Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stephen, Sir Alastair Edward (1901–1982)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Alastair Edward Stephen (1901-1982), solicitor and company director, was born on 27 May 1901 at Woollahra, Sydney, eldest of three children of (Sir) Colin Stephen, solicitor, and his wife Dorothy, eldest daughter of Edward William Knox.  He was educated at Tudor House, Moss Vale; Geelong Church of England Grammar School, Victoria; and the University of Sydney (BA, 1923), where he resided at St Paul’s College.  Alastair entered his father’s firm, Stephen, Jaques & Stephen, in 1923 as an articled clerk.  After passing the Solicitors’ Admission Board examinations, he was admitted as a solicitor by the Supreme Court of New South Wales on 19 November 1926 and became a partner in the firm.

Uninterested in team games, Stephen had joined Royal Sydney Golf Club in 1916, and enjoyed surfing, skiing, sailing, riding and trout-fishing.  He and his friend (Sir) Herbert Schlink were among the first skiers who opened up the Main Range near Kosciusko.  A member (from 1925), vice-president (1956-57, 1960-61) and president (1962-63) of the Ski Club of Australia, in the 1950s he was involved in planning a skiing village at Thredbo and building the Ski Club’s lodge there.

Stephen specialised in company law and the law relating to trusts.  From 1951 he proved a strong and effective senior partner.  Although regarded by his fellow partners as 'a lawyers’ lawyer', he 'invariably sought a practical and often innovative solution to a client’s problem' rather than a legalistic response.  A friend of (Sir) Warwick Fairfax from childhood, he was solicitor for John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd and advised the newspaper on taxation, company law and libel.  His friendship with the Syme family in Melbourne helped to facilitate an alliance between the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age in 1966.

As solicitor for the Australian Mutual Provident Society Stephen drew up a legal document to guide their agents in determining policies with clients.  In 1962 he accepted the AMP’s offer of space in its landmark new building; the firm occupied half a floor and within two years had spread to two floors.  Known for high principles and integrity, he retired as a partner in 1975 but continued as a consultant until 1982.  He lunched on weekdays at the Union Club; he also belonged to the Australian Club.

Stephen’s father had been solicitor to John Brown:  Alastair, a director of Abermain Seaham Collieries Ltd since 1928, continued the connection as deputy chairman of J. & A. Brown & Abermain Seaham Collieries Ltd.  Later he was a director of its successor, Coal & Allied Industries Ltd, and of the United Insurance Co. Ltd.

On 12 September 1939 Stephen was appointed as a lieutenant in the Citizen Military Forces and was called up for full–time duty.  Posted to Liverpool detention camp, he escorted Italians to internment camps in the country.  As deputy assistant director of hirings for Eastern Command from 19 February to 1 December 1940 he requisitioned buildings and land for the three armed services.  He began part-time duty (three days a week) next day and was transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 6 March 1941.  On 10 June 1942 he married Diana Heni Allen from Christchurch, New Zealand, at St Mark’s Church of England, Darling Point.  Next year she died in childbirth.  At Christ Church, North Adelaide, Stephen married Winifred Grace Bonnin, a social worker, on 24 September 1946.

Already solicitor for Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, Stephen joined its board in 1944 at the invitation of Schlink and served as vice-chairman (1953-62) and chairman (1962-73).  He urged more public funding for the hospital.  Presciently, he warned that the government would take more and more control if infighting between hospitals and doctors continued.  While president (1969-71) of the Australian Hospital Association he encouraged hospitals to specialise.  He was knighted in 1973.

Visits from childhood to his father’s siblings in England gave Stephen an enjoyment of foreign travelssome well off the beaten track.  In February 1935 he had taken a nine-day camel ride to the ancient monasteries of St Antony and St Paul in Egypt’s eastern desert.  He admired classical art and sculpture, and the Egypt of the Pharaohs, and loved Chinese ceramics.

Stephen inherited his father’s racing colours—pale blue with white cap; he raced several horses, the progeny of his father’s two mares.  A regular visitor to Randwick, he was solicitor to the Australian Jockey Club.  Treated by Lionel Logue in the 1920s, Stephen had overcome his stutter by learning to speak slowly and always thinking what he was going to say.  He was gentle and shy, but his dry sense of humour, charm and wit made him many friends.  An avid reader, he intermittently collected stamps from childhood.  He enjoyed the romance of inherited objects with a family history.  Sir Alastair died on 4 August 1982 at his Bellevue Hill home and was cremated.  The daughter of his first marriage, and his wife and their son and two daughters survived him.  His portrait by Brian Westwood is held by Mallesons Stephen Jaques.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981)
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 56, no 10, 1982, p 562
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 1926, p 16
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1975, p 12
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August 1982, p 10
  • RPA Magazine, June 1974, p 11
  • RPA Magazine, September 1982, p 29
  • Corian, September 1983, p 220
  • B884, item N60160 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Stephen, Sir Alastair Edward (1901–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stephen-sir-alastair-edward-15549/text26761, published in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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