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Sir Matthew Henry Stephen (1828–1920)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Sir Matthew Henry Stephen (1828-1920), barrister and judge, was born on 5 December 1828 at Hobart Town, third son of Sir Alfred Stephen and his first wife Virginia, née Consett. In May 1839 he reached Sydney in the Medway with the rest of his family. Stephen was educated at W. T. Cape's Sydney College, where he was head boy for two years. At 17 he was associate to Sir James Dowling and later to his own father. On 20 December 1850 he was admitted to the colonial Bar and spent 1852 in England studying under an equity draftsman and a special pleader; he returned to Sydney on 1 January 1853 in the Waterloo.

On 30 September 1854 at Christ Church St Laurence Stephen married his cousin Caroline Sibella (1833-1897), daughter of H. T. Shadforth, usher of the Black Rod, and granddaughter of Thomas Shadforth. He soon acquired a good general practice and the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 1887, reported that he had excelled in the case of Hassall v. Rodd 'in which he was opposed by three Attorneys-General (past and present)'. In 1860 Judge Dickinson wrote to his father, 'your son … does his work remarkably well. I look on him as certain for the Bench'. In the early 1860s Stephen twice refused the solicitor-generalship and again when offered the position by Edward Butler. On 16 December 1869 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Mudgee. A member of the Elections and Qualifications Committee, he was once described by Butler as a 'political baby', but he was intelligent and quickwitted in debate. He supported the 1866 Public Schools Act, immigration, legal reforms and a reduced price for land, but would not promise to urge the extension of the railway to Mudgee, for 'what was the use of running trains to carry bandicoots and kangaroos?'

Stephen acted as leading counsel for the Crown on many occasions and held a general retainer. He was a surrogate of the Vice-Admiralty Court and in the 1870s was an examiner of the University of Sydney. On 2 April 1879 he was appointed a Q.C. and in July refused appointment as a Supreme Court judge; he told Sir Henry Parkes that compared to the income of a barrister in full practice, a judge's salary was inadequate for 'men whose anxieties duties and responsibilities are so arduous and unceasing'. However, from 1876 he had often acted as judge on circuit. As leading counsel he won a farthing damages, with costs, for John Davies in Davies v. Harris in 1883 and the Apollo Candle Co.'s case against the government over customs duties. In 1886 he chaired the meeting of the Bar which unanimously resolved to ask (Sir) Julian Salomons to withdraw his resignation as chief justice. On 23 May 1887 he was sworn in as a puisne judge of the Supreme Court. On the Bench Stephen was noted for the conscientious discharge of his duties, for 'the fearlessness with which he expressed himself on matters which he conceived to be for the public welfare', and for advocating many legal reforms. He repeatedly denounced 'hard-swearing' and perjury. His notebooks filled 125 volumes. From 16 June 1902 to 4 February 1904 he was acting chief justice during the absence of Sir Frederick Darley. He resigned from the Bench in 1904; knighted that year, he was known as Sir Henry Stephen.

A staunch Anglican, Stephen gave much time to charitable work. Over the years he served on the committees of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, the Church Society, the Home Visiting and Relief Society, the Sydney Female Refuge Society, the Sydney City Mission and the National Shipwreck Relief Society of New South Wales. A director of the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary in 1857-75 and 1908-10 he was honorary secretary in 1859-66 and 1868-73. In the 1880s he was chairman of the trustees of Sydney Grammar School and president of the Young Men's Christian Association. His wife was a committee member of the Hospital for Sick Children, Glebe. Stephen was a member of the Sydney Diocesan synods and was chancellor of the diocese of Sydney in 1886-87. A patron of cricket, he was senior vice-president of the New South Wales Cricket Association. From 1895 he was a fellow of the Royal Colonial Institute.

Though 'he practised all his life in Common Law', Stephen 'had missed a good deal about the ways of ordinary men'. Sitting on a horse-stealing case at Maitland, he asked the crown prosecutor to speed up proceedings by calling 'Mr. Brumby'; the incident was immortalized by A. B. Paterson in the ballad 'Brumby's Run': 'who is Brumby, and where is his Run?' From 1863 he lived for many years at Glen Ayr, Glenmore Road, Paddington, and had a house, Summerleas, at Sutton Forest. Later he moved to Honiton, Victoria Road, Bellevue Hill, where he died of nephritis on 1 April 1920; he was buried in the South Head cemetery. He was survived by his second wife Florence Sophie, née Huthwaite, a distant cousin whom he had married on 20 December 1900, and by Caroline, his only daughter by his first wife; three sons had died in infancy. He left the bulk of his estate, valued for probate at almost £28,000, to his wife, his daughter already being well provided for.

Select Bibliography

  • A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters (Syd, 1929)
  • A. B. Paterson, Collected Verse (Syd, 1945)
  • R. M. Bedford, Think of Stephen (Syd, 1954)
  • J. M. Bennett (ed), A History of the New South Wales Bar (Syd, 1969)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1873-74, 6, 114, 128, 1883-84, 1, 716, 7, 1211
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10, 16 Dec 1869, 6, 13 Mar 1871, 22 Nov 1882, 21, 24 May 1887, 2 Apr 1920
  • Old Times (Sydney), May 1903
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Stephen papers MS777 and uncatalogued MS211 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • printed catalogue under M. H. Stephen (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Stephen, Sir Matthew Henry (1828–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 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

Life Summary [details]


5 December, 1828
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


1 April, 1920 (aged 91)
Bellevue Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

kidney disease

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