Stead, William Thomas. The Maiden Tribute of The Modern Babylon,
Reprinted from the Pall Mall Gazette..
London: F.A. Roberts, Fleet St., [circa 1885].
4to. 31pp. printed in two columns on low grade newsprint, some edges a tad frayed, loosely inserted into old boards, worn but strong for such an ephemeral, wispy thing. A controversial and extremely important piece of investigative journalism. In 1885, whilst editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, Stead set out to expose child prostitution in London, detail the extent of this repulsive trade (often with very inflammatory and flamboyant headlines: “The Violation of Virgins”, “How Girls Were Bought and Ruined”) and encourage the raising of the age of consent, (it was 13 at the time), Stead’s work, amongst that of others, was directly instrumental in raising it to 16, one piece of collateral damage being the recriminalisation of homosexual acts. This pamphlet is one of the earliest examples of journalism setting out not just to report on a situation, but to actively, aggressively work towards a change of political policy, and has been described as “The death knell of responsible journalism.” Sadly it did not ring the death knell for crimes against children, nor did it name or share information on any of the men and women identified in the trade during the course of the investigation, preferring instead to lump them all together in the form of the symbolic Bogeyman “The Minotaur of London.”
Although supported and encouraged by many contemporary social reformers (including the Catholic Church), non-conformist clergy and the majority of London’s expanding feminist groups, the more established Press, probably with encouragement, descended upon him in typical fashion and crucified him as a peddler of pornography. It transpired that getting hold of the information to research and write The Maiden Tribute had technically required several transgressions of the existing law and Stead was tried and sentenced to three months in jail. Never known for being shy or retiring, Stead subsequently used to turn up to events wearing his convict uniform. Perhaps in keeping with a dramatic life spent fighting unpleasant realities, he eventually died aboard the RMS Titanic. A bizarrely robust survival, and an interesting example of what can happen, for both good and evil when journalism moves from reporting news to creating news. Nothing changes, everything is awful.