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Samuel Stephens

The Character of Samuel Stephens

Colonial Manager of the South Australian Company, 1836-1837.


by Neil Henderson Miller, 2014


This article examines the character, behaviour, demeanour and personal traits possessed by Samuel Stephens, the Colonial Manager of the South Australian Company, who arrived at Kangaroo Island aboard the “Duke of York” in 1836. It concludes that he was not a very reliable, honest or endearing sort of person and that his diary writings cannot be relied upon as being factual.

Listed below are some quotes and writings taken from various early historical and contemporary sources regarding Samuel Stephens, particularly in relation to the overall character of the man.

Samuel Stephens was the 8th son of the Reverend John Stephens who was President of the British Wesleyan Conference in 1827. He was one of three brothers who were “passionate and “quarrelsome” who several times came into conflict with the Wesleyan authorities (HistorySA, 2011a). “He was connected for some time with a Birmingham commercial house, but after a quarrel with his Minister over the powers of the Wesleyan Conference, he was censured by a circuit meeting and lost his job.” (Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1967a).

Samuel Stephens then applied for an Assistant Surveyorship with the South Australian Company in 1835, but he was appointed the Company’s London Agent. Then for an unknown reason (perhaps he was distantly related (Pike, 1967, p.134)) despite his known temperament, and his youthful 27 years, George Fife Angas appointed him as the Colonial Manager with “wide discretionary powers which he exercised with exuberance” (Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1967a). This raises questions about Angas’ judge of character (Pike, 1967, p.134).

“Almost immediately on arrival, Stephens was embroiled in conflict with most of his staff who soon refused to work for him. This was South Australia’s first strike. Peace was only finally restored when Captain Martin of the John Pirie intervened and acted as peacemaker.  Meanwhile Stephens began to gain a reputation for drunkenness, news of which was conveyed to Governor Hindmarsh on his arrival in December 1836.” (HistorySA, 2011a).   Stephens’ contempt for his subordinates was clear, “claiming to be distressed by the ‘poor, depraved, and deluded beings’” (Pike, 1967, p.198).

Another action by Stephens which upset the other early pioneers was when he married Charlotte Hudson Beare on the 24th September 1836 aboard the ship “John Pirie”. At the time of their wedding Charlotte was 48 years old and Stephens was only 27, which naturally was the basis of much gossip.  Regarding Stephens' courting of Thomas Beare's older sister Charlotte during their voyage out from England, “Thomas Beare was highly suspicious of Stephens' motives, misgivings which were shared by Robert Morgan.” (Heinrich 2011, p36). Beare “suspected Stephens of mercenary intent”, and Robert Morgan “regarded Stephens' wooing of a woman so much senior as nothing short of scandalous.” (Heinrich 2011, p45).

Stephens’ management of his subordinates was poor. He continually threatened the employees of the company with disciplinary action, often with dramatic consequences:  “... he issued a rum ration to celebrate the occasion [his marriage]. The celebration turned sour, and Stephens dismissed four of his officers for allegedly threatening his life and attempting to burn down the store (Painter, n.d.) He “ungraciously blamed Angas” for this situation “for relying on the efficacy of articles and agreement ... When Governor Hindmarsh reached Adelaide he was promptly approached by the discharged overseers. Charges were laid that Stephens had ruined the credit of the Company because he had purchased cargoes while drunk and disrupted the island settlement by his false accusations" (Pike, 1967, p.199).

Some accounts depict Stephens as an intemperate and inept Manager, tardy in administrative duties and exceeding his authority. “He was too busy to write careful dispatches, and in less than a year his outlay of 14,000 pounds and poor accounting alarmed the directors in London” (Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1967a).  “To Angas, he must have appeared like the prodigal son in a far country, wasting the substance of the Company in riotous living” (Pike, 1967, p.201).

Samuel Stephens was responsible for bullying and forcing “Governor” Whalley (Wallen) off of his land and confiscating his farm, with small recompense paid to Whalley for his property, and “ordered him off his estate ... Stephens ... was mean, not only because he was desperate” to obtain Whalley’s farm, “but because he was offended. An old insult had festered within him since his first encounter with Wallen, who had confronted Stephens and said; “Who made you Governor? You a Governor? ... You don’t stand four feet in your stockings” (South Australian Register, 1886a; Taylor, 2008, p.83.)

It was reported a number of times during his tenure as Colonial Manager, that he was a drunkard who on a number of occasions after drinking heavily had to be put to bed by members of the ship’s crew.  “It is painful to hear of the conduct of our Colonial Manager, how he commits himself wherever he goes,  drunkenness is his prevailing sin and even leaves sailors to put him to bed – a man who has the care of thousands of pounds and the welfare of men women and children under his direction” (HistorySA, 2011f).

