoy to the full the exclusive luxury of revelling in the cries of an immature child.”
The ensuing public outcry led to the enactment of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill which, among other things, raised the age of consent from 13 to 16.
As part of Stead’s expose he staged the purchase of Eliza Armstrong – a 13-year-old chimney sweep’s daughter – to demonstrate how easily a child could be acquired. However, after failing to tell the child’s father it was a stunt, Stead was arrested and sentenced to three months in Holloway for kidnapping but continued to edit the Pall Mall Gazette from his cell.
In 1912 Stead was invited to attend a peace congress at Carnegie Hall in New York by US President William Howard Taft so with Titanic about to make its maiden voyage, Stead opted for a first-class ticket for cabin C87 and set sail from Southampton on 10 April.
When the boat struck the iceberg late on the night of 14 April he and John Jacob Astor are said to have returned to their cabins, dressed and gone up on deck. They jumped into the sea and were last seen clinging to a raft. Stead’s body was never recovered.