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James Wilberforce Stephen (1822–1881)

by A. G. Thomson Zainu'ddin

This article was published:

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James Wilberforce Stephen (1822-1881), by unknown engraver, 1881

James Wilberforce Stephen (1822-1881), by unknown engraver, 1881

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S27/08/81/280-281

James Wilberforce Stephen (1822-1881), politician and judge, was born on 10 April 1822 in London, son of Sir George Stephen and his wife Henrietta, née Ravenscroft. The family had many colonial connexions, including John Stephen, Sir James Stephen and Sir Alfred Stephen. His father George was born at St Christopher, West Indies, in 1794, son of James Stephen and his first wife Anne (Anna), née Stent. Destined for a medical career he entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1812 but after two years was apprenticed instead to a firm of solicitors for five years. He married in 1821 and his activity in the anti-slavery crusade from 1824 led to his knighthood in February 1838. He also turned to writing: his Adventures of a Gentleman in Search of a Horse (London, 1837) ran into six editions. About 1847 he decided to become a barrister and on 6 June 1849 was called to the Bar at Gray's Inn. In the next few years he built up an insolvency practice in Liverpool and Manchester.

James Wilberforce Stephen was educated privately and at St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1844; M.A., 1847; fellow, 1848-52). From 1844 he read at Lincoln's Inn and was called to the Bar on 30 January 1849. In 1851 in London he married Katherine Rose Vernon. About 1854 he persuaded his father to migrate with him to Victoria, and on 31 July 1855 Sir George, Lady Stephen, 'family and suite', James Wilberforce and his wife arrived in Melbourne in the Oliver Lang. Father and son were admitted to the Victorian Bar on 9 August and for the rest of their working lives shared professional chambers. Sir George practised mainly in the Insolvency Court and was appointed Q.C. in 1871; James Wilberforce soon became the acknowledged leader of the Equity Bar, built up a 'large and highly lucrative practice' and became a recognized authority on conveyancing and mining law. Sir George applied for a land grant in 1856 on the grounds that as a former deputy-lieutenant of Buckinghamshire he was eligible for grants given to military persons, but the claim was disallowed. From at least 1863 he shared a home with James Wilberforce in Glen Eira Road, Caulfield.

In Victoria Sir George led a life which he described variously as 'the life of a recluse' and 'twenty years of happy existence in a small but honorable circle'. In 1856 he was a member of the Citizens' Committee that worked for the reform of the prison hulks. In 1857 he was a member of the Land Convention. As one of the colony's very few knights he was in demand as patron or president for sporting and philanthropic societies; a keen player, he was president of the Chess Club, founded in 1866. He dabbled in politics but failed to gain nomination. He claimed to be an admirer of the colony 'apart from its democratic constitution', but was very critical of secular education. A prominent Anglican, he was a member of the Church of England Assembly and taught a class of young men on Sundays. He was a leading opponent in 1857 of Bishop Charles Perry's restrictions on church music. Those outside his circle objected to his 'cantankerous spirit' and 'dogmatic style' in his defence of the legal profession in the press, although the Age admitted that 'long experience has imparted power to his pen as a correspondent'. His nephew, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, son of Sir James of the Colonial Office, described his uncle as 'a terrible thorn in my father's side for many years', but added that he was also 'a very clever vigorous old creature'. In his later years Stephen turned from legal to religious writing and published The Life of Christ (Melbourne, 1870) for the 'use of the poor and the young'. Ailing for the last two years of his life, he died at Caulfield on 20 June 1879, predeceased by his wife in 1869 and survived by six of his seven children. His estate was valued for probate at £3722.

James Wilberforce Stephen taught the new first year law course at the University of Melbourne from 1858 but resigned in 1860 because of ill health. In March 1865 he was appointed to the Council of the University of Melbourne and on 27 April 1867 was awarded the degree of M.A. (ad eund.). He was an original trustee and life member of Trinity College, Melbourne. An active Anglican layman, he was until 1877 chancellor of the diocese. In 1866 he stood against George Higinbotham for the Legislative Assembly seat of Brighton. In October 1870 he was elected unopposed for St Kilda following the retirement of Butler Cole Aspinall; despite his opposition to (Sir) James McCulloch he was made chairman of the Elections Committee. In the May 1872 election he retained his seat against vigorous opposition from (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy's party. An accusation of venality made by a Roman Catholic priest, although quickly withdrawn when found to be false, added personal bitterness to the campaign.

Stephen was appointed attorney-general on 10 June 1872 in the Francis ministry. He was also placed in charge of the important and controversial education bill. Although admitting his hesitancy in leading the debate 'in the presence of gentlemen … who know very much more about it than I can claim to do', he shepherded the bill through committee virtually unchanged. As first minister of public instruction from 2 January 1873, he vigorously brought the legislation into operation until 1 May 1874, when he was appointed to the Supreme Court and resigned from parliament. As attorney-general he had faced a censure motion against the government over the release of H. C. Mount and W. C. Morris; his opinion that they were wrongfully set free was upheld by the Privy Council.

Stephen had the reputation of being a conscientious and sound lawyer, effective in court though somewhat given to diffusiveness. Of an 'eager, nervous temperament', he also had the 'infirmity of saying unhappy things that he afterwards regretted'. Not long after his appointment to the bench he became seriously ill of a disease that baffled both local and London specialists. On leave of absence from 1877, he travelled in Europe with his family before returning to the bench in early 1879. But his marasmus and anaemia had not been cured and he died suddenly at Fitzroy on 14 August 1881, survived by his wife, a son and three of his five daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at £3153.

Select Bibliography

  • J. L. Forde, The Story of the Bar of Victoria (Melb, 1913)
  • E. Scott, A History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1936)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • D. Grundy, Secular, Compulsory and Free (Melb, 1972)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 Aug 1856, 15 Aug 1881
  • Age (Melbourne), 15 Aug 1881
  • Australasian, 20 Aug 1881
  • Illustrated Australian News, 24 Aug 1881
  • Australasian Sketcher, 27 Aug 1881
  • E. R. Campbell, History of the Melbourne Law School (held by author).

Citation details

A. G. Thomson Zainu'ddin, 'Stephen, James Wilberforce (1822–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Wilberforce Stephen (1822-1881), by unknown engraver, 1881

James Wilberforce Stephen (1822-1881), by unknown engraver, 1881

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S27/08/81/280-281

Life Summary [details]


10 April, 1822
London, Middlesex, England


14 August, 1881 (aged 59)
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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