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Stephen, George Milner (1812–1894)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

George Milner Stephen (1812-1894), by unknown artist

George Milner Stephen (1812-1894), by unknown artist

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7011

George Milner Stephen (1812-1894), public servant, geologist, barrister and faith-healer, was born on 18 December 1812 at Wells, Somerset, England, the sixth son of John Stephen and his wife Mary Anne, née Pasmore. At Honiton Grammar School he topped every class and was said to have memorized the entire Eton Latin Syntax. He arrived at Sydney in the Prince Regent with his father in July 1824. Within a year he won the silver medal for classics at Sydney Grammar School and became a commissariat clerk. In 1829 he went to Hobart Town, where his brother Alfred was crown solicitor and in September 1830 was appointed a clerk in the Supreme Court at a salary of £200. In January 1832 he also became registrar of the archdeaconry, where he was praised for preparing a register of births, marriages and deaths, 1804-1822, but received no pay and resigned in June 1834. Next year the Executive Council refused to publish his 'small manual for police officers and a digest of colonial laws'. Thus denied the fruits of his labours he fell into dissolute ways, to the embarrassment of his patrons, who recommended him for twelve months leave to care for his father's estate in Sydney. He left Hobart in March 1836 and soon entered the legal office of his brother Francis in Sydney. When Francis died in February 1837 George's leave was extended and he applied to the Supreme Court for admission as an attorney to look after his brother's clients. Since he was untrained the judges refused his request and he returned to his clerkship in Hobart.

Although Stephen's relations in London and Australia were numerous and powerful, his prospects of professional advance were not bright, and his next opportunity was unexpected. In South Australia the advocate-general, Charles Mann, had resigned in November. Governor (Sir) John Hindmarsh, hearing from Sir John Jeffcott that Alfred Stephen had resigned his office in Hobart, appealed to Sir John Franklin for help and enclosed a letter inviting 'Mr Stephen' to accept the vacancy in Adelaide. Franklin added the name 'Alfred' to the addressed letter and sent it to the Supreme Court, but was soon startled by a request from George for three months leave to visit Adelaide to consider the offer on the spot, and for advance of £100 to buy law books. The Hobart press was also amazed. Bent's News, 31 March 1838, admitted that George 'wrote a fine hand and made good figures' but wondered how 'a raw, inexperienced young man … with neither educational qualifications or pretensions' could advise a government on points of law.

George sailed on 3 February 1838 with a congratulatory memorial from sixteen members of the Bar in Hobart and Launceston, and on the 9th was appointed advocate-general and crown solicitor in Adelaide. Seeking confirmation from the Colonial office, Hindmarsh sent a copy of the memorial and explained to James Stephen: 'his very connexion with yourself and his being abused by such people as do so convinces me that he is a good loyal subject', a comment which the under-secretary thought 'unimportant'.

Between daily dinners and chess with the governor and parties at Government House, where he tuned the piano and played flute and guitar, Stephen studied hard and drafted some useful ordinances. He helped to arrest several 'dangerous Ruffians', prepared their indictments and prosecuted them successfully at the Quarter Sessions, where after advice from Alfred he also won two civil actions and a chancery suit. Since the resident commissioner, (Sir) James Fisher had absented himself from the Council of Government before Hindmarsh sailed for England on 16 July, Stephen was left as the senior council member and so became acting governor. His opening address was modest and dignified, though frank about the empty treasury. When Fisher refused to pay the civil service from the land fund Stephen made a loan of £200 from his own pocket to support the police. He also began the allotment of country sections to settlers. In October when Governor George Gawler arrived Stephen was appointed colonial secretary, and received an address with 229 signatures praising his liberality and ability, though he refused to allow a protest meeting against his land speculation.

Stephen's meteoric public career in Adelaide ended unhappily. With a loan from Alfred he had already bought shares in Hindmarsh's land investments and had assisted Mrs Hindmarsh to sell several sections very profitably. With her help in February 1839 he bought for £4000 a special survey of 4000 acres (1619 ha) on the Gawler River. He openly boasted of the value of this fertile section and in March it was rumoured that he had sold half of it for £20,000. The Southern Australian promptly reported that the sale was a hoax. Stephen successfully sued the printer for libel, declaring on oath that the price was £10,000 and denying that he had ever said it was £20,000. The printer then brought action against him for wilful and corrupt perjury, and produced a letter from Stephen to George Stevenson stating that the land had been sold for £20,000. Judge (Sir) Charles Cooper ruled that the letter could not be used as evidence since it had not been produced at the earlier trial. Stephen was acquitted, but several magistrates refused to sit on the bench with him. Stephen then sued the printer of the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register for libel. At the trial much attention was given to the letter to Stevenson. Against a vast amount of circumstantial evidence Stephen affirmed that he had written £10,000 and that the '2' was a forgery. He lost the case, but later some members of the jury signed an affidavit 'that they had never noticed the tail of the “1”, sworn by Governor Gawler and Captain Charles Sturt to have existed, on their first seeing the note, and which tail had been erased'.

Stephen at once resigned all his public offices, but stayed in Adelaide, helped to edit the short-lived Guardian, sold more land for himself and Mrs Hindmarsh, gave drawing lessons to her daughters and at Trinity Church on 7 July 1840 married Mary Hindmarsh. A month later he arrived with her at Sydney and sailed in the Louisa for England in December. Their first child was born in Penzance and in September 1841 Stephen was elected a member of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall. Soon afterwards he became government secretary to his father-in-law at Heligoland. There Stephen painted portraits of many European notables and was so well rewarded that he thought of making painting his profession. In 1844 he changed his mind when a disgruntled citizen on the island complained to the Colonial Office about his perjury record. Stephen promptly applied for admission to the Middle Temple, where the benchers examined the papers sent from Downing Street on his Adelaide trials. In 1845 he was congratulated by the Colonial Office for 'having received the public and unequivocal vindication of his character'. He was duly admitted to the Middle Temple, kept his terms and was called to the Bar.

