Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Stephen Mills (1857–1948)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published:

Stephen Mills (1857-1948), public servant, was born on 23 September 1857 in Sydney, second son of John Mills, grocer's assistant, and his wife Emily, née Stidolth, both English born. Educated privately, he joined the New South Wales Department of Public Works as a surveyor in December 1877. On 3 September 1890 he married Alice Maud Hudson at Homebush. In January 1901 he was appointed assistant engineer and in April became engineer and secretary to the City Improvement Advisory Board. In 1902 he appeared before the interstate royal commission on the River Murray and in 1903 he was secretary to royal commissions on government docks and workshops (New South Wales) and on a Federal capital site (Commonwealth), impressing by his zeal and 'professional and literary ability'. He was admitted to the New South Wales Bar in 1903, and became assistant engineer and an executive member of the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage the same year.

On 1 December 1903 Mills was appointed secretary to the Commonwealth Department of Trade and Customs, Melbourne. Dismissing objections to Mills's membership of a board of enquiry into Port Adelaide customs staff in May 1907, his minister Sir William Lyne commended his 'impartiality and freedom from bias'. Mills was appointed collector of customs in New South Wales in 1909, then succeeded (Sir) Nicholas Lockyer as comptroller general of the Department of Trade and Customs in September 1913. His temporary appointment to the Inter-State Commission in 1917 was converted to membership in June 1918, but he continued nominally as comptroller general until his retirement from the public service in September 1922. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1920.

Mills was a member of several other Commonwealth royal commissions: the sugar industry (1919), taxation (1920), and the effect of tariffs on Western Australia (1924) when he objected to proposals for independent State customs duties as contrary to the principles of Federation. In the majority report of the royal commission on child endowment (1927) Mills recommended against a Commonwealth scheme on constitutional and economic grounds. He entered the contemporary tariff debate with Taxation in Australia (London, 1925), examining Australia's position as a high-tariff country and criticizing industries 'wholly dependent upon high prices made possible by high import-duty upon competing goods'.

In 1925 Mills was chairman and one of two external members of an economic wage commission appointed by the government of South Africa. Its majority report (1926) recommended integration of black and white labour interests, encouragement of the economic status of black labour and the arrest of migration to the towns. Mills, as was natural to someone who had worked so long with the practical consequences, took a keen interest in the problems of Federation, contributing articles to the Sydney Morning Herald in the 1930s on such subjects as the financial agreement of 1927 and the Supreme Court of the United States.

Mills died at home at Glen Iris, Melbourne, on 1 November 1948 and was cremated. Two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Sept 1890, 23 Sept 1922
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 25 May 1907
  • West Australian, 24, 26 Sept 1925
  • Higgins papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Mills, Stephen (1857–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 September, 1857
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


1 November, 1948 (aged 91)
Glen Iris, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.