Today, The Northern Echo launches an investigation into modern child exploitation as a tribute to a former editor, WT Stead, who died on the Titanic. Chris Lloyd sets the scene by telling of Stead’s campaign

"LONDON’S lust annually uses up many thousands of women, who are literally killed and made away with – living sacrifices slain in the service of vice. All I ask is that those doomed to the house of evil shall not be trapped into it unwillingly, and that none shall be beguiled into the chamber of death before they are of an age to read the inscription above the portal: ‘All hope abandon ye who enter here’.”

William Thomas Stead was a man of enormous passion, ceaseless energy and a sensational turn of phrase. When he became The Northern Echo’s second editor in 1871, he somehow managed to inflame the whole of the North-East with fury about the slaughter of thousands of civilians in faraway Bulgaria.

Stead had long had a passion against prostitution.

In the early 1870s, he had been dismayed by the sight of women selling themselves on Newcastle’s Quayside, and he railed in the Echo against the rich men who paid for sex with someone else’s daughter.

Then, in 1879, late one night on his way home from the Echo’s offices in Priestgate, he came across a woman sobbing. She said “a scoundrel had attempted to outrage her”. So Stead gave her his arm and kindly walked her home.

He wrote in his diary: “Before we got there she calmly proposed that I should complete the offense and I discovered that my desolate damsel was a common prostitute!”

Stead’s career took him from Darlington to London, where he was appalled by the trade in young girls who were sold into slavery in the capital’s brothels. He determined to expose the trade, and went searching for evidence.

“I am living in hell,” he wrote. “Oh, it is awful this abode of the damned. I go to brothels every day and drink and swear and talk like a fiend from a bottomless pit.”

Beyond evidence, he needed incontrovertible proof. So, with the help of a former brothel-keeper who had found God, Stead bought a 13-yearold girl, Eliza Armstrong, from her drunken, dissolute mother. He paid £3 cash, and then sent a further £2 when a doctor had physically examined Eliza and declared her to be virgo intacta.

Eliza was then taken to a brothel off Regent Street where she was undressed and put into bed. As was the common practice, a chloroformimpregnated handkerchief was placed over her face to make her woosy and to dull the pain of what her first customer was about to do to her.

That first customer was Stead himself.

He later wrote: “The door opened, and the purchaser entered the bedroom. He closed and locked the door. There was a brief silence. And then there rose a wild and piteous cry – not a loud shriek, but a helpless startled scream like the bleat of a frightened lamb. And the child’s voice was heard crying, in accents of terror: ‘There’s a man in the room! Take me home; oh, take me home!’ ***************...

“And then all once more was still.”

Despite the cries (and the asterisks), Stead hadn’t actually done anything to Eliza. Instead, he whisked her off to a Salvation Army safe house in Paris, where he dictated the sordid story to a relay of three shorthand clerks, sometimes for 24 hours at a time, with wet towels placed across his forehead.

He called his article “the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, because in ancient Babylon young girls were sacrificed to the terrible minotaur, and he serialised it over five days in his newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette.

VICTORIAN newspapers were long screeds of dense type, but Stead broke his columns up with little headlines which seemed designed to attract, or even titillate, the reader: “The Violation of Virgins”, “Strapping Girls Down”, “Confessions of a Brothel-keeper”. The series sold enormously.

By day four, Stead had run out of ink, so his old friends in the printing trade in County Durham rushed some down to him.

By day five, WH Smith refused to stock the paper because of the sexual nature of the articles, and so eager readers besieged the Gazette offices, rioting to get their hands on the latest copy. Indignation meetings were held all over London – at the biggest, in Hyde Park, 250,000 people registered their disgust at the “white slave trade”. The Criminal Law Amendment Act was rushed through Parliament, raising the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16 – just as Stead had set out to do.

BUT the campaign made Stead enemies.

Some felt he had broken all the taboos by discussing sex in public; others felt he had sensationalised sex just to sell papers. More sinisterly, some Parliamentarians were aggrieved that he had ended their harmless fun.

Plus Eliza’s mum, having drunk her £5 away, realised that she was not coming out of the scandal well. Her husband, Charles, thrashed her and then went with the police to Paris to try to find Eliza. Charles wasn’t much use because he twice succumbed to the lure of the Parisian ladies of the night and was then arrested by gendarmes for being drunk.

But Charles’ evidence was enough for Stead to be charged with “felonious abduction of a girl under 14”. A judge ruled that it didn’t matter how high-minded and moral Stead’s motives might have been, if he had taken the girl without her father’s permission, he was guilty.

And Stead had. Stead was guilty.

He was sentenced to nine weeks in prison.

He served three days hard labour before being transferred to Holloway Prison.

Yet Stead remained proud of what he had achieved. Each November 10 afterwards – the anniversary of his conviction – he went to work in his convict’s clothes, celebrating how he had introduced Britain’s first child protection Act, which was copied around the world. He had exposed the horrors of child prostitution, and he had changed attitudes: no longer were poor children regarded as the worthless sexual playthings of the immoral rich.

But, the Act had already begun its path through Parliament when Stead jumped on the bandwagon, and, although Eliza said in later life that she bore him no ill will, he had put a 13-year-old girl through a terrible ordeal which was tantamount to sexual abuse.

It is an extraordinary story, which is to this day controversial. For all the good he did, was Stead a saint or a sensationalist?