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0 Stead's sacrificial lamb

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  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 25-03-2012
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I have learned that the Chartered Institute of Journalists is to lay a wreath on the Memorial to W.T.Stead on London's Embankment on 15 April, the centenary of this famous editor's death on the Titanic.The same Institute raised the money for the Memorial to honour Stead's campaigning journalism, particularly his alleged exposure of the "white slave trade" and child sex abuse. It would be interesting to know what a modern journalist, or the Leveson Inquiry into Press malpractice, would have made of Stead's "investigative" methods. As someone who has studied in some depth Stead's most celebrated campaign into vice in London I would say that what he did would not only be judged illegal, as it was in 1885, but utterly reprehensible.

Stead's account in his evening paper, the Pall Mall Gazette, of how he had witnessed the purchase of a 13 year old girl with the full knowledge of her mother and her sale to brothel was entirely fabricated. The closest modern analogy would be with the unscrupulous documentary film maker who gets a researcher to play the part of a drug smuggler and then broadcasts it as a real event. In his Gazette story Stead made no mention of the fact that he had staged the whole of the story of " A child of 13 bought for £5". He did not sign the article but made out it was the work of the " Chief Director " of a "Secret Commission." How this "Chief Director" knew of the purchase and sale of the girl was not revealed.

In fact, as my book Secrets of a Titanic victim: the story of the real My Fair Lady shows conclusively, Stead trusted an ex-brothel keeper's account of how she had acquired Eliza Armstrong, the 13-year-old girl whom she took away from the desperately poor street in which she lived her parents and brothers and sisters. The application of the word "investigative" to Stead rankles with me as much as anything. He described the mother and the father, a chimney sweep, though he had never set eyes on them, nor the street in which they lived in Lisson Grove, Marylebone. At a public meeting he said he had taken the girl from a "street steeped in sin. " He thought it was a road full of brothels, but there were none, as he had to admit in Court.

He did not reveal the girl's name in the Gazette but re-christened her "Lilly". He described how she was taken to have her virginity confirmed by a French abortionist. It was he who sent her there, an entirely innocent girl, to have a finger inserted in her vagina. How would that be judged today? Stead paid the guinea for this examination though he was not there himself. He acquired a bottle of chloroform and asked the ex-brothel keeper to render the girl senseless with it, but little Eliza was too smart. When Stead staged his entry into the room in the brothel where the innocent girl had been put to bed, she heard his voice. In his article he has the girl cry: "Take me home, take me home. " Well, Stead could have sent her home, but he chose not to. Instead he moved her to another house where an eminent doctor had the girl properly sedated so that he could stick his highly trained finger into her vagina. His fee was three guineas and included a signed note confirming the girl was virgo intacta. This part of the story was dropped by Stead in the Gazette account. The day following the doctor's examination, Stead arranged for the girl to be sent to Paris. Later she was moved to the South of France. There was no mention of this in his published account for the very good reason that he did anyone to know where Eliza had been taken. 

Stead argued that he was justified in what he did to the girl because she had been "sold" to him. Even if he could have been certain that such a transaction had taken place ( he was not there himself ) he had absolutely no right to treat the girl as if she were his property. But that is exactly what he did. He made a slave of her in the name of a campaign to stamp out the "white slave trade. " The fact that he did not personally sexually assault her was hardly an excuse for abducting her and paying others to indecently assault her. It is not often noted by those who retell this story, and you would have to include the Chartered Institute of Journalists in this category, that Stead was convicted on two separate counts by two different Juries at the Old Bailey. The first was on the charge of abduction and the second on the charge of indecent assault.

Why then should Stead be honoured? Because he persuaded Parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16? Maybe, but he had no need to wreck the lives of a poor London family as he did. He could very easily have returned Eliza to her home. His explanation for not doing so, that she would be "sold again" is ridiculous. In my view he realised that if she got back to Lisson Grove and reported what she had suffered he would have been arrested, and that was something he was desperate to avoid. At the committal proceedings at Bow Street he pleaded with the magistrate Mr Vaughan that there was no case to answer. You can read the Gazette's own account of this episode on the Stead resource site You can read the record of the Old Bailey trials at

In my view, journalists should not be honouring Stead but apologising for his outrageous and quite unjustifiable exploitation of a young teenage girl who he knew to be entirely innocent. Eliza Armstrong was his sacrificial lamb.