In 1846 Stephen returned to Adelaide, but although he had been recommended by Lord Stanley for appointment as advocate-general he was not given a government post. He was admitted to practise in the Supreme Court and in March 1849 when Judge Cooper took sick leave, he applied for appointment as puisne judge and later as chief justice. However, the Colonial Office decided to appoint a barrister from England and thought of offering Stephen a judgeship at Otago, but the reports on him were 'not very favourable'. In July his old enemy Stevenson published a story that Stephen had found iron ore in the Lofty Ranges, bought the section and in violation of the vendor's reserved rights begun mining and smelting on the property. This implication of false pretences led to a libel action which Stephen won with damages of one farthing. After gold was discovered in Victoria Stephen claimed to have found a payable deposit near Adelaide and offered to lead the way to it. One hot December day in 1851 large crowds with shovels and tin dishes climbed the range, but neither Stephen nor his mine could be found. Soon afterwards he moved to Melbourne. In 1853 he was admitted to the Bar, became first vice-president of the Royal Geological Society of Victoria, visited the goldfields and sailed for Europe. From Heligoland in 1854 he sent notes to the Colonial Office on the island's geology covering a confidential report on its defences and international plots hatched at its gaming tables. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Geological and Geographical Societies in London and in 1855 a member of the Geological Society of Germany and the Natural History Society of Dresden. For presenting samples of his precious stones collected in Australia to the museum at Dresden he was given a gold box by the King of Saxony.

In London he helped to found the British Australian Gold Mining Co., and as its chief manager returned to Melbourne in 1856. Although he resumed his legal practice and on occasion assisted the parliamentary draftsman he spent much time on the goldfields. In June he offered himself to the diggers of Talbot for election to the Legislative Council. Revived assertions that he was a perjurer were rejected by the miners and on 12 July he defended himself in a long autobiography in the Age. On 20 August the Argus repeated the insinuations. Next February Stephen brought an action against the proprietors for libel but the jury could not agree, and in March 1857 eighty citizens unsuccessfully petitioned the Supreme Court to disbar him for acting as counsel for prisoners charged with the murder of John Price. Next year the Argus repeated its earlier slanders against him; they were copied by the Herald, but its editor promptly apologized after an interview with Stephen. In 1859-61 he represented Collingwood in the Legislative Assembly. Although his political career was undistinguished he conducted some important cases in the courts and continued his geological searches. He sent samples of his precious stones to the governor, Sir Charles Darling, in 1863, to the Melbourne exhibition of Australian gems in 1865 and to the intercolonial exhibition, where he was awarded a medal in 1867.

In September 1862 Stephen had applied ineffectually for a district court judgeship in New South Wales and had then moved to the mining district of Beechworth, warmly farewelled by fellow practitioners and friends who complimented him on 'outliving all animosity'. Early in 1864 he went to Sydney, where he was admitted to the Bar. He still had investments in mining companies and in 1870 invented two gold-washing machines for which he was awarded medals. Two years later he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales, presented a paper 'On the gems of Australia' and exhibited his collection. In March 1877 he was appointed parliamentary draftsman. By that time he had developed strong views about social ethics and began to dabble in spiritualism. On a visit to Victoria he discovered that he had the gift of faith healing. His fame spread rapidly and he was soon treating over fifty patients a day. His legal practice suffered, he lost his parliamentary office and his family fell into financial straits. Fortunately one of his patients was Lady Parkes and, after an appeal to her husband, Stephen was appointed crown prosecutor in 1879. He soon had to resign because this position required much travelling and he was beset wherever he went by sufferers eager for healing.

By touch, breathing on affected joints, red flannel, 'magnetised' water in which his hands had been washed, and ordering away pain Stephen was reputed to have lengthened short limbs and to have cured blindness, deafness, rheumatism, St Vitus dance and consumption; even cancers were cured by sending his will power each morning to patients up to 250 miles (402 km) away. He gave 'free days' at the Temperance Hall in Sydney for the poor, and his rooms in Phillip Street were always thronged. Letters attesting his healing powers appeared in many newspapers, though the Sydney Bulletin, 17 July 1880, mocked his powers and he was attacked in the anonymous pamphlet Mediums and their Dupes (Sydney, 1879) This pamphlet was promptly repudiated by Stephen's eldest son, Harold who also published George Milner Stephen and His Marvellous Cures, about 1880. In 1887 Stephen went to London, where his wife died on 27 December and where he was said to have treated the Prince of Wales. He returned to Melbourne in 1889 still active as a healer. Paradoxically he suffered terribly himself from 'an internal affliction' and after an operation he died on 16 January 1894 at his home in Brunswick. Of his nine sons and four daughters, only three sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. R. Smith (compiler), The Australian Healer (Reading, 1889)
  • C. H. Fitts, ‘Lines of communication’, Medico-Legal Society Proceedings, 6 (1953-54)
  • G. M. Stephen, diary and papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • correspondence file under George Milner Stephen (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CO 13/10, 62.

Citation details

'Stephen, George Milner (1812–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stephen-george-milner-1294/text3771, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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