As we approach the one hundredth anniversary of the death of its greatest pioneer, it is ironic that the reputation of British journalism and in particular British investigative journalism has never been lower.
William Thomas Stead was by contrast, a man of great integrity and reforming zeal who used his, ‘New Journalism,’ relentlessly in defence of the exploited, the oppressed and the downtrodden.
In 1885, as editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, he wrote a series of sensational articles entitled, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” These exposed the widespread trade in very young, virgin girls who were procured for rape and prostitution. Stead's, ‘Infernal Narrative,’ as he called it, revealed to a respectable and prudish Victorian readership a seedy underworld of brothels, procuresses and padded chambers, where upper-class gentlemen could revel, ‘in the cries of an immature child.’
Under such sensational headers as, ‘Virgins, Willing and Unwilling,’ ‘The London Slave Market,’ and, ‘Strapping Girls Down,’ the articles threw society into a state of near panic and achieved as a consequence, the implementation of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, whereby the age of consent for girls was raised from thirteen to sixteen years.
To demonstrate how easy it was to procure a young girl for prostitution, Stead arranged for the purchase of Eliza Armstrong, the thirteen year-old daughter of a chimney sweep for £5. As a result of what were subsequently considered to be illegal investigative methods, he was convicted of the, ‘unlawful kidnapping of a minor’, and sentenced to three months in prison. Thereafter, every November 10th, (the anniversary of his conviction), Stead would dress in his prison uniform as a reminder of his, ‘triumph.’
My debut novel, Victorian Maiden, published July 2012 by Thames River Press explores the so-called Victorian Defloration Mania through the experiences of a young, orphan-girl who falls into the hands of a group of powerful, predatory men. Decades after she flees from the horrors of her time with them, advancing senile dementia forces her to once again relive her years of hell.
WT Stead was unbowed on his release from prison and remained convinced of his probity in attempting to break what he considered to be the, ‘conspiracy of silence,’ surrounding the subject. Today, over 125 years after the articles were published, the latest research by the NSPCC suggests that some one in nine children have been contact-abused sexually at some point in their lives. The Maiden Tribute is still being paid today.