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Stephens, James Brunton (1835–1902)

by Cecil Hadgraft

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

James Brunton Stephens (1835-1902), by unknown engraver, 1883

James Brunton Stephens (1835-1902), by unknown engraver, 1883

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN13/06/83/93

James Brunton Stephens (1835-1902), poet, novelist, critic, schoolteacher and public servant, was born on 17 June 1835 at Bo'ness near Edinburgh, son of John Stephens, schoolmaster, and his wife Jane, née Brunton. Educated at his father's school, then at a free boarding-school, he attended the University of Edinburgh in 1849-54 but took no degree.

As a tutor with the Massey-Dawson family he travelled widely on the Continent; with the family of Lieutenant Leyland of the 2nd Life Guards for about fifteen months he toured the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Egypt. Parts of his travel diary survive. For another year he was probably a tutor in a military garrison and a teacher in London. In 1859 he became a teacher at the Greenock Academy and then at the Kilblain Academy in Greenock where he wrote some minor verse and two short novels 'Rutson Morley' and 'Virtue Le Moyne', which were published in Sharpe's London Magazine in 1861-63.

On 28 December 1865 for obscure reasons Stephens migrated to Queensland in the Flying Cloud, which reached Moreton Bay on 28 April 1866. He taught French briefly at Tollerton House Academy, and then became a tutor with the Barker family of Tamrookum station on the Logan River. Though he admired the scenery, Stephens found bush life monotonous and the conversation boring; thrown on his inner resources, he turned to verse and composed his best-known poem, Convict Once (London, 1871).

In 1869 Stephens applied to the Board of Education and on 1 February 1870 began teaching at the Normal School in Brisbane but resigned on 9 December 1871 and spent 1872 once more on Tamrookum. Next year he returned to the Normal School, but in April again resigned and went as tutor to the family of Captain Sherwood on Unumgar station, only to return to teaching at Stanthorpe in 1874. There are suggestions that his erratic moves were caused by drink.

In 1870-74 Stephens had been writing, and in 1873 published The Godolphin Arabian, a brilliant narrative poem in the ottava rima made famous by Byron, on the life of Scham, the Barb that was the ancestor of the modern thoroughbred; it contains more ingenuity and wit than any other poem Stephens wrote. In the same year appeared a collection of his verse, The Black Gin and Other Poems. At Stanthorpe he apparently passed some of his happiest years, though he missed his friends and the stimulus of city life.

At Brisbane on 10 November 1876, while a relieving teacher at Kelvin Grove, Stephens married Rosalie Mary Donaldson. In 1877 he was headmaster at Ashgrove. These years were 'Jog-trot, jog-trot. Peaceful monotony, all the happier because it has no annals', as he wrote to W. H. Traill. He was one of the founders of the Johnsonian Club in 1878, attended its meetings, entertained his friends, and wrote mainly reviews and criticism. Leaving Ashgrove at the end of 1882, he was nominally headmaster at Sandgate in January 1883 and then, reputedly through the influence of the governor's daughter, was appointed to the Colonial Secretary's Office as dispatch writer.

For the next nineteen years Stephens was a devoted public servant. Though he was supposed to have some leisure for writing, he found his tasks exacting and time-consuming, but he wrote for the Brisbane Courier, the Australasian, and other newspapers, and contributed some articles to the 'Red Page' of the Bulletin. He also wrote three of his four most famous patriotic poems, 'The Dominion of Australia' (1877), 'An Australian National Anthem' (1890) and 'Fulfilment' (1901). He aspired in vain to be a dramatist, though Fayette (1892) was both published and produced.

Stephens died of angina pectoris on 29 June 1902 survived by his wife, a son and four daughters. For about twenty years after the death of Henry Kendall in 1882 he had been regarded as the greatest Australian poet living, even though his best work had been produced in the 1870s. This repute, which lasted for some time after his death, has decreased considerably, but there is reason for claiming that Convict Once does not deserve all the denigration it has received nor The Godolphin Arabian the neglect.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Hadgraft, James Brunton Stephens (Brisb, 1969), and for bibliography
  • Stephens letters to W. H. Traill and Francis Kenna (National Library of Australia)
  • Francis Kenna newspaper cuttings (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Cecil Hadgraft, 'Stephens, James Brunton (1835–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stephens-james-brunton-4642/text7661, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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