“What a gift a man leaves the world who writes a good book!” writes W. Stead in 1886, in his pamphlet ‘My First Imprisonment’. The book was Robinson Crusoe, the author-benefactor Defoe, and Stead was describing a salutary effect the book had on a fellow prisoner.
Stead was a pioneering journalist in the late nineteenth century. I’ve been reading about him as part of the research I’m doing for a play I’m writing about the Hague Peace Convention of 1907, a conference he reported on all that summer. Five years later, he was one of the most famous victims of the Titanic tragedy.
He wrote an entertaining account of his two-month term in prison, a term he served because of his own research into child prostitution in London. He had unearthed a market in young girls to supply the sex trade. In order to track the supply chain, he arranged to ‘buy’ a girl himself. This he documented in a series of sensational news articles that stirred feverish controversy in London. It was decided he had to be convicted for trafficking. Though the public was grateful, government officials were less so. They were made to look fools.
Stead followed up with his pamphlet about time served. It was transparently more propaganda, and a kind of missive to his fans. But it’s amusing. It’s striking how modern his thinking at times, even as the conditions he describes sound like Dickens.
The prison parson was also the librarian. He looked down on the work of popular authors like Defoe, but he made it available to the prisoners. It was a great comfort to at least one of Stead’s fellow prisoners. The effect of Stead’s own writing was felt in immediate changes to legislation. The photo is Stead in his prison uniform