Stead’s Victorian London was squalid and amoral. He used his editorship of the Pall Mall Gazette to attack moral evil. Prostitution was rampant in London. It was so blatant that there were guides to ‘specialised’ brothels, which were entirely legal.1 Stead knew some brothel-keepers serviced sickening paedophiles. The gulf in Victorian wealth created opportunities for the depraved, opportunities which were gleefully taken. He exposed depravity with courageous, sensationalist journalism. A journalistic light shone on paedophiles and brothel-keepers who catered for their depraved tastes. He demanded and achieved legislative action to curb exploitation of young and, very young, girls.
Stead was a sensationalist, investigative journalist exposing depravity. He didn’t underplay his journalistic hand. Some of which was triple XXX rated-
…. “The Violation of Virgins” and “Strapping Girls Down”, the “Maiden Tribute” [articles] threw London society into a state of moral panic…2
Stead knew exactly what he was doing. A great story gained the largest possible readership. His quasi-porn sledgehammer headlines helped achieve his purposes. The Conservative government of the third Marquess of Salisbury was stampeded into action. They passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act, raising the age of consent to sixteen from thirteen years old in double quick time.3 Salisbury became PM in June 1885 after Gladstone. Gladstone’s strident moral crusades were his trademark. Salisbury had to act promptly so he couldn’t be accused of protecting the wealthy: and he did.4
Stead went further. He knew there were very young girls in brothels. Their presence convinced him there was a quasi-slave trade in girls. They were being sold to brothel-keepers for their depraved customers. He proved this to be true by buying a girl knowing-
unscrupulous parents [were]… willing to sell their own children into prostitution, Stead sent his agent, reformed prostitute Rebecca Jarrett, into Marylebone to purchase a child, to show to how easily young girls could be procured.5
Stead bought Eliza Armstrong for £5 (£631 in 2019). He then pushed the boundaries of legality to breaking point. He made sure that Eliza was subjected to the same ordeals of a girl who’d been bought by a brothel-keeper. This process was harrowing6 and much was made of it at subsequent trials. Stead and his accomplices were found guilty of procuring and were jailed.
Knowingly committing an illegal action in pursuit of a greater good is always a problem for investigative journalism. Just how far can you legitimately go? Stead made sure that Eliza was subjected to abuse to prove his case. He wasn’t part of the London elite and as such had no political protection. He was also widely reviled for engaging in ‘stunts’ by George Bernard Shaw amongst others7 and as such lost moral authority. As a natural outsider, he came from the North, he had no personal connexions that he felt obliged to protect.
Being imprisoned made him a martyr and this added further to his journalism. But of course he couldn’t repeat the Eliza Armstrong case and there wasn’t a second act. For the history of journalism he’d done enough. He had a relatively short career as editor of the Pall Mall Gazette but created a dynamic new form of journalism. He showed courageous belief in his pursuit of the depraved and was a defender of the weak. He is rightly lauded and his tactics live on.
4 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criminal_Law_Amendment_Act_1885
The 1861 Offences against the Person Act established the age when ‘carnal knowledge’ could be legal at 10 years old. A paedophiles charter. This was subsequently raised to 13 in 1875.
6 loc cit