Page 1: Biography
Auctioneer, rugby player, theatrical company manager and entrepreneur
This biography, written by Peter Downes, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
George Stephenson was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 4 February 1874, the youngest of six children of Laura Gould and her husband, John Stephenson, an auctioneer and partner in the stock and station company Wright Stephenson. Educated at Otago and Waitaki Boys' high schools, he was a member of the First XV rugby team at Waitaki and developed above-average skills as an actor specialising in comedy, later becoming a leading member of a local amateur minstrel troupe.
His working life started in his father's company in Dunedin. After beginning as a junior auctioneer, around 1891 he was sent to Britain to study the woollen industry in the mills at Bradford, Yorkshire. While there he distinguished himself as a rugby union player, becoming one of the top wing three-quarters in the Manningham club. This sporting reputation, supported by a hardy physique, was enhanced after his return to New Zealand. From 1895 to 1899 he played for the Dunedin Football Club, becoming a popular and dedicated captain of the senior XV and representing his province, Otago, in over 20 games.
On the death of his father in August 1900 George Stephenson inherited a considerable fortune. By then he was well entrenched as principal auctioneer with Wright Stephenson. However, his newly acquired wealth was to enable him to realise a long-held ambition to become a manager of a professional theatre company. On 25 April 1901 at Waitati, Otago, he married an Australian actress, Annie King, and after resigning from the firm he travelled to Britain. There he applied his abundant energies and instinctive flair to assembling a theatrical company and touring it around the provinces. Having tasted success he returned to his homeland and in 1903 imported the famous Stine–Evans American Comedy Company for a lengthy Australasian tour.
Aiming to present more spectacular theatrical fare, in 1904 he toured the Stephenson Musical Comedy Company of British and Australian artists led by the comedian Edward Lauri and the New Zealand-born singer May Beatty. Long seasons of the musical comedies The rose of the riviera, The skirt dancer, The dandy doctor and Bill Adams the hero of Waterloo were played twice throughout Australasia. Although Alfred Hill's comic opera A Moorish maid was already familiar to audiences in the principal New Zealand cities, Stephenson took over the performing rights from 1 February 1906, intending to tour it more extensively through the country and eventually take it to Sydney. Most of the parts were distributed among Stephenson's own players, but the leading soprano, Rosina Buckman, was engaged from the original semi-amateur company, with the composer, Hill, as conductor.
The Stephenson Musical Comedy Company's performances were all highly acclaimed, but the running costs were immense and overall the productions were not profitable. To ensure the company's survival, Stephenson was forced to reduce his ambitious plans and in the following years he was to concentrate on less expensive shows.
From 1907 to 1910 he returned to his original calling with Wright Stephenson and worked in Gore, but theatrical life was always his first love and he soon went back to it. The travelling entertainment groups he developed, The Wanderers and Tinytown, were long remembered in Australia and New Zealand and for four successive years he produced and toured pantomimes in both countries, again with widespread success. During the early years of the First World War his Company of Comedians also attracted large audiences with an updated version of the American variety show Fun on the Bristol.
Noting his rare quality of shrewdness combined with amiability, the Fuller family persuaded him in 1916 to join their theatrical organisation and he was appointed manager of their Auckland enterprises. The association was short-lived, however; after suffering from heart disease for a year, George Stephenson died in Auckland at the age of 44, on 6 November 1918. His wife, Annie, survived him; there were no children of the marriage.
Although Stephenson's involvement with Australasian entertainment was brief, it was nevertheless intense and made a deep impression. The shows he presented, though in the main unpretentious, were invariably well produced, lively and popular with a heavy emphasis on comedy. His strong but likable personality and vitality earned him respect throughout New Zealand and Australia; his tact, courtesy and great generosity brought him many friends. Of a genial and kindly nature, it was said that he went through all his life with a smile.