Stephen, Alfred (DNB00)

STEPHEN, Sir ALFRED (1802–1894), chief justice of New South Wales, born at Basseterre, St. Christopher's, on 20 Aug. 1802, was the fourth son of John Stephen (1771–1834), youngest brother of James Stephen (1758–1832) [q. v.] His mother was the daughter of a Mr. Passmore, who lived to the age of ninety-six, and when above ninety could write the Lord's prayer within the compass of a shilling. John Stephen practised law at St. Christopher's, and came to England about 1808 with a fortune, which he lost by buying land at high prices. He returned to St. Christopher's in 1815, and was in 1824 appointed solicitor-general, and in 1825 judge, in New South Wales, and died in 1834.

Alfred was sent to England in 1804 by his mother. He was for a year (1810) at the Charterhouse, and afterwards at schools in Somerset and Devon. He returned with his father to St. Christopher's, where he was a lieutenant in the militia, and read a little law. In 1818 he was sent to London, entered Lincoln's Inn, and became a pupil successively of his cousins Henry John and James Stephen. He was remarkable for vivacity and good humour, which led him into adventures at Vauxhall and elsewhere, but stuck to his law, and was called to the bar 20 Nov. 1823. On 22 June 1824 he married Virginia, daughter of Matthew Consett, and in August sailed for Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). He had been appointed solicitor-general in the colony, which in 1825 was separated from New South Wales. Up to that time it had been mainly a convict settlement under military rule. It was now provided with a legislature, and Stephen took part in framing the new laws and organising courts. The introduction of trial by jury, which he supported, involved a long struggle, but was ultimately effected in 1834. During a visit to England in January 1833 Stephen was appointed attorney-general, and afterwards framed and passed over a hundred statutes, some of which were adopted in other colonies. He was thanked by the lieutenant-governor, (Sir) George Arthur [q. v.], and recommended for advancement. The loss of his wife and a brother in 1837 caused a severe illness, and he resigned his position. He married, in 1838, the daughter of the Rev. W. Bedford, and practised at the bar till in 1839 he was appointed judge of the supreme court of New South Wales. In 1844 he was made chief justice, and held that position until 1873. As a judge he is said to have been distinguished for courtesy and firmness. Though a man of marked humanity, he had a reputation for a severity not undesirable in a population so largely supplied with convicts. He had a main share in impressing a high standard of judicial conduct upon the Australian courts. His retirement was received with strong expressions of sympathy; his colleagues addressed him warmly; he was presented with a purse of one thousand guineas, raised by public subscription, and his bust was placed in the chamber of the legislative council. He was lieutenant-governor from November 1875 till 1891. In this capacity he had on four occasions to discharge the functions of governor in the absence of the incumbent. He was also president of the first legislative council, 1856–7, and again a member of the council from 1875 to 1890. He was on the council of education from November 1873 till its suppression in 1882, and on the senate of the university and the councils of many other public institutions. He received a knighthood in 1846, was made C.B. in 1862, K.C.M.G. in 1874, G.C.M.G. in 1884, and a privy councillor in 1893, being the second Australian upon whom that honour was conferred. He took a very important part in colonial legislation. In 1870 he was president of a commission for revising the statute law of the colony. It recommended three measures, one of which, drafted by the commissioners, was for a consolidation of the criminal law. After various delays, this was finally passed into law in 1883, and a ‘Manual’ comprising the act was published by Sir Alfred and Mr. A. Oliver in the same year. In 1879 he opposed a divorce bill introduced in the legislature; but observation of the numerous cases of hardship caused by the desertion of wives led him to alter his opinion, and in 1886 he introduced a bill permitting divorce under certain conditions. He replied to Mr. Gladstone upon this question in the ‘Contemporary Review’ for June 1891. In spite of a strong opposition, especially from the clergy, he finally carried the measure through the legislature in 1890, when beginning his eighty-ninth year.

Stephen visited England in 1860, but otherwise never left the colony, where the vigour of intellect which he retained till the end and his charm of character gave him the position of a venerated patriarch. His frame was spare and very active. It is stated that he would on occasion sit in court till 6 A.M. and begin a summing-up at 4 A.M. with a perfectly fresh memory. In his last years he wrote some interesting ‘Jottings from Memory’ (privately printed, 1889 and 1891) describing his early life. He kept up his reading, was full of intellectual interests, and welcomed many distinguished visitors to Australia. Robert Lowe (Lord Sherbrooke), when a barrister in Australia, was a friend of Stephen, who afterwards allowed some letters written to him by Lowe from England to appear in the ‘National Review’ (July 1894). Froude, in ‘Oceana,’ describes a visit to Stephen. He kept up a close correspondence to the last with his English relations. He led a retired life in later years, but was still interested in many charities, and especially in an institution for the blind. His strength gradually failed in the last few weeks before his death at Sydney on 15 Oct. 1894. He was buried at St. Jude's churchyard amid many demonstrations of respect.

Stephen had by his first wife five sons and four daughters, and by his second wife, who died before him, four sons and five daughters. His descendants at the time of his death were over a hundred. One of his sons, Alfred, was a canon of the Anglican Cathedral in Sydney, and another, Matthew Henry, is now a judge of the supreme court in the colony.

[Information from the family; Stephen's Jottings from Memory (see above); Obituary notices in the Sydney papers of 1894, and the ‘Times,’ 16 Oct. 1894; there is also a full notice in the ‘Cosmos’ for September 1894; Heaton's Australian Dates.]

L. S.