STEVENS, Edward Cephas John
Politician and businessman.
A new biography of Stevens, Edward Cephas John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
E. C. J. Stevens was born the youngest son of the Rev. W. E. Stevens, rector of Salford, Oxfordshire, and received his education at Marlborough College and the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester.
Stevens came to Canterbury in 1858 at the age of 21 and almost immediately made his mark in Christchurch business, sporting, cultural, and political life. During the early sixties he went into partnership with R. J. S. Harman as a land agent and financier and this firm financed J. E. FitzGerald's Press newspaper from 1863, taking control in 1868, Stevens remaining a director for the rest of his life. At the same time as he was secretary of the Gas Co. and a founder and manager of the Permanent Loan and Investment Society, he was trying to establish cricket in Canterbury. With J. A. Bennett he arranged and financed the 1863 and 1867 visits of the All England XI, and he played for Canterbury in all its representative games for nearly 20 years. In 1863, too, he was on the committee which formed an art society.
Stevens served in Tancred's Provincial Executive between 1863 and 1866, but went out of office, and left provincial politics when Moorhouse came back to power in the latter year. In 1866, however, he secured the uncontested Selwyn seat for the House of Representatives and by 1868 was counted amongst the foremost politicians because of his great financial knowledge. In 1868 he was president of the Canterbury Financial Reform Association which saw a remedy for depression in retrenchment, direct taxation, consolidation of loans, and firm central control over provincial departments, and in the Assembly he opposed Stafford whose Government partially adopted his financial measures, known at the time as “Stevens' policy”. In 1869 Stevens formed the “Stand Aloof” or “Cave” party with Tancred and Rolleston, intending to hold the balance between Stafford and Fox. The “Cave” initiated important policy debates and Stevens himself moved a resolution for the abolition of provincial government, their replacement by local electorate councils, and a general scheme for colonising all New Zealand. The resolutions were lost, but Stevens' reputation as a man of ideas rose. It rose still further in 1870 when Vogel introduced the Public Trust Bill and acknowledged Stevens as the author of that idea.
At the 1871 election Stevens lost his seat, by one vote, to William Reeves. The boldness with which he held to his free trade principles when his farmer constituents were among those most desirous of having a protective wheat tariff was typical of the man. He was returned for Christchurch city in 1875 as an abolitionist and was also at this time one of the first in New Zealand to advocate triennial Parliaments. After Grey became Premier in 1877 and the Opposition collapsed, Stevens was one of the leading organisers of the effort to find someone to lead the attack on Grey's mismanagement. Although Fox was made temporary leader in early 1879, Stevens wanted Hall to leave the Council and gather all the discontented elements. This Hall did when the election began, becoming Premier when >Grey was defeated. But Stevens was never a strong party man and between 1880 and 1881 he was again trying to form a “middle party”. In 1881 he retired from the House of Representatives, where for several years he had been Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and went into the Council in 1882. He was politically quiet for a few years, but in 1884 tried to get another “middle party” from the welter of rival groups. In 1887 Atkinson offered Stevens the Colonial Secretaryship, which he declined because of business commitments, but he did hold office without portfolio. He remained in the Government until its defeat and henceforth devoted little time to politics, although he remained in the Council for the rest of his life.
Stevens served on the Board of Governors of Canterbury College from 1875 to 1899; he was a founder and first chairman of Lincoln College from 1897 until his death; he was on the New Zealand Cricket Council from its inception; was president of the Canterbury Cricket Association and the New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association, and a founder of Lancaster Park. He was also an expert horticulturalist. He died on 6 June 1915 at his home “Englefield”, in Fitzgerald Avenue. The success of his business career may be gauged by the £282,000 he left. He married, in 1869, the widow of J. H. Whitcombe, surveyor and explorer.
Edward Stevens was a man of very strong personality, holding definite and inflexible opinions on any subject, from literature to cricket and from art to politics. His energy was unbounded, as even the barest list of his activities indicates, and his ideas were advanced. Besides suggesting the Public Trust, he campaigned during the seventies for sale of land on deferred payments, votes for all residents, free, secular, and compulsory education, and State aid for charitable institutions and hospitals. Later he suggested and supported Legislative Council reforms. In politics Stevens was a worker behind the scenes and an independent but respected critic of any Government's financial policies. His letters to Stafford reveal him as an incisive political observer. His manner was solemn and imperturbable, “decidedly oracular” as Gisborne says. As a businessman he was shrewd and at times ruthless: FitzGerald, heavily in debt to him, once described him as “a thorough Jew.”
He was interested and active in so much that he was never able to give his full time to politics and hence never attained the heights his undoubted talents deserved. Yet Steven's influence on early Christchurch and on colonial politics was extensive, widely acknowledged by his contemporaries and unobtrusively lasting.
by Edmund Bohan, M.A., School Teacher and Professional Singer (overseas).
- Stafford Correspondence (MSS), Turnbull Library
- Rulers and Statesmen of New Zealand, Gisborne W. (1897)
- Press (Christchurch), 25 May 1961 (Centennial Supplement).