Captain Morgan, who was a devout Wesleyan and a God fearing man, on a number of occasions during the voyage out from England and whilst on Kangaroo Island, had a number of arguments with Stephens about his manners and demeanour, and he personally disliked and did not respect the man. “I got up and told him what I thought of his conduct dureing the time I have had to be with him as to his moral conduct I have known when we have bing in our extrimities he has bing lost and as his  conduct towards Mr Bear and family has bing  such as no one but whould disapprove off [sic]“ (HistorySA, 2011g). Morgan was realising that “the fragile hold on authority that Stephens once had, now seemed to be slipping from his grasp daily” (Heinrich, 2011, p.56).

Stephens' own opinion of Captain Morgan was disrespectful: ”as ignorant as a child as his duty as master” (Pike, 1967, p.198). He was enraged over Morgan’s prudent handling of the striking seamen (Heinrich, 2011, p.53).  

Another occasion which highlights Stephens’ obnoxious behaviour, was when he came back to the ship from being onshore, and his treatment of the now fragile, seriously ill, Lucy Anne Beare.  Lucy had experienced a terrible tragedy during the voyage when she gave birth to a child which subsequently died and was buried at sea, “Lucy Beare’s plight however found no currency with Samuel Stephens who regarded her behaviour as exasperating. Stephens came on board ship, and in a fit of rage, tore down the curtains to Mrs. Beare’s cabin. He picked up a horse whip and threatened to lash some plain common sense into the wife of his second-in-command. The Colonial Manager then vowed to banish the whole Beare family ... to another part of the island, and cut off their supplies” (Heinrich, 2011, p.45).

During the early days of settlement there were numerous accounts of heavy drinking bouts and coarse language being used amongst the ship’s crew members and some of the settlers, including Stephens himself.  On the 26th September 1837, Stephens wrote a letter which contained many falsehoods to Captain Lipson, the Harbourmaster of the Colony, complaining about “ an exceedingly lawless state of society exists on Kangaroo Island and to the imminent peril of the lives and property of His Majesty’s subjects resident there“ (Holmesby, 1986, p.30).

In response to this letter, which was forwarded onto Governor Hindmarsh, the Governor dispatched  Commissioners George Stevenson and Thomas Strangways to the Island to investigate this matter and report back to him (Holmesby, 1986, p.31). The report by the Commissioners to Governor Hindmarsh regarding the situation on the Island reads in part: “... Mr. Stephens has from time to time made a practice of selling rum and other spiritous liquors to the servants of the Company. The greater number of instances of intoxication and disturbance in the island has been the consequences of Mr. Stephens own imprudence in sanctioning so disgraceful a practice and taking no decisive steps to put a stop to it while in his power to do so ...“ (Holmesby, 1986, p.31). “They reported his mismanagement and intemperance as the chief causes of disorder” (Pike 1967, p.200).

In his eagerness to develop the colony, despite the festering problems at Nepean Bay, he became involved in many ventures and “one of his competitors reported that ‘little mischievous Stephens’ was a ‘petty dealer, interfering in every direction with private enterprise’” (Pike, 1967, p. 201).

Well before the expiration of his contract of seven years, he was suspended in November 1837 after a fracas at the company's whaling station in Encounter Bay, where he was charged with killing a sailor from a rival fishery (Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1967a).

David McLaren was the choice of Angas, to replace Stephens in 1837 after involving “himself in disgrace and the company in speculation” (Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1966). After leaving the SA Company for the mainland Stephens became involved in land dealings and exploration. It seems, despite his other qualities, he was regarded as a good judge of land and agricultural prospects, and many colonists eagerly sought his advice, including McLaren (South Australian Register, 1839). Although he “scandalized McLaren by his conviviality and lack of piety” (Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1967b). McLaren’s appointment over Stephens (“being degraded into a mere keeper of pigs and sheep”) and his obvious disapproval of his dissolute behaviour resulted in Stephens seeming “to be goaded by this display of righteousness into almost perpetual intoxication” (Pike, 1967, p. 201).

