Alfred Ernest Cousins was born in the Channel Islands at St Helier, Jersey, on 24 October 1852, the son of Elizabeth Coutanche and her husband, Peter Cousins, a carpenter. From 1868 he served as an apprentice in London with Samuel Stevens, an engraver and brass plate manufacturer, until May 1874 when he sailed to New Zealand on the Conflict.
Arriving at Wellington in August, Cousins worked there as an engraver for Robert Burrett for 18 months, and for Lyon and Blair for 6½ years. He then joined Bock and Elliott for 18 months, before entering into partnership with William Rose Bock. In 1883 he exhibited with the Fine Arts Association of New Zealand designs for a membership card and a certificate of merit. At the New Zealand Industrial Exhibition in Wellington in 1885 Bock and Cousins were awarded a silver medal for engraving, gaining first prize in both engraving and die-sinking, and lithographic and ornamental printing. However, the partnership was dissolved in 1889 under the financial strain imposed by Bock's pioneering chromolithographic production of Edward and Sarah Featon's Art album of New Zealand flora.
During his time with Bock, Cousins was introduced to work on postage stamps. In 1886 he engraved Tonga's first stamp issue and an issue for Samoa. In 1890 he entered a public design competition to produce two stamps to meet new postage rates on New Zealand's admission to the Universal Postal Union. Cousins's well-executed, large-scale watercolour designs stood out from a very ordinary field. One was accepted, and Cousins was given the task of engraving both values. It was a difficult task, since the design involved engraving Queen Victoria's head, for which previous dies used in the colony had been obtained from London.
This success opened up new horizons for Cousins. Between 1891 and 1895 he produced a set used by the Government Life Insurance Department, stamps for Samoa, Tonga and the Cook islands, a new New Zealand halfpenny stamp design, a letter card and a £1 postal note. By 1894 he had decided that his future lay in postage-stamp design. However, he was comparatively unsuccessful in the major stamp competition of 1895, winning only one first prize and one honourable mention. His hopes for furthering his career in this direction were dashed when the 1897 Tongan and 1898 pictorial New Zealand sets were sent to Britain for engraving.
Disappointed, Cousins tried his luck in Sydney, before returning in 1905 to Wellington, but success eluded him. Until his retirement in 1922 he worked as an engraver for Whitcombe and Tombs. Cousins had married Isabella Agnes McIlvride, the daughter of a farmer, at her home in Wainuiomata near Wellington on 22 May 1890. He died at Days Bay on 25 June 1935, survived by his wife and two sons.
Alfred Cousins was a competent craftsman, but he never greatly surpassed the assessment of his first reference: 'a steady, sober and industrious workman'. Lacking Bock's artistic grasp of the problems of design in miniature, he was unable to progress in his chosen field. He fell victim, too, to New Zealand's close relationship with Britain and that country's superior craftsmanship. His lasting disappointment is evident in a letter he sent to the Post and Telegraph Department as late as 1931, asserting that he could have produced dies for recent stamps and complaining that it was unjust 'to send work out of the country which could be done equally as well in NZ'.