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Stephens, Alfred Ward (1804–1852)

by J. V. Byrnes

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

Alfred Ward Stephens (1804-1852), printer, editor and pastoralist, was born at Portsmouth, England. He was probably a journeyman printer before he arrived in Sydney in the Resource on 6 May 1829, travelling steerage with his wife Eliza. Stephens found employment on the Sydney Gazette under the editorship of Rev. Ralph Mansfield and there he met Frederick Stokes and William McGarvie. With the intention of establishing a general printing business they combined to import a press from London but, orders being fewer than they expected, they decided to publish a newspaper instead. This paper first appeared on 18 April 1831 as the Sydney Herald (later the Sydney Morning Herald). McGarvie withdrew after six weeks and, although Stephens and Stokes were joint proprietors, Stephens seems to have been the acknowledged editor.

Before the Herald appeared, the Tories in Sydney and the Hunter River district had no newspaper to express their political and economic opinions. The Herald filled this gap. Thus in 1832 Stephens & Stokes printed the protest of John Bingle, a Hunter River magistrate, against the laxity of convict discipline under Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke: Letter to the Right Honourable His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for the Colonies. This was the first shot in a bitter campaign against Bourke that reached a climax in 1835. Stephens and Bingle were supported by a group of rebellious magistrates most of whom were wealthy landholders and squatters. Stephens later purchased Bingle's Hunter River property, Puen Buen.

After the convict rebellion at Castle Forbes in November 1833 Stephens gave powerful support to James Mudie, the owner of that property. The Herald was also involved in libel actions and accused of using underhand methods to score off its opponents. In July 1834, for example, Edward O'Shaughnessy, editor of the Sydney Gazette, accused Stephens of having in his possession a stolen copy of a pamphlet, Party Politics Exposed, printed anonymously by the Gazette; Stephens retaliated by accusing its sub-editor, William Watt, of inciting James Hay, a Herald compositor, to steal copy from the Herald, and giving him 10s. for it. Stephens lost the case but soon afterwards acquired O'Shaughnessy's services for the Herald.

In 1836 Stephens had 'a little difference' with Stokes and bought his share in the paper. As sole editor and proprietor Stephens for the next three years exerted a strong influence on colonial affairs with O'Shaughnessy as his leader writer. He took an active interest in public life and supported representative government, and demands for the cessation of transportation, appropriation of colonial funds for emigration, lower land prices, security of tenure for the squatters, and open discussion in the Legislative Council. In 1839 Stephens became a director of the Hunter River Navigation Co. and began to devote all his energies to grazing. He sold the Herald to Stokes and invested his money in land in the Hunter River district. At the same time he sent overseers to depasture his stock on land in New England. Reliable immigrants, mainly married couples, were selected to work on his properties, which included Runnymede, Lismore and Stratheden. His stations were among the finest in the district but he visited them rarely and took no part in the meetings of neighbouring squatters.

Stephens's pastoral activities were dogged by bad luck from the start. Drought and depression between 1840 and 1843 caused him to go insolvent and he was forced to sell land as cheaply as 1s. 3d. an acre and to sacrifice his stock. In 1841, for example, he sold 12,000 sheep at 1s. 6d. each, 1100 cattle at £1 a head and 50 horses at £14 each. Runnymede station, of 128,000 acres (51,800 ha), proved a tragic investment: it was acquired for his son, who in 1842 was accidentally shot while stooping to drink from a waterhole. Runnymede also dealt the final blow to Stephens's financial hopes: in 1847 he was prosecuted by Shaw and Leycaster for allowing stock to trespass on what is now known locally as 'Disputed Plain'. Although Stephens won the case, Leycaster finally carried the dispute to the Privy Council, where he lost, but the legal costs were so heavy that both he and Stephens were ruined. The loss of his son and this second insolvency affected Stephens's health and he was inactive for the last years of his life. He died in Sydney in July 1852 and left effects worth only £20.

Stephens was an able man but somewhat eccentric. Many amusing stories are told of his squatting life, especially during the hard times of 1842-43 when employees were paid in what was known as 'Calabash' orders, drawn on consignments of sheepskins, wool, tallow or hides; these orders were frequently dishonoured even after the consignments had reached the consignee.

Select Bibliography

  • A Century of Journalism. The Sydney Morning Herald, 1831-1931 (Syd, 1931)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1844-47
  • Government Gazette, 1838-48
  • J. Mitchell papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. V. Byrnes, 'Stephens, Alfred Ward (1804–1852)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stephens-alfred-ward-2695/text3777, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 November 2014.

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

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