ON APRIL 10, 1871, William Thomas Stead wrote from the Quayside in Newcastle to the only person he knew in distant Darlington.

Stead, a shipping clerk, was only 22 years old. He’d never been to Darlington before; he’d never been in a newspaper office before...and yet the proprietor of The Northern Echo had offered him £150-a-year to move to the town and become the second editor of the newspaper.

In the spidery letter, Stead, himself the son of a Congregationalist minister, asks a Darlington vicar whether the 14-month-old newspaper is a viable concern, but his mind, though, is clearly made up. He writes that the job would be “a glorious opportunity of attacking the devil”.

Stead had been born in Embleton in Northumberland, where his father was a fire-and-brimstone preacher. He’d obtained work on the Quayside when he was 14, but was desperate to become a journalist, posting articles to newspapers across the north in the hope of getting published.

The Northern Echo published his first article on February 7, 1870, in which he attacked his first devil – a Newcastle beggar who’d fled wearing the overcoat Mr Stead had given him, but leaving behind the bible he’d agreed to read.

Such articles so intrigued Mr Bell that he lined up Stead to replace the first editor, John Copleston.

The first devil Stead really attacked was Mary Ann Cotton – from West Auckland – Britain’s greatest mass murderess whose crimes threatened to undermine society.

The Northern Echo: Mary Ann CottonMary Ann Cotton

Then he turned on the Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, for not doing anything to stop the Ottoman rulers who were killing innocent women and children as they brutally suppressed a rebellion in Bulgaria.

Stead’s lurid writing, with information telegraphed from war correspondents, inflamed the North-East so that practically every community held an ‘atrocity meeting’ where working people crammed into their village hall to hear Stead rant and rave and demand action from the British government.

The fury of the North-East came to the attention of the Liberal leader, William Gladstone, who used the Tories’ inaction to prove their moral bankruptcy. It won him the 1880 General Election, and he was so grateful to Stead that he wrote: “It is a sincere regret to me that I cannot read more of the Echo, for to read the Echo is to dispense with the necessity of reading other papers. It is admirably got up in every way – admirably got up.”

This reference enabled Stead to join the Pall Mall Gazette – a forerunner of George Osborne’s London Evening Standard. He now had a national pulpit from which to attack the devil of child prostitution.

He did it in the most sensational way, procuring a 13-year-old girl, Eliza Armstrong, from her mother, chloroforming her and putting her to work in a brothel in Regent Street where he was her first customer (he made his excuses and left before any-
thing untoward happened).

Stead’s serialisation of his story, complete with titillating headlines such as “strapping girls down” and “confessions of a brothel keeper”, caused a sensation. When WH Smith refused to handle the paper, there was a riot of people desperate to buy it. Stead held an atrocity meeting in Hyde Park attended by 250,000 people who demanded government action.

So the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act was rushed through, raising the age of consent from 13 to 16 years. This is regarded as the world’s first child protection act.

However, Stead became the first person to be prosecuted under it, for the ‘felonious abduction’ of the unfortunate Eliza. He was sentenced to nine weeks in prison, which, for Stead, was a triumph – wherever he was in the world on the anniversary of imprisonment, November 15, he would walk to work in his convict’s uniform showing how he had sacrificed his own liberty to save young girls.

The Northern Echo: WT Stead in his convict's uniform following his imprisonment in 1885WT Stead in his convict's uniform following his imprisonment in 1885

Stead was now the world’s most influential journalist, campaigning on causes from Chicago to Turkey to St Petersburg in Russia.

The Northern Echo: RMS Titanic departing from Southampton on Wednesday April 10, 1912, on its ill-fated maiden voyage – WT Stead was in Cabin C89RMS Titanic departing from Southampton on Wednesday April 10, 1912, on its ill-fated maiden voyage – WT Stead was in Cabin C89

In April 1912 he sailed to America at the invitation of US President William Taft to speak at a peace conference in New York – on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

He was the most famous British person to drown in the ensuing disaster.

The Echo honoured him with a front page obituary, noting how he’d only been back in Darlington a few months earlier to sit in his old chair, which remains in the editor’s office to this day.

The Northern Echo: WT Stead's chair remains in the editor's office to this dayWT Stead's chair remains in the editor's office to this day

At 2pm on January 30, Chris Lloyd is giving his talk on WT Stead, Attacking the Devil and Sinking the Unsinkable, in Darlington library.

Book a place by calling 01325 349630