Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edward Milner Stephen (1870–1939)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Edward Milner Stephen (1870-1939), by unknown photographer, 1901-02

Edward Milner Stephen (1870-1939), by unknown photographer, 1901-02

City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 54/349

Edward Milner Stephen (1870-1939), barrister, alderman and judge, was born on 9 July 1870 in Sydney, second of six children of Edward Milner Stephen (d.1894), mercantile clerk, and his native-born wife Florence Adelaide Mansel (d.1880), née Smith. His father, fourth son of (Sir) Alfred Stephen, was born in Hobart Town and later became official assignee. Milner was educated at Sydney Grammar School from 1881 (school captain, 1887) and won the junior (1886) and senior Knox prizes, and the Salting exhibition (1887).

Resident in St Paul's College, University of Sydney (B.A., 1891), Stephen graduated with first-class honours in classics (University medal) and in logic and mental philosophy. Beginning articles of clerkship in October 1890, he qualified for admission as a solicitor in 1895 but was admitted to the Bar on 24 November 1896.

From Selbourne Chambers Stephen built up a successful practice mainly in common law and became a familiar figure on the southern circuit. On 18 December 1913 at St John's Church, Darlinghurst, he married a masseuse, Mary (Mollie) Stuart Graham, daughter of a Queensland pastoralist. Stephen was a member of the Council of the Bar of New South Wales for thirteen years between 1910 and 1929 and counsel for the Incorporated Law Institute. In the 1920s he appeared in several constitutional cases in the High Court of Australia which involved shipping. He took silk in July 1928.

Inheriting his grandfather's 'sense of civic responsibility', Stephen represented Fitzroy Ward on the Sydney Municipal Council continuously from 1900 until the council was temporarily disbanded in 1927. Deputy mayor in 1912, he was for a time vice-chairman of the finance and electric light committees. He advocated a single municipal wages board before the 1913 royal commission on the constitution of a greater Sydney. For nearly twenty-five years Stephen chaired the Citizens' Reform Association aldermen. In the 1920s he showed 'unfailing urbanity' in dealing with those who impeded administrative reforms, with the disputed resignation of the town clerk T. H. Nesbitt and, from 1924, with a Labor majority. His supporters presented him with a silver coffee service in 1927.

A council-member of the Town Planning Association of New South Wales, Stephen deplored the piecemeal widening of streets and warned of impending traffic congestion. Visiting Europe and the United States of America in 1923, he was impressed by the open spaces in London and Paris, and by the modern city of Los Angeles. He also toured Egypt and at Luxor saw artefacts being removed from Tutankhamun's tomb.

An acting judge from February 1929, when appointed a puisne judge on 10 June Stephen was the fourth generation of his family to sit on the Supreme Court bench in New South Wales. Able to unravel knotty legal problems, he had a quiet, courteous and dignified manner, but was quick to appreciate amusing situations in court and to rebuff those who tried to mislead him or the jury. A devout Anglican, he was foundation secretary of the Prisoners' Aid Association and belonged to the Economic Research Society and the Australian Club.

Proficient at tennis and golf, Stephen was an original member of Royal Sydney Golf Club from 1894 and its sole handicapper for many years. Of middle height, spare, with a good-humoured countenance, he had wavy brown hair. His gift of mimicry made him a skilful amateur actor. He loved literature, music (especially singing) and the stage. Word perfect in the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, he often reflected their wit in his own humour. He retained a boyish zest for life, but could be pernickety as when he complained to the local councils about the prevalence of cockroaches near his home in Jersey Road.

Milner Stephen collapsed and died of heart disease in the Supreme Court on 28 April 1939 and was cremated after a service at All Saints Church, Woollahra. His wife survived him but their only child had died in infancy. His estate was valued for probate at £5300.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Bedford, Think of Stephen (Syd, 1954)
  • F. A. Larcombe, The Advancement of Local Government in New South Wales, 1906 to the Present (Syd, 1978)
  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1913, 2, 2S, p 1 (362)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Nov 1924, 27 Dec 1927, 14 July 1928, 11 June 1929, 11 Mar 1936, 29 Apr, 1-3 May 1939.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Stephen, Edward Milner (1870–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Edward Milner Stephen (1870-1939), by unknown photographer, 1901-02

Edward Milner Stephen (1870-1939), by unknown photographer, 1901-02

City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 54/349

Life Summary [details]


9 July, 1870
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


28 April, 1939 (aged 68)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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