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W. T. Stead and the RMS Titanic

by AUE mySalvos | 13th April 0 Comments

W. T. Stead and the RMS Titanic

When news of the Titanic’s sinking on 15 April 1912 spread around the world, for a great many people the best-known passenger lost with the ship was William Thomas Stead. Invariably referred to as “W T Stead”, this English journalist and editor had gained widespread fame, and often notoriety, for the many campaigns he had waged and the irregular methods he had employed in pursuing them.

His most sensational campaign was undertaken in 1885, when with the Salvation Army he exposed the extent of child prostitution in London. To illustrate the ease with which a young girl could be acquired, he arranged the purchase of 13-year-old Eliza Armstrong from her parents, ostensibly for immoral purposes. He then placed her into the care of the Salvation Army. The stories Stead published in the Pall Mall Gazette on “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, as he termed this part of the vice trade, caused uproar. The upsurge of public anger quickly led to the passing of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which increased the age of consent for girls like Eliza from thirteen years to sixteen. 

However, in a backlash Stead along with Bramwell Booth, son of the Founder of the Salvation Army, General William Booth, and a few others, were charged with abduction. Bramwell was acquitted.  However, Stead was found guilty and sent to prison for three months. 

Sharing the dock of the Old Bailey with Bramwell Booth had been an ironic turn-around for Stead, for in his first contact with the Booths, six years earlier, he had been accuser rather than co-accused.  Stead’s professional interest had been aroused when in 1879, the year after the Army had been officially founded, two officers had been sent to establish a corps in Darlington in the north of England, a city where he was engaged as editor of The Northern Echo.

On investigating this new religious venture in the town, Stead found that the forces sent to Darlington consisted of two delicate young women – one hardly able to write a letter, the other not yet nineteen and seemingly threatened with consumption – who had arrived without friend, contact or money. And they had arrived when the town was suffering from a depression in the iron industry and the regular churches were having difficulties meeting their expenses.

Detached observation never ranking high in Stead’s priorities, he at once dispatched a stinging letter to General Booth, accusing him of cruelty in sending such frail women to undertake such an exhausting task.  If they broke down and died, he declared, the General would deserve to be indicted for manslaughter.  William Booth was characteristically unchastened. “You would never do for a general”, he rebuked Stead. “A general must not be afraid to spend his soldiers to carry a position.”

The young officers did not share Stead’s gloomy evaluation of their prospects.  They hired a hall capable of holding 2,500 people, and set about filling it.  Soon it was crowded every night of the week. In the first six months a thousand people were converted and a thriving corps established.  Stead was amazed.  When he came to London the following year, to become first the assistant editor, and then editor, of the Pall Mall Gazette, he developed close ties with the Salvation Army.  At that time the Army was frequently suffering persecution from mobs on the one hand, and the police and the courts on the other.  The Army appealed to Stead and the Pall Mall Gazette, and that paper gave strong support in arguing for the Army’s rights to take their message to the streets without being manhandled by the mob or victimised by the forces of law and order.

During his early days on the Pall Mall Gazette a young George Bernard Shaw had contributed articles. During the Maiden Tribute Campaign, when W H Smith and Sons had boycotted the newspaper, he had offered to take a bundle of papers and sell them “in any thoroughfare in London”. Two years later Shaw wrote to Stead trying to persuade him to use his newspaper to help bring about great reforms in the economic structure and social welfare conditions of England. Among the reforms needed was a “sweeping away of inexpressively wicked workhouse prisons in favour of State-owned farms and factories to which the wretches who now drudge in our sweaters’ workshops should come for employment and due reward”.  Stead did not incorporate such a program into content of the Pall Mall Gazette.  But within a very short time he was deeply involved in a scheme which attempted to overcome many of the evils Shaw recognized, but within a Christian context rather than the purely secular one which Shaw envisaged.  This scheme was published in 1890 as In Darkest England and the Way Out.  It bore the name of William Booth as author but Stead had made a very large contribution.

Quite late in his Titanic-shortened life, he overcame a long-held moral objection to the theatre and began to attend and write about plays.  Among the first plays to receive his attention as a theatre critic was Major Barbara, Shaw’s 1905 play about – or perhaps more accurately, based on – the Salvation Army.  In later years Shaw commented that Stead was one of the very few critics who got the message of Major Barbara.  Interestingly, just under Stead’s article on this play,  he makes an interesting reference to “Mr Herbert Booth’s living pictures of the Early Christians”.  It appears under the heading “The dramatic genius of the common people.”  Herbert, son of William Booth, having left the Salvation Army, was touring England at that time with the large-scale multimedia production he had produced in 1901 while Territorial Commander in Australia.  It was then known as Soldiers of the Cross.  Having purchased the production from the Army, Herbert Booth was to exhibit it around the world for a number of years. Stead had had dealings with Herbert in the tumultuous early days of the Army, and had maintained an interest in his later activities.

While Stead showed a deep interest in the Salvation Army, it was just one facet of his extraordinary energy. He died while on his way to give a talk in New York to a conference of the Men and Religion Forward Movement on “World Peace”, an enduring passion of his life. It has recently been said of W T Stead that he was “mixed up with every event, conflict and cause between 1875 and 1912.” Memorials were erected to him on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1892 Stead had described the narrow escape of a ship from an iceberg in a story, “From the old world to the new.”  In that case floe ice crashed into the sides of the ship, the Majestic, as she made her way through a thick fog. The vessel got through the ice field and safely into clear water.  In an earlier story Stead had printed in the Pall Mall Gazette, a ship was not so fortunate. In this 1886 account, a mail steamer foundered in mid-Atlantic with a very large death toll.  Stead had written the sentence:  “This is exactly what will take place if liners are sent to sea short of boats.”  Robertson Scott, in his book on the history of the Pall Mall Gazette, records that Stead had been booked to sail on a North German Lloyd ship, but an official of that line, who was a friend of Stead’s, suggested that the first voyage of the Titanic would provide a much more interesting voyage. 

When the survivors of the Titanic reached New York on the Carpathia, they were met by Commander Evangeline Booth and many American Salvationists, offering comfort and support. The Salvation Army provided relief also to the families of the survivors and the victims of the tragedy, with many people being given accommodation in Army facilities.  Many Salvationists knew the Carpathia well as that ship had carried a large continent from the United States to the 1904 International Congress in London. Two Salvationists on board the Titanic survived the sinking.  Mrs Rosa Abbott arrived safely in New York, but lost two sons.  Another Salvationist, Elizabeth Nye, was the daughter of a bandsman from Folkstone.  Her husband and child had recently died and she was returning to her job at the Army’s uniform department.  Mrs Nye managed to save her travelling companion, a yellow canary in a brass cage, which arrived bedraggled but alive.

It had previously been reported in the United States that the Commander was to travel to England on the return maiden voyage of the Titanic.  She made the trip instead on the Lusitania, which was to be torpedoed by a German U-boat in May 1915.  She was able to spend time with her father, the General, who was nearing the end of his life.  He died in August 1912.

Story by Mervyn Smythe


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