THE 200th anniversary of the birth of one of Chepstow’s most influential and notable – if now largely forgotten – sons is approaching.

James Stephens, born in Chepstow on August 8, 1821, was a stonemason, Chartist, and, after moving to Australia, one of the founders of the movement for an eight-hour day, later widely adopted around the world.

His biographer, writing in the 1940s, described Stephens as “the man to whom, more than any other individual, Australians owe the conditions under which they live today.”

The Chepstow Society is working to preserve his memory, and is hoping to prepare and install a commemorative plaque close to his birthplace at Davis Court in the town centre.

The son of a stonemason, Stephens followed his father’s trade and went to work in Newport, where he was injured in a fall from 30 feet.

South Wales Argus:

James Stephens

He supported the Chartist movement, seeking rights for working people, and was involved in the 1839 rising, when soldiers opened fire on the crowd of protesters outside the Westgate Hotel in Newport. 

Stephens escaped and found work in London, but was fired from his work on Windsor Castle when his political sympathies became known.

He remained active with the Chartists and worked on the new Houses of Parliament and other buildings.

The lure of the gold rush in Australia called him, and with his family he emigrated to Melbourne, arriving in 1853 in time to help build the new booming city there.

He once again became involved in activism and the movement there for an eight hour day – “8 Hours Work, 8 Hours Recreation, 8 Hours Rest”.

While Stephens did not start the movement, he led it to a successful conclusion in the state of Victoria, achieving the movement’s aims in 1856 – eight hours work, for the same pay as the stonemasons had previously had to work for ten.


Soon, the movement for an eight hour day spread around the world.

Stephens died in 1889, and his activities were largely forgotten – both in Australia, though the success of the campaign itself was celebrated in annual marches for many decades, and in his home town of Chepstow. 

In more recent years, his grave in Melbourne has been restored and, in Chepstow, a road on a new estate in Thornwell bears his name.

South Wales Argus:

Eight hour day monument in Melbourne

Guy Hamilton, secretary of the Chepstow Society, has been helped by some of James Stephens’ descendants and family in Australia in finding out more about him and what he achieved, and hopes that a commemorative plaque can be installed close to his birthplace.

He said: “Now, at the time of his bicentenary, James Stephens deserves to be remembered, not only in his home town of Chepstow but more widely. 

"Without his efforts and those of his colleagues and contemporaries, people today would not have the working conditions that many take for granted.”