Following an expedition to the River Murray, Stephens was accidentally killed “after recklessly racing his horse over a steep hill” (HistorySA, 2011a). “During their return to Adelaide, Stephens was killed when descending a steep spur known as Gleeson’s Hill at Mount Osmond on the brink of the Mount Lofty ranges, when his horse stumbled and rolled over him” (South Australian Register, 1840a).  He was "too ambitious 'to ride any but the first horse' ...he threw his life away recklessly" (Pike, 1976, p.135). Despite his previous cautions to others (South Australian Weekly Chronicle, 1858 ) he was imprudent on this occasion “A few hundred yards before reaching the brow of the last hill he had to descend, Mr Stephens proceeded in advance of the party, and was observed to halt his horse on the summit where it is usual to dismount before commencing the descent. This was the last time he was seen before the fatal accident. On reaching the foot of the hill the friends who had accompanied him found him  thrown from his horse, lying insensible, and injured too seriously to admit a hope of his recovery." (South Australian Register, 1840b), 

After Stephens was killed at the age of 31, the remarkably restrained and patently obsequious obituary for him states that “He was connected with the early body of colonists” (South Australian Register, 1840(b)), but it did not say anywhere that he was the first to land.

Samuel Stephens diarises that he was first to come ashore from the Duke of York on the 27 July 1836 in a “surprisingly low key journal entry” (HistorySA, 2011e). Although authorities may consider such a diary entry to be “primary evidence” (HistorySA, 2011c), there is no other primary evidence to support this claim, notably none from Captain Morgan in his own journal, written in the same place and on the same day (HistorySA, 2011d). However there is substantial secondary evidence, including from contemporary eminent historians (Manning, n.d.) to attest that a child, Elizabeth Beare, was the first person to set foot on the shore on that historic day (Beare W.L.,1910; Blacket J.,1929; Brown J.,1858; Heinrich D, 2011, p38-40; Mazey I.,1894; O’Donnell H, 1927; South Australian Register, 1886a; Russell, R, in South Australian Register, 1886b)

The only primary evidence was Stephen’s own diary, where he wrote: “I was the first who ever set foot on the shore as a settler in the colony of South A.” (HistorySA, 2011b). Note that he does not say first person but only settler. No other primary reference has been found, despite the assertion of his brother Edward some 23 years later: “The first person ... was my late brother, Mr. Samuel Stephens; and he was so desirous of that honor and glory, and so enthusiastic, that he would not allow a sailor to precede him, nor afford him help, actually leaping into the shoal water at Kangaroo Island that no doubt should exist as to whom the honor of ‘first landing’ should belong. In claiming this distinction for my late brother, I am bound to say ‘I was not there to see’...” (The South Australian Advertiser, 1859).  

Stephens apparently had made a wager back in England before the ship left, that he would be the first of the pioneers to land (South Australian Weekly Chronicle, 1858), so he would have been annoyed to discover that Morgan had outsmarted him. Perhaps it was this act that prompted him to write in his diary stating that he was the first to set foot on shore, so that he could claim his wager.  It is difficult to believe that the diary, the oft quoted primary evidence, of such a disrespected man should take precedence to the secondary evidence of so many other respectable South Australians.

As we have learned from this research, it can be concluded that Samuel Stephens was an immature young man, quite inexperienced, and unsuited to the demanding responsibilities of his position. He could be described as pompous, conceited, imprudent, dishonest, causing disgrace to himself and others as well as his employer, not respected by his subordinates, contemptuous towards others, quick to anger, easily offended, vain, excitable, intemperate, hypocritical (about temperance), mischievous, petty, interfering, career obsessed, overly ambitious, a poor communicator, poor manager of people, poor manager of accounts, reckless, quarrelsome, boastful, greedy, self-seeking and a self-aggrandising drunk.

REFERENCES :

Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1966, “Angas, George Fife (1789–1879)”, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 22 May 2014, from http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/angas-george-fife-1707/text1855 , published in hardcopy 1966

Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1967a, “Stephens, Samuel (1808–1840)”,  National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 22 May 2014, from http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stephens-samuel-2698/text3783 , published in hardcopy 1967

Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1967b, “McLaren, David (1785–1850)”, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 22 May 2014, from http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mclaren-david-2412/text3195 , published in hardcopy 1967

Beare, W.L., 1910, in PIONEER OF 1836. (1910, July 18). The Register, p. 7. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article57144968

Blacket, J. 1929, in THE FOUNDATION OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA. (1929, December 28). The Advertiser, p. 13. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article29000062

Brown, J. 1858, in WHO FIRST LANDED IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA?. (1858, December 21). The South Australian Advertiser, p. 2. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article786796

Heinrich D, 2011, “The Man Who Hunted Whales”, Awoonga

HistorySA, 2011a, Bound For South Australia, Samuel Stephens, retrieved 22 May 2014, from http://boundforsouthaustralia.net.au/journey-content/samuel-stephens.html

HistorySA, 2011b, Bound For South Australia, Samuel Stephens, Journal 27 July 1836 retrieved 22 May 2014, from http://boundforsouthaustralia.net.au/wednesday-27-july-1836-2.html

