Charles Stephen Boreham, known as Stephen, was born on 19 December 1857 at Richmond, near Hobart Town, Tasmania. He was the eldest child of Stephen Boreham, a farmer, and his wife Ellen Lynch. There were at least three sons, all of whom became shearers. Stephen junior also worked as a sailmaker, drainer, blacksmith, station hand and general labourer, and in his early years as a seaman. It was said that he was the original for one of Henry Lawson's characters, and that he inherited his sympathies and 'spontaneous practical ideas of mutual help' from his mother who helped swaggers in the Australian bush. He was a forceful and compelling public speaker, was well read and could muster a strong, polemical argument.
Boreham attracted much controversy wherever he went. He was an ardent anti-prohibitionist, was clearly fond of a drink or two and often settled disputes physically. One confrontation with a non-unionist during a shearing strike resulted in a long fight. The following morning his opponent congratulated him on his 'fistic proclivities' and promptly joined the union. On one occasion he was hauled before a court 'for destroying property…and for assaulting the landlord' at a hotel. He was not averse to challenging others to combat – a shearing match or boxing. One trade unionist remembered him as a man of 'husky build [who] gloried in a bout of fisticuffs, as many hostile squatters have cause to remember.'
At the age of 14 Boreham became a seaman, and served in British, German, Spanish and American wind-jammers, and in the British and Spanish navies. He left the sea in 1884 and in the same year on 11 August, at Glemsford, Suffolk, England, he married Edith Sarah Boreham, the daughter of a grocer. They were to have at least six children.
The couple sailed immediately for New Zealand and by the end of the year Boreham was shearing on Ida Valley station, Central Otago. He regularly shore more than 100 sheep a day; one daily tally of 180 ranked him among the best shearers of the period. His first visit to New Zealand was marked by a spectacular incident: after fomenting a strike on a Waitaki station, Boreham and another shearer were chased by the squatter with a gun. Boreham was shot 'in the nethermost region of the trousers' and his friend swam across the Waitaki River.
Boreham was soon involved in shearer unionism. He travelled between Australia and New Zealand for the shearing, and became an organiser for the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia in New South Wales before 1890. During the great shearers' strike of 1894 he participated in a strike camp – an assembly of striking workers designed to prevent non-union shearers from breaking the strike. He claimed to have organised unions for railway workers, bakers and butchers in South Canterbury and North Otago in late 1889.
In the 1890s Boreham lived in Oamaru, where he organised the local branch of the Amalgamated Shearers' and General Labourers' Union of New Zealand, moving from shed to shed. He pushed hard for a general industrial union for rural workers which would include farm, harvesting and threshing-mill workers and many other occupations, and published a log which fixed wage rates for an extraordinary range of rural work. These events caused a tremendous stir in North Otago and before long the farmers of the district had mobilised to combat this threat. Boreham's conception of industrial unionism made him a forerunner of ideas which became popular in the early twentieth century.
However, Boreham did not hold many official posts, largely because of his radical views, and perhaps also because of his inability to deal with the day-to-day details of trade union organisation. This led to his alienation from the mainstream leaders of the shearers' union in the early 1890s and accusations of misuse of union funds. Indeed, he was cast out of the shearers' union for several years.
Boreham helped organise the unemployed, particularly during a resurgence of unemployment in 1894. He claimed to have stood for Parliament in 1887, 1893, and 1899 as one of the first representative working men – if not the first – although the only record of his candidacy in the official results was in 1899 for Waitaki. He carried out his working man's role with a vengeance, travelling from meeting to meeting carrying his swag. When he addressed an evening election meeting in Timaru in 1893 he claimed to have already shorn 120 sheep and walked 15 miles to town that day.
In 1901 Boreham founded the Waimate Workers' Union for farm workers and threshing-mill hands. This was the first substantial farm workers' union and the first to obtain an award (for threshing-mills) in 1903. While in Waimate Boreham quickly made a name for himself through his role in promoting the break-up of estates such as Waikākahi and his stand against prohibition: 'It had been said that drink was the cause of poverty, but he said poverty was the cause of drink'.
Stephen Boreham moved to Dunedin in April 1906, joined the Otago General Labourers' Union, and organised all sorts of unskilled general manual workers' and musterers' unions. He was a regular entertaining speaker at the Fountain on Sunday nights and he sold the Māoriland Worker in the streets of the city. Jack McCullough, the longtime workers' representative on the Court of Arbitration, met Boreham during the Otago musterers' case in 1908. After initially being impressed with his advocacy, McCullough soon changed his mind. Boreham's style was more suited to the rough and tumble of the shearing floor or the soap box than to the careful, legalistic argument of the court. The last straw for the respectable McCullough came when Boreham got 'beastly drunk' on the train from Alexandra and he observed that 'I can't remember any occasion when I was so ashamed of my class as…today.'
Boreham was accepted back into agricultural unionism in 1915 when he became secretary of the Otago Rural Workers' Union, a member body of the New Zealand Agricultural and Pastoral Workers' Union, as the shearers' union had now become. He became the Otago representative for the national union in 1916, and attended its conference in 1918. In the early 1920s he became president of the union's Otago and Southland branch and finally vice president of the New Zealand Workers' Union.
In spite of his flamboyant and unruly nature Stephen Boreham was widely known and respected for his massive contribution to the trade union movement. On 15 May 1925 in Dunedin he was hit by a motorcycle and side-car while crossing the street after emerging drunk from a pub at 6 p.m. on a dark, wet Friday evening. When he died a week later on 21 May, several thousand people including the mayors of Dunedin and St Kilda, local members of Parliament and 'Big Jim' Roberts, secretary of the New Zealand Alliance of Labour, made up a cortège. It was one of the largest such gatherings seen for many years.