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Stephen, Henry Johnlocked

  • Leslie Stephen
  • , revised by Patrick Polden

Stephen, Henry John (1787–1864), serjeant-at-law, was born at St Kitts in the West Indies on 18 January 1787, the second son of James Stephen (1758–1832), lawyer and abolitionist, and his wife, Anna, née Stent (bap. 1758, d. 1796). His brothers included Sir James Stephen, under-secretary for the colonies, and Sir George Stephen, also a lawyer and abolitionist. He was thus uncle of Leslie Stephen. He went up to St John's College, Cambridge, in 1802 but did not graduate. He was called to the bar from Lincoln's Inn on 24 November 1815. In 1814 he married his cousin, Mary Morison. After the death of his stepmother, the sister of William Wilberforce, he kept house for his father in Kensington Gore, London, from 1815 to 1832.

Stephen was a man of nervous and retiring disposition, and, though an accomplished lawyer, obtained no great professional success. He became known, however, by a treatise on pleading, published in 1824. There was no want of practical treatises on the subject. The aim of Stephen's book was to develop systematically the principles of the ‘science’ and exhibit them as part of a general scheme. The systematic reduction of law to a set of principles was then a novel enterprise, and one which, according to his nephew A. V. Dicey, Stephen executed with clarity and economy. The merits of the treatise, which went into seven editions in England and eight in the USA, gave him a claim to promotion. Stephen became a serjeant-at-law in 1828, and was a member of the common-law commission appointed in that year. His influence on the commission's second report, which extolled the merits of special pleading, is evident. It led to the controversial ‘new pleading rules’ of Hilary term 1834. Ironically, their application brought the whole subject matter of the ‘science’ Stephen had developed into disrepute, hastening its abolition in 1852.

Stephen's fellow commissioners all became judges; and it is said, on doubtful authority, that a judgeship was offered to Stephen by Lyndhurst, and declined on the grounds that he could never bear to pass a capital sentence (Stephen, 46). In 1834 he published a Summary of the Criminal Law, which was translated into German. In 1841 appeared the first edition of his Commentaries, partly founded on Blackstone's Commentaries but with much additional matter and, according to Dicey, a logical power lacking in the original. The book enjoyed a high reputation from the first, and its adoption for the Law Society intermediate examination ensured its commercial success. The last edition was in 1950, changes in legal education finally making its approach outmoded. In 1842 Stephen was placed on a commission for inquiring into the forgery of exchequer bills, and in the same year became commissioner of bankruptcy at Bristol; Matthew Davenport Hill was his colleague. He lived at Cleevewood, near Bristol, until his retirement from this post in 1854, and afterwards lived at Clifton until his death. During his retirement he speculated on the prophecies and the theory of music. Though courteous and kindly, he was not sociable. His diffidence prevented him from obtaining the reputation as a writer or the position in his profession which he might fairly have claimed.

Stephen died on 28 November 1864 at 3 West Mall, Clifton, Bristol, Gloucestershire. His wife and a daughter died before him. He left two children. His daughter Sarah, born on 28 June 1816, was author of a religious story called Anna, or, The Daughter at Home, which went through several editions, and one of the founders of the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants. She died on 5 January 1895. His son James, born on 16 September 1820, was recorder of Poole, professor of law in King's College, London, and afterwards judge of the county court at Lincoln. He edited later editions of the Commentaries and Questions for Law Students on the same. He died on 25 November 1894.


Wealth at Death

under £18,000: probate, 14 Dec 1864, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

F. Boase, , 6 vols. (privately printed, Truro, 1892–1921); repr. (1965)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
W. S. Holdsworth, , ed. A. L. Goodhart & H. G. Hanbury, 17 vols. (1903–72)
J. H. Baker, ; SeldS, suppl. ser., 5 (1984)
J. Venn & J. A. Venn, , 2 pts in 10 vols. (1922–54); repr. in 2 vols. (1974–8)
Gentleman's Magazine