Journalist W.T. Stead, one of the best known victims of the Titanic disaster exactly 100 years ago in April this year, was also one of Wimbledon’s most famous residents.
William Thomas Stead (1849-1912) lived at Cambridge House, Wimbledon Park Road South (now part of Church Road). At 2.20am, 15 April 1912 he was on the world’s most famous ship as it sank into the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg.
An ardent spiritualist as well as editor of The Pall Mall Gazette, he seems to have foretold the disaster. In 1886 he had written a story about the sinking of an ocean liner and how lives were lost because of an insufficient number of lifeboats. At the end he warned that this would really happen in such circumstances.
Later, in December 1892 he had written another story entitled “From the Old World to the New” in the Review of Reviews in which a ship sank in the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg. In that story, the White Star liner Majestic saved some survivors. It was commanded by Edward J. Smith. Twenty years later the same man really was captain of the White Star liner, Titanic.
The Titanic disaster ended a career that had made Stead a household name many years earlier. Son of a Congegationalist minister, he wrote for the Northern Echo, Darlington, before coming south to The Pall Mall Gazette in 1880, becoming editor in 1883. He turned it into a “lively, amusing and newsy” populist campaigning newspaper.
In 1884 he interviewed General Charles Gordon shortly before his notorious murder by Jihadists in the Sudan and in 1885 he launched a campaign to oppose child prostitution in London and raise the age of consent at the time from 12.
Stead’s campaign went so far that he ended up in prison. To publicise the plight of child prostitutes, he arranged to buy a young virgin for £5 and then tell the tale in his newspaper columns.
Helped by Rebecca Jarrett, a former prostitute herself, he convinced the mother of 13-year-old Eliza Armstrong that the girl was simply to be taken into domestic service. Eliza was taken to a house in Poland Street and chloroformed. When she awoke, Stead was in the room and she was promptly taken off to Paris while he ran a story in the paper that was said to “set London and the whole country in a blaze of indignation”.
But although he secured massive sales of the paper, he was widely criticised for publishing obscene material.
The missing Eliza was eventually discovered in Stead’s Wimbledon garden and he was convicted of having fraudulently taken her from her parents. He spent three months in Holloway Prison (not then an all-female establishment).
However his campaign was vindicated when the Criminal Law Amendment Act promptly raised the age of consent from 12 to 16, banning procurement of minors. To mark the Act, Stead would henceforth travel by train from Wimbledon to Waterloo in his prison garb every 10 November.
Stead’s body would not return to Wimbledon from the North Atlantic but a permanent local link with the Titanic came about anyway. Joseph Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, was on board at the time and was criticised in the press for escaping in a lifeboat while 1500 people drowned.
His career was ruined but when he died on 17 October 1937, he was buried at Putney Vale cemetery, next to Wimbledon Common.
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.