Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stephens, William (1671-1753)

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635767Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 54 — Stephens, William (1671-1753)1898Charles Alexander Harris

STEPHENS, WILLIAM (1671–1753), colonist, son of Sir William Stephens (d. 1697), lieutenant-governor of the Isle of Wight (where his family, originally of Cornish origin, had settled), by his wife Elizabeth, was born at Bowcombe, Isle of Wight, on 28 Jan. 1671, and educated at Winchester and King's College, Cambridge, graduating B.A. in 1684 and M.A. in 1688. Upon leaving Cambridge he was admitted at the Middle Temple. He entered parliament for Newport, Isle of Wight, in 1702, became an officer in the island militia, and before 1706 rose to the rank of colonel; in 1712 he was appointed a commissioner for the victualling of the force. His lavish expenditure made him popular, and he represented Newport down to 1722, when he was unseated, and had promptly to quit his seat at Barton, near Cowes, and seek refuge from his creditors.

In 1728 Stephens found employment in Scotland as agent for the York Building Company, with a salary of 200l. a year. Arriving at Findhorn on 28 March 1729, he devoted himself to the timber trade, in which the company was interested, and declined an invitation to stand again for Newport in 1732. Three years later he had to quit Scotland, leaving the company's affairs in confusion.

After a short residence in Penrith, Stephens was asked by one Colonel Horsey in 1736 to execute a survey in South Carolina. There he made the acquaintance of James Edward Oglethorpe [q. v.], and returned with him to England. In August 1737, taking one of his sons with him, he went back to Georgia in the Mary Anne via Charlestown, and arrived on 1 Nov. 1737. He found the settlement distracted by social quarrels and jealousies, in which he acted the part of a mediator. He met with success, at first as a planter and fruit cultivator, and he was appointed secretary to the trustees in Georgia in April 1741. He was shortly afterwards made president of the county of Savannah, and of the entire colony in 1743. He held this post until 1750, when he gave such evidence of mental and physical decline that he was requested to resign. He was voted a pension of 80l., but appears to have sunk into poverty before his death, upon his plantation of Bewlie (named after Beaulieu in the New Forest), at the mouth of the Vernon River, in August 1753.

He married, in 1697, Mary, second daughter of Sir Richard Newdigate, bart., of Arbury, by Mary, daughter of Sir Edward Bagot. They had issue seven sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Thomas, was the author of a curious memoir of his father, entitled ‘The Castle-builder; or, the History of William Stephens of the Isle of Wight, Esq.’ (2nd ed. London, 1759, 8vo).

William Stephens was author of ‘A Journal of the Proceedings in Georgia, beginning October 20, 1737: to which is added a State of that Province, as attested upon Oath in the Court of Savannah, Nov. 10, 1740,’ 3 vols. London, 1742, 8vo. Of this work a limited edition was published by the trustees, and complete copies are very rare (the British Museum copy lacks the third volume). While encumbered with many trivial and irrelevant matters, the ‘Journal’ is remarkable for accuracy and minuteness of detail. Stephens also possessed some manuscript records of the colony, accumulated during his tenure of office as secretary, and these, having passed to his family, formed part of Sir Thomas Phillipps's library at Thirlestane House, Cheltenham (cf. H. Stevens, in Collections of the Georgia Hist. Society, i. 34).

[Graduati Cantabr.; Official Ret. of Members of Parliament; Winsor's History of America, v. 386, 395–7, 400; Appleton's Cyclop. of Amer. Biography; Woodward's Hampshire, vol. iii. Suppl. p. 56; Collins's English Baronetage, vol. iii. pt. ii. p. 626; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

C. A. H.