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William John Stephens (1829–1890)

by Cliff Turney

This article was published:

William John Stephens (1829-1890), by unknown photographer

William John Stephens (1829-1890), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

William John Stephens (1829-1890), teacher and scholar, was born on 16 July 1829 at Levens, Westmorland, England, son of Rev. William Stephens, vicar of Levens, and his wife Alicia, née Daniell, and elder brother of Thomas. William was educated at Heversham Grammar School and Marlborough College where he became school captain and won many prizes. He matriculated in 1848 and was a scholar at Queen's College, Oxford (B.A., 1852; M.A., 1855). With first-class honours in classics, in 1853-60 he was a fellow of his college, a lecturer in 1854 and a tutor in 1855-56.

Encouraged by Benjamin Jowett and Sir Charles Nicholson, in 1856 Stephens was appointed foundation headmaster of Sydney Grammar School. With Professor Woolley he organized the curriculum on advanced lines but the enrolment failed to grow, mainly because of high fees; the school was criticized for being 'exclusive'. He and his mathematics master, Edward Pratt, disagreed over organization and discipline. In 1866 the trustees investigated Pratt's complaints, mainly that Stephens had banned the cane: he said that he disapproved of corporal punishment and argued that discipline must be based on equal justice between teacher and pupil else 'it degenerates into tyranny and servility'. The inquiry tended to support the allegations and the trustees accepted Stephens's resignation, ignoring his plea that it had never been formally submitted and a strong petition of protest from the 'Old Boys'. Resilient but resentful, Stephens in 1867 built and opened his own private school in Darlinghurst with fifty of his former pupils. The New School (Eaglesfield from 1879) was an immediate success; he implemented advanced educational practices and won the respect and affection of his pupils, who performed well in public examinations. He claimed that he opposed 'teaching grammar as the way to language … He had been equally emphatic in his claims for the teaching of science—that is, of observation of facts with their examination—as the essential basis of all intellectual progress'.

Prominent as an organizer in colonial scientific circles from his arrival, in 1857 Stephens had joined the Philosophical (Royal) Society of New South Wales and in May 1863 was elected to its council; honorary secretary in 1864-65, he edited its Transactions in 1866 but was an inactive member thereafter. In 1862-66 he had been a founding councillor of the Entomological Society of New South Wales and its treasurer in 1864-65. He was a foundation member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales in 1874, a councillor from 1875, vice-president in 1879-80, co-honorary secretary in 1881-84 and president in 1877-78 and 1885-90. He read seven presidential addresses and a number of papers on geology and allied subjects to the society. In 1879 he helped to found the Zoological Society of New South Wales and in 1883-85 was a founding vice-president of the New South Wales branch of the Geographical Society of Australasia. He was also examiner in classics and English language and literature for the Board of National Education in 1864-66, an elective trustee of the Australian Museum from 1862 and a trustee of the Free Public Library of New South Wales from 1870 and its president in 1885-90.

In March 1882 Stephens was privately appointed to the new chair of natural history at the University of Sydney and to the W. H. Hovell lectureship in geology and physical geography. His appointment was criticized as his academic qualifications were in classics and mathematics, but Alexander Oliver pointed out that Stephens had long and passionately pursued science as a hobby. Despite a lack of facilities and apparatus, he organized his department with characteristic speed and thoroughness. He devised a broad course and, as a member of the professorial board and the senate, worked with Professor Liversidge for the extension of scientific studies and the institution of a bachelor of science degree. In 1884-85 he was also acting professor of classics. He largely planned and developed the Macleay Museum. In 1890 the title of his chair was changed to geology and palaeontology. His academic contemporaries found him a man of 'rare candour, modest, unobtrusive, with a genial disposition'. A 'most instructive and delightful talker', his lectures were noted for 'his power of expressing his opinions'. He had also published several textbooks, two long articles in the Sydney University Review (1881-83) and a pamphlet Literae Humaniores: A Letter to the Chancellor of the Sydney University Concerning the Literary Side of the Arts Course (Sydney, 1887).

Stephens died suddenly at his Darlinghurst home of acute nephritis on 22 November 1890 and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife Anna Louise, née Daniell, whom he had married at St Mark's, Darling Point, on 8 July 1859, and by a son and a daughter Ethel, a skilful painter. His estate was sworn for probate at £14,400. In March 1891 his classical and scientific library of some 1431 books and nearly 200 pamphlets was bought by the Free Public Library. A portrait of Stephens by his daughter is owned by the University of Sydney and another by the Linnean Society in Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • H. E. Barff, A Short Historical Account of the University of Sydney: In Connection with the Jubilee Celebrations 1852-1902 (Syd, 1902)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1859-60, 4, 87, 1866, 2, 581
  • A. Oliver, ‘On some recent appointments by the senate’, Sydney University Review, Apr 1882
  • P. J. Stanbury, Biology at the University of Sydney 1882-1917 (University of Sydney Archives)
  • W. J. Stephens testimonials (State Library of New South Wales)
  • One Hundred Years of Geological Science … 1866-1966, and Senate and Board of Studies minutes (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

Cliff Turney, 'Stephens, William John (1829–1890)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 13 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

William John Stephens (1829-1890), by unknown photographer

William John Stephens (1829-1890), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Life Summary [details]


16 July, 1829
Levens, Westmorland, England


22 November, 1890 (aged 61)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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