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Stephens, John (1806–1850)

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

John Stephens (1806-1850), by unknown photographer

John Stephens (1806-1850), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 5942

John Stephens (1806-1850), newspaper editor, was born on 30 September 1806 at North Shields, Northumberland, England, the seventh son of Rev. John Stephens and brother of Edward. He was educated at a Wesleyan academy and at a grammar school in Leeds. Through helping his father distribute church magazines he became a 'precocious bibliopolist' and after apprenticeship in the book trade opened his own shop in London. There he married the only daughter of William Fleming, an active Wesleyan. In 1832 Stephens helped to found the Christian Advocate as a Methodist journal, but it soon became the recognized organ of the anti-slavery party. After emancipation he used his editorials to attack the conservative Wesleyans and lost his job. For some time he worked on various newspapers and about 1838 George Fife Angas employed him to write emigration propaganda. Stephens's first notable work was The Land of Promise, republished in 1839 as The History of the Rise and Progress of the New British Province of South Australia. In that year his exposure of absurdities in T. Horton James, Six Months in South Australia (London, 1839), ran to three editions. He also edited the South Australian Colonist, on which Angas lost heavily; it was replaced in 1841 by the monthly South Australian News at a cheaper rate. Meanwhile Stephens found time to send trenchant articles to various newspapers.

By 1842 his first wife had died and he had remarried. He emigrated with his wife to Adelaide, where he arrived in January 1843. In July he began the Adelaide Observer and soon afterwards acquired the South Australian Register. His career as a colonial journalist was punctuated by storms and scandals. Apart from his reputation as a 'Johnny Drinkwater', his discreet championship of small farmers and his advocacy of religious liberty, he was not narrow-minded as to what appeared in his papers, or from what creed, party or person it emanated. In his opinion 'certain moral felonies were punishable only through the medium of the press', and in his uncompromising exposures scarcely a week went by without an appeal to redress some local injustice. These attacks won him acclaim as the champion of independent journalism but lost him advertisers. To raise funds in 1846 he published The Royal South Australian Almanack and General Directory and in 1847 a Voice from South Australia, an appeal to the starving millions of the United Kingdom to emigrate, and next year the first number of The Adelaide Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge. In 1848 his presses were seized for debt and a rival obligingly printed two issues. Although his plant was then returned, anxiety played havoc with his health and for months he had to leave the paper to subordinates. In attempts to imitate their master they involved Stephens in at least eight libel actions in 1849. Next year the Register became a daily, but the strain on Stephens proved too great. Grieved by the lack of any love for literature in a population of 50,000 he died in his brother Edward's fine home, Seacombe, at Brighton on 28 November 1850. He was survived by his wife, three infant daughters and a son.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Pitt, The Press in South Australia 1836 to 1850 (Adel, 1946)
  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent (Melb, 1957).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Stephens, John (1806–1850)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stephens-john-2697/text3781, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 30 August 2014.

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

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