The Stephen family is a multi-tendrilled family who weave their way through legal and literary nineteenth century life. They are truly a well-documented family in the true sense of the word: they wrote frequently and voluminously and this correspondence has been kept by family custodians who are proud of the family and its contribution to public life. This is the Stephen family that spawned Leslie Stephen of the National Dictionary of Biography fame, who was of course the father of Virginia Woolf. Sir James Stephen was the Permanent Undersecretary at the Colonial office during the first half of the 19th century and his influence seeps through colonial affairs through his discursive memos scribbled on Colonial Office documentation- was there a single place on the red part of the globe that he didn’t have an opinion on? And then there are the ‘legal’ Stephens- James Fitzjames Stephen in England, but a clutch of Stephens in the antipodes as well: John Stephen Snr and Jnr, Sidney Stephen who ended up in Port Phillip, Francis Stephen, and Alfred Stephen, Chief Justice between 1844 and 1873. Those of us of a certain age might be aware of Sir Ninian Stephen, the former governor-general, but he does not appear to be a direct descendent of the Australian Legal Stephens (although there may well be a connection further back).
I spent an extra two days in Sydney after attending the Law and History Conference in December. I took the opportunity to check out papers in the Mitchell library, most particularly those of Sir Alfred Stephen who was a contemporary of Judge Willis’ on the NSW bench- and what a delight these papers were! Of course, there’s a winnowing effect at work here- unless every piece of correspondence is kept, much depends on the person wielding the scythe. Business, whimsical, bureaucratic and intimate correspondence might be treasured, or just as easily, given the chop. It would appear that Ruth Bedford has been the custodian of the correspondence of the Australian branch of the family and she privileges family-based communication, with a heavy representation of the letters sent between the women of the family.
Sir Alfred Stephen married twice. He had nine children with his first wife, then a second clutch of nine children with his second wife Eleanor (Bedford). Eleanor’s is the voice that comes through most clearly- a busy step-mother, an absolutely besotted new mother, a woman caught up in the fears of scarlatina, concerned about aging parents, and very much in love with her “dear Judge”. There’s such a sense of humour that comes through this archive: children’s stories, funny little poems written on the bench during a particularly boring insolvency trial (hmmmm…..), the beautiful image of the Puisne Judge ‘dancing’ his new baby up into the air, enjoying his second round of fatherhood.
But for all of the delight of Eleanor’s voice, there’s the rather stenorian tones of her ecclesiastical father from Hobart, very concerned about the bishop and other diocesan doings, and the more restrained voice of Alfred Stephen’s mother. But even these more sober voices testify to the richness of a large family life as it unfolds over time. There’s the defalcation of one of Sir Alfred’s brothers, bringing shame onto the family. Babies seem to pop out with barely an indication that they were expected -perhaps the letters announcing the pregnancy were lost, maybe news travelled by word of mouth through mutual acquaintances or perhaps the announcement is coded in language that I did not pick up.
I must admit that this is the sort of archive work I enjoy most. ‘Big’ public events come through the correspondence and I ‘know’ many of the people written about. But there’s also that intimate, shyly humourous family aspect that comes through as well. It reminds me that I’m writing and reading about real people with all their foibles, shortcomings, dimples and guffaws as well.
Source: Alfred Stephen, diaries, letters and family papers, MS 777, uncatalogued MS 211 (State Library of New South Wales) and letter-books (State Library of New South Wales and State Records New South Wales)
Other: J.M. Bennett Sir Alfred Stephen: Third Chief Justice of NSW 1844-1873. Federation Press 2009