One hundred and one years ago today, the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic; on board was one of the greatest newspapermen of his age, and the most famous Englishman on the ship – William Thomas Stead.


Titanic, My Fair Lady, LondonYou have probably never heard of him – he didn’t even rate a cameo in James Cameron’s movie.

Yet Stead was a towering figure in Victorian England, the man who invented tabloid journalism.

He was the first journalist to break the law in the public interest, the man whose actions first raised the question of ethics in newspaper reporting – before Rupert Murdoch was even born.

A hundred and fifty years later the lessons of Stead’s life are still startlingly relevant.

He was the son of a reverend, had read much of the Bible by the time he was five years old.

W._T._Stead_childAt 22 he married his childhood sweetheart and became Britain’s youngest newspaper editor, a position he claimed was “a glorious opportunity of attacking the devil”.

Well perhaps; but Stead also had a dark side, as we shall see.

His mother had campaigned on behalf of prostitutes in the seedy Quay area of Newcastle where prostitution was rife.

He called prostitution ‘one of the subjects on which I have always been quite mad’.

So when he became assistant editor of the Liberal Pall Mall Gazette, (a forerunner of the London Evening Standard) he set out to use the power of the press to change the world.

His sensationalist tactics revolutionized journalism then – and now.

Titanic, My Fair Lady, LondonHe introduced the use of maps and diagrams and used eye-catching subheadings to break up the type. His interview with his friend General Gordon in 1884 was the first ever in a newspaper.

When Gordon died in the siege of Khartoum in January 1885, before his relief force could arrive, Stead ran the very first 24-point headline in newspaper history:


Determined to expose the sex trade in children he went underground in London’s East End, procuring a 13-year-old girl called Eliza Armstrong from her alcoholic mother for just five pounds.

He then drugged her and took her to brothel, writing the story in a style guaranteed to shock the Victorian public – and sell newspapers.

Titanic, My Fair Lady, LondonThe salacious headlines – “The Violation of Virgins”, “The Confessions of a Brothel-Keeper” “How Girls Were Bought and Ruined” – ensured the first instalment quickly sold out, subsequent copies changing hands for twenty times their original value.

Nothing like it had been done before. This was Sixty Minutes, Victorian style. In Fleet Street, tens of thousands of people crowded the offices of the Pall Mall Gazette desperate to get their hands on the next instalment.

Porn with a purpose.

Fearing riots, the government was pressured to alter the Criminal Amendment Act, increasing the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16. The bill was later dubbed the Stead Act.

The story inspired George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (later the movie My Fair Lady) who named his lead character Eliza.

Another of the characters described in Stead’s story, the “Minotaur of London”, is thought to have inspired Jekyll and Hyde.

Titanic, My Fair Lady, LondonBut the campaign made Stead powerful enemies in London’s Establishment, and within weeks he was arrested for breaking the very law he had brought into effect – procuring Eliza without her father’s consent.

He was imprisoned for three months. He continued to edit the Gazette from prison.

Stead was an enigma – he was the first editor to employ female journalists and the first to take sexual advantage of them.

He was not averse to twisting the truth and breaking confidences to right society’s wrongs. He was a moral crusader who could be deeply immoral.

The Stead Act was the high point of his career.

Titanic, My Fair Lady, LondonHe later became unpopular because of his opposition to the Boer War and in 1904 lost much of his fortune on a failed newspaper venture.

His spiritualist beliefs made him a figure of fun.

An ardent pacifist, in 1912 he was invited to take part in a peace congress at Carnegie Hall in New York at the invitation of William Howard Taft.

His hosts paid for him to sail in splendour on the Titanic.

Did he have a portent of his own end? He often compared the transition life to death as a journey by boat from the Old to the New World.

“Let us imagine the grave as if it were the Atlantic Ocean,” he wrote in 1909.

Titanic, My Fair Lady, LondonIt was not his only prophecy.

In 1886 he had published an article warning of what might happen if ocean liners were sent to sea short of lifeboats.

In 1892 he published another story in which a ship called the Majestic rescued survivors of another ship that collided with an iceberg.

When the Titanic went down Stead remained courageous and resolute. He helped several women and children into the lifeboats, and then gave his life jacket to another passenger.

He was last seen clinging to a raft with John Jacob Astor IV.

His body was never recovered.

He died as part one of the greatest headline stories of the twentieth century, the perfect end for perhaps the world’s greatest newspaper man.

Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, EgyptSpectacular historical fiction blazing with intrigue, romance and dramatic action’

– Booklist




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About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. Julia Robb says:

    This is so interesting. Thank you. Can you recommend a biography about this man?

    • Julia, I’m back from my travels! Sorry to be so late replying. I’ve not come across one … there is though, co-incidentally, a book called Letters from Julia, which Stead wrote, in which he channeled a dead journalist called Julia Ames. Really, he was a strange and wonderful man.

  2. Thank you for a fascinating read. It’s a thought provoking article. Motivations behind the good and bad deeds are such an intriguing enigma.

  3. Phil says:

    Another cool read. Today’s paparazzi rags and shows like TMZ owe him a lot!

  4. Debra Eve says:

    Sensational read, Colin! The man deserves his own biopic, or maybe you should write a novel about him 🙂

    • Funny you should say that, Julia asked me for a biography and I couldn’t find one, just a book he had written channeling a dead journalist. You couldn’t make it up!

  5. A story worth telling over and over. There must be so many linked to the titanic. I love it when you find the prophecies.

  6. Another person I knew nothing about. Very interesting indeed! Thanks for another great post. 🙂

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