Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Stephens (1830–1913)

by Neil Smith

This article was published:

Thomas Stephens (1830-1913), educationist, was born on 4 October 1830 at Levens, Westmorland, England, second son of Rev. William Stephens, vicar of Levens, and his wife Alicia, née Daniell, and younger brother of W. J. Stephens. Educated at Marlborough College and Magdalen Hall, Oxford (B.A., 1854; M.A., 1864), he migrated to Melbourne in 1855. Next year he went to Tasmania and became sub-warden of Christ's College, Bishopsbourne, until it closed in May 1857. He was then appointed inspector for the Northern Board of Education and moved to Launceston where in 1861-62 he also served on the Northern Board of Works, responsible for planning roads. He went to Hobart Town in 1863 as inspector of schools for the whole island under the new single Board of Education and in 1870 was promoted chief inspector.

In evidence to select committees on education Stephens advocated improvements in the training and certification of teachers by a central body, increased salaries for teachers, systematic inspections, properly arranged courses and testing of results. His enthusiasm for reform, also expressed in his annual reports and letters, led him into conflict with the board: in 1868 it thought he should include more than 'an exposition of general principles or the abstract views of the inspector'. He repeated his arguments in evidence to the 1882 select committee and the 1883 royal commission on education. Under the 1885 Act which replaced the Board of Education with a responsible minister, he became permanent head of the new department as director. He drafted the first regulations under the new Act, and administered its provisions with 'inflexible fidelity' until he retired in 1894.

Stephens never lost interest in Christ's College, worked for its re-establishment and wrote its history. He was a member of its council in 1877-1911 and president from 1891. In 1889 he was a founding member of the Council of the University of Tasmania, vice-chancellor in 1900-01 and chairman of the faculty of science in 1905. A member of the Royal Society of Tasmania from 1858, he contributed some twenty-seven papers to its Proceedings, most of them dealing with the geography and geology of the colony. He was a councillor of the society in 1863 and vice-president in 1880. He also contributed papers to the Linnean Society of New South Wales, to which he was elected in 1904, and to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. He was a fellow of the Geological Society of London.

On 5 April 1866 at St Thomas's Church, Mulgoa, New South Wales, Stephens married Jane Maria (d.1884), third daughter of Edward Cox of Fernhill and sister of E. K. Cox; on 2 May 1895 at St Peter's Church, Melbourne, he married Jane Maria, eldest daughter of John Whitefoord of Launceston. He died of heart failure at his home in Fitzroy Crescent, Hobart, on 25 November 1913, predeceased by his second wife, and survived by five of his seven children.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Reeves, History of Tasmanian Education (Melb, 1935)
  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1861 (47), 1867 (44), 1868 (73), 1871 (21), 1876 (81), 1882 (106), 1883 (70), 1889 (145), Education Reports, 1861-94
  • Royal Society of Tasmania, Proceedings, 1913
  • Mercury (Hobart), 30 Jan 1883, 26 Nov 1913.

Citation details

Neil Smith, 'Stephens, Thomas (1830–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 17 June 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]


4 October, 1830
Levens, Westmorland, England


25 November, 1913 (aged 83)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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