Monday 5 August 2019

Celebrating a Classicist Hero of Working-Class Childen: W.T. Stead

On this day 170 years ago was born one of the heroes of the forthcoming book A People’s History of Classics I’ve written with Henry Stead. William Stead (sadly no relation) was a journalist, publisher and social reformer, committed to enhancing the cultural range of ‘the New Reader, who is the product of the [1880] Education Act’. Born poor in Wakefield, Stead learned Latin from his Nonconformist father. He was appointed chief editor of the radical Northern Echo in Darlington at the age of 22. ‘I felt the sacredness of the power placed in my hands,’ he later recalled, ‘to be used on behalf of the poor, the outcast and the oppressed.’
Darlington Pub Named after Stead

In 1883, Stead became editor of the gentleman’s gossip journal The Pall Mall Gazette, and transformed it into a vehicle for exposés. The most famous was the 1885 articles investigating the traffic in young girls in the underworld of London, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon: The Report of our Secret Commission. Stead invented modern journalism by organising a complicated undercover investigation and writing in a sensationalist style, using a comparison with a famous mythical monster who committed atrocities.

The first article in the series consists of a detailed account of the Minotaur story, with long quotations from Ovid’s Metamorphoses VIII, emphasizing the death of innocent girls cast to a beast who was himself 'the foul product of an unnatural lust' because 'the maw of the London Minotaur is insatiable'.

No Reforming Journalists were in Titanic movie
Stead’s campaign against the Minotaur successfully precipitated the raising of the age of consent, by the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, from just 13 to 16. He suffered for his efforts, however: he had staged the purchase of a girl as part of his detective work. He served a three months’ prison sentence for abducting her. His career never fully recovered. He turned to Spiritualism, and died as a passenger on the Titanic on April 11th 1912.

Less well-known today are his cheap versions of famous literary works for children, ‘Books for the Bairns’. Ten were from classical sources: Aesop’s Fables, The Labours of Hercules, Perseus and the Gorgon’s Head, Tales of the Ancient Greeks, The Quest of the Golden Fleece, Stories of the Persian Kings, Stories of the Greek Tyrants, and The Quest of Orpheus.

An iron-foundry worker named Joseph Stamper (born in 1886), recalls being enchanted by Stead’s ‘Books for the Bairns’ as a child in Lancashire. They ‘had a pink cover and contained selections from the ancient classics: stories from Homer, the writings of Pliny… I took a strong fancy to Aesop, he was a Greek slave from Samos, in the sixth century BC, and workpeople were only just beginning to be called “wage slaves”. I read all these.’

Stories from ancient Rome (May 1901), was as usual lavishly illustrated, with prints on almost every page. It summarized tales from Virgil’s Aeneid, Livy and Plutarch.  The opening of ‘The Story of Coriolanus’ invites the child reader to make comparisons between contemporary and Roman Republican politics:

The Patricians and Plebeians did not always get on well together. The Patricians, like some of the kings, wanted too much of their own way, and at last the Plebeians said they must have two officers, appointed by themselves, to look after their interests... The Tribunes were a little like our House of Commons, and the Patricians were something like the House of Lords.

If only children across the socio-economic spectrum  today had access, for a few pence, to ancient history + critical thinking about their own constitution + dozens of gorgeous illustrations.  They still have William Stead to thank for first getting the age of consent, before they could be fed to the Minotaur, to what it remains today.

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