James Stephens was born in Wales in 1821. When his family moved to England he became a mason, like his father. He joined the Mason's Society in 1839, and also became a Chartist. At the time, the Chartist movement was campaigning for a ten-hour working day.
In November of 1839 he was involved in the Newport Rising riot where workers clashed with soldiers and 20 men were killed, Stephens escaped to London and began working at Parliament House. It was during this period that Stephens began focusing his efforts on organised unionism, becoming a well-known leader of London stonemasons.
Stephens migrated to Melbourne in 1853, where work was plentiful for tradesmen because of the gold rush. When workers began plans to pressure employers and the government for a shorter working day, Stephens was an obvious choice to lead the battle.
Stephens was a member of the Melbourne Lodge of the Operative Mason, who were leading the 8-hour movement. A public meeting of the building trade resolved to make 21 April 1856 the deadline for action on the issue, so Stephens rallied a group of stonemasons working on the construction of Melbourne University to walk off the job:
It was a burning hot day and I thought the occasion a good one, so I called the men to follow me... I marched them to a new building then being erected in Madeleine Street, thence to Temple Court and on to Parliament House, the men at all these works immediately dropping their tools and joining the procession.
– James Stephens
Sparrow, J & Sparrow, J 2001, Radical Melbourne, Vulgar Press, Carlton North, Vic.
Despite the Melbourne Daily Herald calling Stephens a 'stupid mischievious blockhead, the worst enemy [the workers] ever had in the colony', his agitation led to talks with employers, which eventually won the stonemasons the right to work an 8-hour day without a reduction in pay. This victory flowed onto other builders and labourers in general, although women, children and retail workers didn't receive these rights until well into the 20th century.
While Stephens' dedication to workers' rights had an enormous impact on working-class families, by the late 1880s he had been somewhat forgotten by Victorian society, and he died in poverty in 1889.