By his genius and creative energy, Stead was the greatest journalist of our time. If he had known how to make terms with capital he and not Northcliffe might have led the newspaper revolution at the turn of the century. In his prime he could have been in the first flight of almost any calling he chose to follow: in the Church a great preacher; in politics one of the most compelling orators.
In politics, as in journalism we cannot think of him without a challenging "if". Newspapers in his time were demanding more and more capital, and he would not submit to the mildest restraints. Yet I have known no man with whom it was a greater pleasure to collaborate. His magnetic personality, compounded of idealism, abounding faith and dauntless courage, drew to him those who shared his aspirations. With them he was never "difficult", never arrogant, and those who came near him soon discovered a vein of true humility that others never suspected. He was essentially a crusader. It was the cause for which he lived and worked; and for those who were prepared to work with him he was a good comrade as well as an inspiring leader.
He stood at the beginning of a period in which newspaper circulations were to be counted not in thousands but in millions. He could have no place in this new order, for the Cause always meant more to him than sales or profit. Though Northcliffe and others exploited his early seminal achievements in journalism, it is impossible to think of him as one of their executives or as editor of any popular daily paper in our generation.
As we walked away from a meeting one winter night in 1905 he told me he was going to Russia. An invitation from the Tsar had reached him through a friend at Buckingham Palace. Replying to my question, he said he could not say how long he would stay. I knew that his business affairs were in a bad state. The Review of Reviews had suffered severely as the result of his uncompromising opposition to the Boer War. The collapse of the Daily Paper had involved him in further heavy loss. I ventured to ask whether, in view of this, he was justified in leaving the country for an indefinite period. "That," he replied, "I leave to the Senior Partner". Knowing nothing of a partnership I repeated his words—"Senior Partner"? He stopped and gravely raised his arm and pointed to the stars. "Yes", he said, "Senior Partner".
On the platform, as at his desk, he had a rare power of quickly mobilising all the resources of his mind. On an autumn Sunday in Rochdale, I was told that he would preach in the evening at a mission hall maintained by one of his friends. I arrived as the first hymn was being announced. He took the whole service. Lessons, prayer and sermon, all in harmonious sequence concentrated our minds on the ingathering of the harvest. The sermon reached a high level of glowing eloquence. I told him afterwards how it had moved me. "Thank you", he replied, "but I wish they had told me it was a harvest thanksgiving. I didn't know till I came in and saw the pumpkins". It was a marvellous improvisation. He could call up all his powers at a moment's notice. If he had disciplined himself as a speaker he could have been a great orator. As it was he was one of the most impressive speakers of his time.
What one marked in him was his extraordinary benevolence, to which there was no limit. If a poor girl came his way he would put aside everything to help her. There was one case in which he got a young woman to Hayling Island, brought her work, saved her life and gave her a career.
One morning I took him to a secondary school where he addressed the senior girls. His theme was woman's place in the world, past, present, and to come. He didn't talk down to the young people but gave them of his best. They listened intently with shining eyes and I am sure that, though they might forget his words, the memory of the man and his inspiring message would always remain.
Of another meeting, recollection is specially vivid because of a distressing duty it imposed on me. The town hall was crowded and many notables were on the platform. The audience was spellbound—and so was Stead. Unconscious of the flight of time, he went on till the chairman became restless, for important local people had been asked to speak, and they must not be crowded out. Something had to be done, and sitting just behind Stead I tugged at his coat-tails. He turned on me with blazing eyes and then, with only a few seconds' pause, in which I suffered an agony of remorse, he uttered a few more sentences and sat down. To me he made no complaint, but at his host's table an hour later he told how "the devil put it into Hadley's heart" to ruin the climax of the speech.
Those who knew him well cannot forget his jovial moods. We were sitting by the fireside one night after a meeting in Northampton. Finding that I had no fixed habit of physical exercises he told me what his morning exercises were. "First", he said, "I use my legs—six kicks forward with each foot, and, to put vigour into them, I say with each kick, 'That's for Joe!'" "Joe" of course was Chamberlain. "Having finished with 'Joe'", he went on, "I think of myself and give two half-dozen kicks to the rear; kick my own behind and repeat each time, 'William, be humble!'"
He watched with grave foreboding the great expansion of German naval power in the early years of the century and joined whole-heartedly in efforts to prevent Anglo-German relations getting out of hand. In 1906 he was chiefly instrumental in bringing German editors to London; and in the following year he was the outstanding member of a large party of British journalists who toured Germany. They included J. A. Spender, A. G. Gardiner, Sidney Low, Clement Shorter, J. S. R. Phillips, Herbert Sidebotham and other newspaper notables. Everywhere it was Stead whom the Germans most wanted to see and hear. One beautiful summer morning we watched an imposing military display at Potsdam, with the Kaiser very much in the picture. After luncheon we were drinking coffee outside the Orangery when, with two equerries, he rode along the garden path and joined us. Spender and Phillips were presented. To Phillips, a Cumberland man, he talked with animation about the Lonsdale country which he knew well. "Aren't you going to talk to Majesty?" I asked of Stead. "No", he replied, "when I did wish to talk with him he wouldn't see me, and now in this place I don't desire it." Two other memories of that German visit: One of a great feast given in Berlin by the important Chamber of Commerce. Stead made a stirring speech in German. His grammar, a friend told me, was terrible, but he was never at a loss for a word, and the Germans were greatly impressed. A few days later we were in a village south of Munich. It was a gala day and all the afternoon Stead was the life and soul of the party, talking with everybody and romping with the children.