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William Wilberforce Stephen (1835–1903)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published:

William Wilberforce Stephen (1835-1903), civil servant, was born on 24 September 1835 in Hobart Town, fifth son of Sir Alfred Stephen and his first wife Virginia, née Consett. In May 1839 the family moved to Sydney where William attended Rev. T. H. Wilkinson's school at the Meads, Ashfield, and Sydney College. After some experience as a voluntary clerk and passing the admission examination, on 1 July 1852 he was appointed a third-class clerk in the land and legislative branch of the Colonial Secretary's Department. On 1 November 1858 he became second clerk in the Department of Lands and Public Works; next year he remained in the Lands Department when it was separated from Public Works. He was dissuaded in 1866 by (Sir) John Robertson from applying for outside promotion, and on 1 October 1870 he replaced A. O. Moriarty as under-secretary at a salary of £700, taking over a large department with huge arrears and insufficient staff, and administering perhaps the most contentious laws of the time.

In October 1878 Stephen's work was scrutinized by the Lands and Survey Department's commission which grilled him with 2117 questions mostly put without notice or opportunity for reference; when resigning on 4 November Commissioner James Thomson said 'I also had a strong impression … that my colleagues were inclined to hold Mr Stephen responsible for far more than his share of the alleged delays and mis-management'. The commissioners reported in February 1879 that Stephen had used his position to expedite work for friends and lacked the qualities 'essential for intelligent vigorous and upright administration'; they also uncovered a feud between him and Moriarty who constantly challenged his authority.

In a minute to the secretary for lands Stephen criticized the partial nature of the inquiry that had 'so virulently and so unfairly assailed' him. He argued that lack of staff, repeatedly reported, and inadequate and scattered accommodation made it impossible to run efficiently his enormous department. In 1872-79 land selections had risen to an average of 100,000 acres (40,469 ha) annually. Early in 1880 the Bulletin commended Stephen's 'perseverance', his 'genial manner and business-like attention to … the duties of his really diplomatic office' and noted the high and just respect accorded Stephen 'by all his subordinates'.

In August 1880 an investigation into the embezzlement of £800 by James T. Evans, a junior clerk in the accounts branch, resulted in the suspension of Stephen and James P. Croft, the accountant. Robertson told Sir Henry Parkes that James Hoskins, secretary for lands, had 'set his heart on taking the under-secretaryship from' Stephen, and argued that the charge of incapacity 'cannot for a moment be sustained by those who know him and the business best'; Sir Alfred Stephen tried to intercede on his son's behalf. On 22 September Governor Loftus suggested reinstatement and transferral to the Department of Justice, and on 7 November Stephen became secretary to the attorney-general at a salary of £500. He retired on a pension in 1896.

A keen cricketer, Stephen was a founding trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1876. He had joined the Volunteer Corps in 1854, in 1865 was on the committee of the Volunteer Club and in 1874 joined the Union Club; he was a committee-man of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In the 1870s he was a member of the Sydney diocesan synods. Always convivial, Stephen described himself as a 'loud impulsive talker'. He grew increasingly absent-minded with age and was cared for by his niece Thea.

Unmarried, Stephen died of cirrhosis of the liver at his home, Clanricarde, Potts Point, on 25 October 1903 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £542.

Select Bibliography

  • R. M. Bedford, Think of Stephen (Syd, 1954)
  • G. Buxton, The Riverina 1861-1891 (Melb, 1967)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1870-71, 1, 291, 1872 1, 721, 2, 167, 1877-78, 3, 463, 1878-79, 4, 9, 152, 1882, 2, 429, 488
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1879-80, 1881, 1495
  • Bulletin, 10 Apr 1880, 29 Oct 1903
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Oct 1903
  • Town and Country Journal, 28 Oct 1903
  • I. M. Laszlo, Railway Politics and Development in Northern New South Wales 1846-1889 (M.A. thesis, University of New England, 1956)
  • Henry Parkes letters and manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Stephen, William Wilberforce (1835–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 May 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]


24 September, 1835
Tasmania, Australia


25 October, 1903 (aged 68)
Potts Point, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cirrhosis of the liver

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.

Military Service
Key Organisations