Speaker – Chris Lloyd -
Attacking the Devil and Sinking the Unsinkable: W.T. Stead & the Titanic on Tuesday 20th January 2015.
Chris Lloyd is a local historian who went to university in Scotland before settling in Darlington. He is now the political editor and deputy editor of the Northern Echo. He gave a hugely entertaining talk on a man who has been described as the "the most sensational figure in 19th century journalism".
Stead was the most famous northerner to lose his life when the Titanic sank. He was born in Embleton in Northumberland, the son of a vicar and grew up in Newcastle. He became editor of the liberal Northern Echo in 1871 at the age of 22 and used the phrase ‘Attacking the Devil’ in a letter to a priest on his appointment.
The first devil he attacked was Mary Ann Cotton who murdered many people in West Auckland. The victims allegedly included her husband, lovers, sons and mother. He demanded that her two sons should be exhumed to determine the cause of death. He was present when this was done and described in great detail the horrors of the decayed corpses. Cotton was convicted on a specimen charge of murder and hanged.
In 1874 Stead achieved his first political triumph. In the General Election landslide which saw the election of the Disraeli led Tory government, all 13 MPs in County Durham were Liberals following his campaign in the Echo. Following this success, he was outraged by the atrocities committed by the Ottoman rulers in Bulgaria. He held agitation meetings all over the North East including Stokesley to pressure the government into taking action. Thereafter, WTS’s writings were instrumental in Gladstone’s Liberals return to power in 1880.
Gladstone arranged for Stead to be appointed deputy editor before becoming editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. He embarked on a campaign against child prostitution in London. He bought 13 year old Eliza Armstrong from her mother and took her to Paris for her protection. Although he served 8 weeks in prison for failing to get permission from her father, he is credited with being instrumental in the passing of the world’s first child protection act in 1885.
After resigning as editor of the Gazette in 1889, he developed a keen interest in spiritualism. Stead included a local story in a book about ghosts. While James Durham, employed at Darlington North Road Station, was eating his sandwiches in a cabin he saw a ghost and a retriever dog. Edward Pease, the founder of the railway, believed the story. He knew that a Thomas Munro Winter had committed suicide at the station and that he had a black retriever!
He was going to New York in 1912 to speak at the Carnegie Hall. Sadly, one of his earlier ‘attacks on the devil’ proved prescient. In 1886, he had written an article pointing out that shipping companies were not providing sufficient lifeboats for passengers on their vessels. This was a primary cause of the huge loss of life when the ship went down.
Chris showed a biofixing done before Stead’s death. A series of photographs taken one after another which can be displayed to give the impression of movement. Stead was sitting on a rotating chair and the effect was a good attempt at a motion picture.
In reply to a question, Chris said that the results of the exhumation of Mary Ann Cotton’s sons were inconclusive, but there was little doubt that she was a murderess. She claimed that she used arsenic to kill bugs in the house, but she almost certainly killed at least some of her relatives to get the proceeds of life assurance policies.