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date: 18 September 2020

Stephens, James Francisfree

  • Yolanda Foote

Stephens, James Francis (1792–1852), entomologist, was born on 16 September 1792 at Shoreham, Sussex, the only son of the naval captain William James Stephens (d. 1799) and his wife, Mary Peck Stephens (afterwards Mrs Dallinger). He was educated at the Blue Coat School, Hertford, and at Christ's Hospital, London, to which he was presented by Shute Barrington (1734–1826), bishop of Durham. He entered the school on 15 May 1800, and quit it on 16 September 1807, when he was placed by his uncle, Admiral Stephens, at the Admiralty office, Somerset House. He was a clerk there for many years.

Stephens's love for entomology began during his schooldays, and he also had some interest in electricity and natural philosophy. His Catalogue of British Animals was issued in manuscript between 1808 and 1812. He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society on 17 February 1815, and of the Zoological Society in 1826. He was also a member of the entomological societies of London and France. Between 1815 and 1825 Stephens's spare time was devoted mainly to ornithology; he contributed volumes nine to fourteen (on birds) to General Zoology, a series begun by the naturalist George Shaw (1751–1813) in 1800. Stephens's other interests around this time included electricity, British shells, and insects. In 1818, at the request of the trustees of the British Museum, he was granted leave from his office to assist the naturalist William Elford Leach (1790–1836) in arranging the museum's insect collection. In 1822 he married Sarah, daughter of a Captain Roberts. The couple did have children, but they all died young.

Around this time, Stephens devoted himself more especially to British insects (he removed all non-indigenous specimens from his cabinet), and prepared a catalogue and a descriptive account of them. On completion of his work at the British Museum, he returned to the Admiralty to resume his duties. However, the 'animosity of his superiors' (Jarvis, 95) at the Admiralty must have influenced his decision to retire early, despite the consequent loss of part of his pension. After his retirement Stephens worked, unpaid, at the British Museum until his death; he undertook the considerable task of arranging and cataloguing the collection of Linnaean Phalaenae (around 7000 specimens). It is believed that he described some 2800 species native to Britain, a considerable expansion on the earlier efforts of the entomologist Thomas Marsham (1747/8–1819). Stephens was unusual in his work practice since he regularly preferred a pocket lens to a microscope, and refused to kill specimens by impaling them, using instead a killing bottle and 'crushed laurel leaves' (ibid., 96).

The first part of Stephens's chief work, Illustrations of British Entomology (1828–46), was supplemented in 1829 by A Systematic Catalogue of British Insects, and in 1839 by A Manual of British Coleoptera. Besides twenty-three papers, he was also author of The Nomenclature of British Insects (1829; edn 1833), An abstract of the indigenous Lepidoptera contained in the Verzeichniss bekannter Schmetterlinge, by Hübner (1835), and Catalogue of British Lepidoptera (1850–52; edn 1856). In addition, he wrote the entomological articles in the Encyclopaedia metropolitana.

In 1832 Stephens took up copyright litigation with the naturalist James Rennie (1787–1867), whose Conspectus of the Butterflies and Moths Found in Britain (1832) reportedly pirated Stephens's Illustrations; but he lost his case. The feeling, however, among his scientific friends was so strongly in his favour that a subscription was raised towards covering the hefty legal expenses, and when in July 1833 the economic entomologist John Curtis (1791–1862) attacked him, Edward Newman (1801–1876), another naturalist, came to his defence. In the same year, Stephens met with a group of friends, fellow enthusiasts of entomology, who resolved to establish an 'Entomological Society of London'. Of this newly founded society, Stephens became a vice-president. Despite believing his work had been pirated, he persevered with the Illustrations up until 1837, when eleven volumes had been completed (a supplement was issued in 1846).

Stephens's friends attempted to secure him a civil-list pension, but were unsuccessful. He died at Kennington, London, on 22 December 1852, and was survived by his wife. His collections were purchased by the British Museum, and his fine library was acquired by Henry Tibbats Stainton (1822–1892). Stainton continued Stephens's practice of allowing fellow entomologists to use his library on Wednesday evenings, until both Stephens's library, and some of Stainton's own books, were presented to the Entomological Society of London. Stainton also produced a catalogue of Stephens's books in 1853, under the title Bibliotheca Stephensiana.


  • Proceedings of the Entomological Society of London, new ser., 2.46–50
  • H. T. Stainton, Bibliotheca Stephensiana (1853)
  • private information (1897) [R. L. Franks]
  • private information [secretary, Linn. Soc.]
  • private information [secretary of the Zoological Society]
  • B. B. Woodward and others, eds., Catalogue of the books, manuscripts, maps, and drawings in the British Museum (Natural History), 8 vols. (1903–40)
  • Catalogue of scientific papers, Royal Society
  • S. A. Neave, The centenary history of the Entomological Society of London, 1833–1933 (1933)
  • C. Mackechnie Jarvis, ‘A history of the British Coleoptera’, Proceedings and Transactions of the British Entomological and Natural History Society, 8/4 (1976), 91–112, esp. 95–6


  • Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, letters to Leonard Blomefield
  • Linn. Soc., letters to William Swainson


  • photograph (after daguerreotype), repro. in Jarvis, ‘A history of the British Coleoptera’
[in 360 vols. with suppls., also CD-ROM and online]
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Natural History Museum, London
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Linnean Society of London