Latest Research 19th Century Masterfile

The Sadly Sinkable William Stead


How would you have responded to being on the Titanic as it sank? William Stead, journalist, editor, pacifist, and compiler of indexes (like Stead’s Index to Periodicals, included in 19th Century Masterfile), responded to the famous catastrophe by quietly reading a book in the First Class Smoking Room.

What might seem like strange behavior becomes merely the last item on a long list of fascinating eccentricities one finds when digging a bit deeper into the story of this larger than life character. In honor of the anniversary of the most famous shipwreck in history, Paratext takes a look at one of the disaster’s victims whose contributions to greater resource discovery are only a small part of his larger contributions to culture and society at large.

William Thomas Stead first started gaining attention on a large scale as a journalist with the Pall Mall Gazette. In his years as editor and journalist with the publication, he played a prominent role in transforming it from a simplistic chronicle of the daily news into a resource with considerable social and political influence. A series exposing the weaknesses of the navy, for example, forced the government to increase funding to bolster naval defenses. Another exposing child prostitution influenced the return of a law raising the age of consent. He also famously covered the Jack the Ripper murders, criticizing the police investigation and working with a contributor he came to suspect was Jack the Ripper himself.

These forays into political and social influence were only the beginning, throughout his life Stead balked at merely watching and reporting on the world around him and actively worked to effect change.

In 1890, Stead began the Review of Reviews, a magazine through which his goal was no less than to “establish a periodical circulating throughout the English speaking world with its associates or affiliates in every town and its correspondents in every village, read as men used to read their Bibles.”  The Review of Reviews served popular enough to spawn versions in the United States and Australia (though not every English speaking country, as originally hoped).

Not long after starting the Review of Reviews, Stead became convinced of certain paranormal phenomenon.  He published a Titanicbook of ghost stories and believed he received communications from both the distant living and the dead through automatic writing. Whatever your feelings on the paranormal, it’s worth noting that there are a number of facts in Stead’s life that have a strange relationship to his eventual death.

He once wrote a fictional story about a shipwreck caused by an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, the image of a sinking ship played a persistent role in many of his writings, including a story written over twenty years before the Titanic went down which included a dire warning of the likely loss of life that would result if ships were sent to sea without enough lifeboats.

In his later years, he became a very outspoken pacifist. It was his work encouraging peaceful resolutions for conflict through arbitration that earned him an invitation from President Taft to speak at a peace conference in New York. On his way to the conference, on April 14, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg and William Thomas Stead experienced his final role in making history.

Want to learn more? There are hundreds of citations on William Stead included in 19th Century Masterfile, including articles he wrote, articles others wrote about him, reviews of books he wrote and more.


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