HistorySA, 2011c, Bound For South Australia, Source Material, retrieved 22 May 2014, from http://boundforsouthaustralia.net.au/using-this-site/source-material.html

HistorySA, 2011d, Bound For South Australia, The Story of Elizabeth Beare, retrieved 22 May 2014, from http://boundforsouthaustralia.net.au/journey-content/first-landings-the-story-of-elizabeth-beare.html

HistorySA, 2011e, Touchdown 1836 style! , retrieved 22 May 2014 from http://history.sa.gov.au/news/touchdown-1836-style

HistorySA, 2011f, Bound For South Australia, Robert Morgan’s Journal Monday 22nd August retrieved 22 May 2014, from http://boundforsouthaustralia.net.au/monday-22-august-1836.html

HistorySA, 2011g, Bound For South Australia, Robert Morgan’s Journal Wednesday 3rd August retrieved 22 May 2014, from http://boundforsouthaustralia.net.au/wednesday-3-august-1836-2.html

Manning G, n.d., Insight into South Australian History, Essay 11 - The First Fleet to South Australia and Aspects of Early Colonial  History, retrieved May 22 2014 from http://www.geoffmanning.net.au/html/single-essays/essay11-first-fleet.html

Mazey, I.1894, in DEATH OF AN OLD COLONIST. (1894, June 28). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 - 1931), p. 6. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article25729175

O’Donnell, H. 1927, in SOME EARLY HISTORY. (1927, November 10). The Register, p. 10. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article54939701

Painter A, n.d., SA175, Professional Historians Association (SA), retrieved 22 May 2014, from http://www.sahistorians.org.au/175/chronology/january/18-january-1840-samuel-stephens.shtml

Pike D, 1967, “Paradise of Dissent : South Australia 1829-1857”. 2nd ed. Melbourne : Melbourne University Press ; London ; New York : Cambridge University Press,

South Australian Register, 1839, PROGRESS OF DISCOVERY (1839, October 26). p. 5. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article27440919

South Australian Register, 1840a, CORONER'S COURTS. (1840, January 25). p. 4. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article27441133

South Australian Register, 1840b,  DEATH OF MR SAMUEL STEPHENS. (1840, January 25). p. 4. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article27441131

South Australian Register, 1886a, REMINISCENCES OF KANGAROO ISLAND SETTLEMENT. (1886, July 27)., p. 6. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article44579010

South Australian Register, 1886b, THE INFANCY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIAN SETTLEMENT. (1886, July 27). (Adelaide, SA : 1839 - 1900), p. 6. Retrieved May 24, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article44579008

South Australian Weekly Chronicle, 1858 WHO FIRST LANDED IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA?. (1858, December 25) p. 4. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article88820459

The South Australian Advertiser, 1859, II.—ANNIVERSARY OF THE COLONY AND NEW YEAR'S FESTIVITIES. (1859, January 26), p. 3. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article788189

Taylor R, 2008, “Unearthed – The Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island”, Wakefield Press.


Neil Miller is a descendant of Thomas Hudson Beare, who arrived at Kangaroo Island aboard the Duke of York in 1836.


See also SOUTH AUSTRALIA'S GROWTH: (1906, November 17). Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), p. 46.  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article88127806, in which J. P. Stow writes:
I will now say a few words about the Stephens Brothers, of whom three came to the province. They were a thorough fighting family. Samuel Stephens, the manager, of the South Australian Company, was the first European adult colonist to land upon these shores (a sailor raced him with a little daughter of Mr. Beare and won the race), but he somehow or other disagreed with the officials over him, and his connection with the company was terminated. Shortly afterwards he lost his life by a horse accident coming down the hills overlooking Adelaide Mr. Edward Stephens, a man oi great influence and real power, who was manager of the Bank of South Australia after it be came dissociated from the South Australian Company, was generally at strife either on some financial or political matter, and his methods were not always confined to. peaceful arguments or moral suasion. He had a pugilistic encounter with a gentleman who had distinguished himself in a similar manner several years before with a brother Government official. This last encounter was celebrated in his own style by Timothy Short as a combat between 'the knave of diamonds and the ace of spades. ... John Stephens, editor of the 'Register,' kept up the family reputation for combativeness. He was rarely without a libel action in progress against himself, and he died in 1857 with one on hand. Some of his attacks on individuals were unnecessary and unwise, for they dealt with matters in which the assistance of the police or the Police Court was available, but John Stephens was honest and as a fearless exposer of abuses and defender of the right he played a prominent part and a useful one in our history. Another brother, Joseph Rayner Stephens, did not come to the province, but he seems to have had the same combative disposition as his brothers, and he broke away from the Methodist Connexion in England.



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