W.T. Stead by Henry Scott Holland
The Contemporary Review (June, 1912)
Reprinted in Frederick Whyte, The Life of W.T. Stead (London: Johnathan Cape, 1925), vol. II, pp. 351-353
It added a strange thrill to the horror of the ocean-agony to hear that W. T. Stead had gone down to his death in the silent depths of those icy waters. Such an end became him. He belonged to the sudden and supreme hours, when all that man has is at stake. He understood the vehement, the spasmodic. He was at home in heroic moments of storm and stress, in the daring ventures of the human spirit.
He would show himself in all his nobility of soul under this tremendous proof; and no one who knew him could doubt how his tenderness might have spent itself in the service of women and children. "Splendid action on the edge of life." How he would have loved James Mozley's famous phrase! His soul would have been aflame to meet the call. If only he could have told us, as no other could tell, the story of the awful night, and have flung out, into burning words, the tragic irony of such a close to that stupendous toy which man's power and pride had fashioned for his pleasure!
He was a most lovable man. He had something of the child about him, which drew and endeared. I recall the old days of Bulgarian atrocities, in which he and Liddon struck up their surprising friendship. I think of his confiding to Liddon, on a drive to Dunkeld, that he had learnt more from John Knox than he had ever got out of St. Paul. "Indeed, dear friend: that, I confess, has not been my own experience," came the answer in Liddon's softest tones.
Then the storm of the "Maiden Tribute" burst. I had been warned by a short visit from Josephine Butler, with her grey, sorrow-stricken, beautiful face, to be ready for some tremendous shock. So I was able to understand and to recognize the dauntless and devoted courage of the man and to rely absolutely on his spirit of self-sacrifice, however perilous his methods. Later on, I had the help and joy of acting with him over the Eastern Crisis and Armenian Massacres.
The note of everything about him lay in his moral impetuosity. It carried all along. There was no power on earth that could check, or damp, or repress it. It had the invincible confidence of inspiration in it. It stormed its way through. And, then, it had at its service an intelligence that knew no reserves, and accepted no repression, and revelled in largeness of scope, and in audacities of venture, and in swiftness of action, and in defiant concentration of all its power upon the immediate purpose.
Never was a man so magnificently equipped for delivering the direct blow that would tell decisively. He knew exactly what to lay his hands upon, to serve the need of the hour. He could work up any amount of material, at a moment's notice, into some amazingly effective form. The whole man went into it, at full speed, with every nerve strung and alert. He took the whole world into his purview; nothing was too big: nothing daunted. Everybody and everything could be put to use for the purposes of his fluent advocacy. These were the times at which all his wonderful capacity came out.
He lay outside conventional movements, and was singularly detached from the normal currents of political influence. He did not belong to anybody. Rather, he broke out in splendid spasms. And no one could foresee where and what his occasions would be. He had a liking for going direct to the central spot, and dealing with it straight, e.g., to the Pope, or the Tsar,or Cecil Rhodes, or the Sultan. His impetuosity gave us shocks and surprises. It swept us into the irretrievable disaster of sending Gordon to the Sudan. But it was always noble, and heroic. It always had a touch of spiritual simplicity in it. It had a prophetic force about it, which cleaned out the dull channels of our sodden lives, and purged our hearts of their dulness and timidity. He did us good, even when he blundered. He stirred the true blood in us, and woke the spirit from its sloth. We became aware of the high calls of faith, and the risks that heroism must ever run, and of the sacrifices that the good cause will ask for to the end. He might be rash: he might be violent: he might be one-sided. When once stirred, he could not help bringing into play the perilous gifts that made him the most vivid and brilliant journalist in England. But he was never stirred but by great motives. He was always prepared to spend himself and to be spent for the highest that he saw or knew. He held nothing back, when he gave himself away. Spiritual convictions were paramount over him. He lived, and was ever ready to die, for the truth as he believed it, and for the God whom he served.