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William Thomas Stead

William Thomas (W.T.) Stead (1849-1912) was a prominent British journalist, high profile newspaper editor and social reform campaigner. He was Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, a force to be politically reckoned with under his editorship, from 1880 to 1890, and then Editor of the Review of Reviews. Starting with the first Hague conference in 1898-9, Stead later began focusing more of his energies on the cause of peace, and he became a redoubtable opponent of the South African War (1899-1902), leading to breaches with friends such as Alfred Milner and also Cecil Rhodes. He was also a deeply religious man, and an oddly naive believer in spiritualism. Stead was a passenger on the maiden voyage of the Titanic; giving up any chance of a place in a lifeboat to women and children, the last glimpse of Stead is provided by a survivor who saw him standing with the ship’s orchestra singing the hymn ‘Nearer my God to thee’ as it was sinking.

Stead was a man addicted to ‘causes’, to taking up social and political issues with both zeal and considerable prowess, and was an effective, influential campaigner. Perhaps the best known of these campaigns now concerns his ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ series of articles in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, documenting his purchase from her parents of an under-aged girl, implicitly for sexual purposes, but with Stead in fact entrusting the girl to the care overnight of a woman companion, as part of his attack on the hypocrisy of prevailing sexual mores and the routine sexual exploitation of under-age children (the then age of sexual consent for girls was 13, later raised to 16). Stead was then arrested, tried and given a prison sentence in spite of the proofs he provided - the male establishment had not approved of his making so public what had been salaciously private. These events had much importance for the Men and Women’s Club, given that women’s (and girls’) position generally and, as Schreiner put it, the role of men in the problem of woman, was its core concern. The effects on various Club members - for instance, the very different reactions of Karl Pearson and Havelock Ellis, the appalled horror of some of the women, and Schreiner’s role in collecting signatures for a petition of support for Stead - are documented elsewhere in Schreiner’s letters. One result was a friendship between Schreiner and Stead, on her part with great admiration for his campaigning mixed with dislike of his rather fundamentalist Christianity, na├»ve belief in spiritualism and, most of all, his impassioned support for Cecil Rhodes as the admired great imperialist.

The extant letters are in fact microfilmed copies with the whereabouts of the originals unknown, but with there being many signs that these were part of an originally far greater number. They contain many interesting insights into Schreiner’s changing and always quite complex view of Rhodes, and also provide vital insights into the genesis and development of her ‘Returned South African’ essays, with another topic being Stead he should ‘forgive’ the politician Charles Dilke, who had been prosecuted in a rather grubby divorce case by separating Dilke’s sexual frailties from his considerable political strengths, rather than dog him in newspaper commentary. What this raises is the complexity of the three Steads - Stead the man who was wide, generous and encompassing in his views, Stead the religious believer who held narrowly puritanical and sometimes superstitious beliefs, and Stead the journalist and his frequent less than ethical use of privy information. Regarding the latter, many of Schreiner’s letters to Stead contain requests that he is not to use or publish things she has said or told him about. There was an edge to Stead’s view of Olive Schreiner too: “Long ago, when first I had the pleasure of meeting the authoress of “A South African Farm,” she impressed me beyond everything else as “The Categorical Imperative in Petticoats” ...” (Review of Reviews July 1896 p.48).

For further information see:
Joseph O. Baylen (2004) ‘Stead, William Thomas (1849-1912)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36258
Grace Eckley (2007) Maiden Tribute: A Life of W.T. Stead Philadelphia: XLibris
R. L. Shults (1972) Crusader in Babylon: W. T. Stead and the Pall Mall Gazette Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press
F. Whyte (1925) The Life of W. T. Stead (2 volumes) London: Jonathan Cape
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recipient icon Recipient Of
collection icon National Archives Depot, Pretoria: The National Archives Depot is Pretoria is a leading location for archival papers across a wide time-period, organisations an... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon SCCS Edited Extracts: Four groups of edited extracts from Olive Schreiner's letters can be accessed from here, made by her estranged husband Cronwr... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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mentioned icon Mentioned In
collection icon Cory Library, Rhodes University: The Cory Library, Grahamstown, is a rich resource for books and archival papers pertaining in particular to the history of th... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Greene Family: A sub-set of Schreiner’s letters to Alice Greene is held in the private collection of the Greene family heirs, (while o... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin: The HRC, Austin, is one of the world leading locations for archival papers pertaining to literary life and manuscripts across... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National Archives Depot, Pretoria: The National Archives Depot is Pretoria is a leading location for archival papers across a wide time-period, organisations an... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown: The National English Literary Museum is the leading location for collections pertaining to the imaginative and creative writi... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon SCCS Edited Extracts: Four groups of edited extracts from Olive Schreiner's letters can be accessed from here, made by her estranged husband Cronwr... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National Library of South Africa, Cape Town: Special Collections at the NLSA provide one of the leading locations for archival papers across many periods, organisations a... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon University of Cape Town, Historical Manuscripts: Manuscripts & Archives at the University of Cape Town is a leading location for accessing archival papers across many per... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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