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James Stephens (1821–1889)

by Clive Turnbull

This article was published:

James Stephens (1821-1889), by unknown engraver, 1889

James Stephens (1821-1889), by unknown engraver, 1889

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN02/12/89/7

James Stephens (1821-1889), trade unionist, was born on 8 August 1821 at Chepstow, Monmouthshire, England, son of James Stephens, stonemason. As a youth he moved to Newport, a stronghold of Chartism, joined the Masons' Society in 1839 and that year was seriously injured in a fall of thirty feet. He joined the Chartist movement and was one of the participants in the riot at the Westgate Hotel when soldiers fired on the rebels, killing twenty. He was 'severely handled' but escaped to London. He worked as a mason at Windsor Castle but was dismissed when it became known that he was a Chartist. Working on the new houses of Parliament he found himself among like-minded people. He was still active in Chartism but like many other supporters of the cause, increasingly directed his energies to craft unionism. He became a prominent leader of the masons, acquiring a wide experience as a union organizer. A zealous attender of meetings and lectures in London, he was one of the leading agitators in the four-o'clock movement.

When the gold rush created an enormous demand for tradesmen Stephens, like many other Chartists, migrated to Victoria and arrived on 17 July 1853 in the Elizabeth. In February 1855 the Operative Masons' Society, which had been suspended in the confusions of the time, was resuscitated, and with James Gilvray Galloway he formed a local branch on 4 February 1856 at Clark's Hotel, Collingwood. This meeting is seen as the genesis of the eight-hour movement, for a committee was set up to confer with the building contractors, most of whom proved co-operative on the introduction of the eight-hour day. Stephens, using the language of the Chartists, proposed to persuade the recalcitrant by 'physical force' if necessary and to coerce the non-unionists; but on 26 March a mass meeting of employers and operatives resolved, on the motion of Thomas Smith seconded by Stephens, that the eight-hour day must come into force in April. On the 'glorious 21st of April' he led a major demonstration, and wrote: 'It was a burning hot day and I thought the occasion a good one, so I called upon the men to follow me, to which they immediately consented, when I marched them … to Parliament House, the men … dropping their tools and joining the procession'. Afterwards a banquet was held at the Belvidere (Eastern Hill) Hotel, Fitzroy.

The same year Stephens seconded the nomination of Henry Langlands for the Legislative Assembly seat of Melbourne. The Trades Hall Committee was set up in 1857 and Stephens was treasurer in 1859-61. On the formation of the Eight Hours' League in 1859 he became a delegate. He later claimed that he was victimized for sub-contracting, of which the unions disapproved, and that public work was closed to him. Looking back in 1883, the Operative Masons' Society determined that Stephens had begun the eight-hour agitation but that a number of his companions were entitled to 'at least equal honour', the 'most talented and prominent of whom was James Galloway'. Meanwhile, he had been forgotten by society at large, and the Trades Hall Council issued an eloquent appeal, saying that he was now an old man, almost blind and maimed by a fall from a scaffold, wholly unable to provide for himself and his wife. Unionists subscribed the considerable sum of 'upwards of £500'. On 14 November 1889 he died of Bright's disease in his cottage at Carlton. Aged 26, he had married Eliza Cuthbert in London and was survived by one of their two sons. His estate was sworn for probate at £448.

Select Bibliography

  • The History of Capital and Labour in all Lands and Ages (Syd, 1888)
  • W. E. Murphy, History of the Eight Hours' Movement (Melb, 1896)
  • Report of the Committee Appointed by the Victorian Operative Masons Society to Inquire into the Origin of the Eight Hours' Movement in Victoria … (Melb, 1912)
  • C. Turnbull, Bluestone (Melb, 1945).

Citation details

Clive Turnbull, 'Stephens, James (1821–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 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

James Stephens (1821-1889), by unknown engraver, 1889

James Stephens (1821-1889), by unknown engraver, 1889

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN02/12/89/7

Life Summary [details]


8 August, 1821
Chepstow, Monmouthshire, Wales


14 November, 1889 (aged 68)
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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