James Stephens (trade unionist)

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James Stephens (8 August 1821 – 14 November 1889) was a stonemason, Chartist, and Australian trade unionist. [1]

Early years[edit]

Stephens was born in Chepstow, Monmouthshire in south east Wales. As a youth, he moved from Chepstow to nearby Newport, then a stronghold of formative Chartism. Stephens joined the Masons' Society in 1839 and later that year he was seriously injured in a fall of thirty feet while working as a stonemason.

Newport Chartist[edit]

He joined the Chartist movement and was one of the participants in Newport Rising and the riot and retaliation at the Westgate Hotel when soldiers fired on the crowd of rebels, killing twenty. He was 'severely handled' but escaped to London. He worked as a stonemason at Windsor Castle but was dismissed when it became known that he was a Chartist.

Working on the new houses of Parliament in Westminster he found himself among like-minded people. He was still active in Chartism but like many other supporters of the cause, increasingly directed his energies to craft unionism. He became a prominent leader of the masons, acquiring a wide experience as a union organiser.

Migration to Australia in 1853[edit]

When the Australian gold rush created an enormous demand for tradesmen, Stephens, like many other Chartists, migrated to Victoria and arrived in 1853.

Leader of men[edit]

In February 1855 the Operative Masons' Society, which had been suspended, was resuscitated, and, with James Galloway, he formed a local branch. This meeting is seen as the genesis of the "eight-hour day movement". Stephens, using the language of the Chartists, proposed to persuade the recalcitrant by 'physical force' if necessary and to coerce the non-unionists; but a meeting of employers and operatives resolved that the eight-hour day must come into force in April 1856. On the 'glorious 21 April' he led a major demonstration, and wrote: 'It was a burning hot day and I thought the occasion a good one, so I called upon the men to follow me, to which they immediately consented, when I marched them … to Parliament House, the men … dropping their tools and joining the procession'.

Latter years[edit]

He remained an active trade unionist for a while, but later claimed that he was victimised for sub-contracting, of which the unions disapproved.

He died in Melbourne, Australia, in poverty.


  1. ^ Turnbull, Clive (1976). "Stephens, James (1821 – 1889)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 2010-09-24. 

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