Highbury author unveils Titanic secret

It was an interest in early wireless telegraphy that led author Gavin Weightman to explore the story of a controversial investigative journalist who died in the Titanic disaster 100 years ago.

The 67-year-old of Kelross Road, Highbury, came across the subject of his latest book, William Thomas Stead, while researching an earlier novel about Marconi technology which featured two young operators on board the Titanic.

Before his death on the liner, Stead had broken an exclusive about how easy it was to buy and sell a young girl to a brothel – and the story of how he went about it is told in Gavin’s new book, Secrets of a Titanic victim: the story of the real My Fair Lady.

Gavin said: “When I was reminded that Stead had gone down with the Titanic my interest in his story was rekindled and I began to discover very quickly that it was far more controversial than I had imagined.

“I remembered he had done these amazing journalism scoops in Victorian London, one of which was about how easy it was to buy a girl and sell her to a brothel under the headline ‘The �5 Virgin’.

“But when it came to it, I discovered the actual story wasn’t quite as I remembered it being told to me by other people.”

Running the risk of ending up in jail himself, Stead employed a woman to buy a young 13-year-old girl named Eliza Amstrong – on which the character in My Fair Lady was loosely based – from a poor family in Lisson Grove, before she was sent for a virginity test.

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She suffered further appalling treatment from Stead and his conspirers – and the journalist was later sent to Holloway Prison for two months for his part.

Stead was travelling in first class on board the Titanic when it went down on April 15, 1912. An interest in spiritualism had led him to head for America.

Gavin continued: “I was horrified, I suppose, and I got angry with him. He treated this family and this girl very badly.

“But the man still thought it was his greatest scoop.”

Writer George Bernard Shaw had worked for Stead on the Pall Mall Gazette during the same era and later wrote Pygmalion which became the Hollywood musical My Fair Lady.