Arthur Robert Stephenson, the founding headmaster New College, was born in India and educated in England. The son of a Wesleyan missionary, Stephenson was educated in England in schools that were established by the church for sons of ministers. In 1873, he first attended Kingswood School in Bath before completing his schooling at Woodhouse Grove near Leeds. As a Kingswood School student, he was senior secretary of the Literary Association and excelled in cricket, football and athletic sports.
With an arts’ degree from the University of London, Stephenson’s teaching career began at New College in Eastbourne before he returned to the teaching staff at Kingswood School in 1884 as a master. The 1885 Kingswood Magazine reported Stephenson’s decision to emigrate to Australia as an ‘unwelcome surprise’ but acknowledged his contribution to the school’s sport curriculum and his success at establishing a swimming club.
In Australia, he married the daughter of a prominent South Australian family in 1886 and took up the resident master position at Prince Alfred College in Adelaide. Three years later he was appointed as second master at Methodist Ladies’ College in the Hawthorn, and renting house in the then-rural outpost of Box Hill, he rode six miles to and from school each day on horseback.
Stephenson saw great potential for a school in Box Hill. The government provided no education beyond primary level, there were no nearby private schools and the area was removed from a typhoid and diphtheria epidemic in Melbourne. Offering subjects that reflected his own school experience as well as local demand, Stephenson insightfully introduced vocational subjects – a move that revealed his astute business sense and understanding of Melbourne’s growth and development.
Over almost 20 years, Stephenson returned several times to the school to help avoid its closure.
His final return was in 1910. As a man of great faith, Stephenson displayed a unique commitment to the students and community of Box Hill and for the next eight years, juggled his headmaster role with parish duties in East St Kilda.
Returning to full-time church responsibilities in 1918, Stephenson attended a Congregationalist Conference on America’s east coast which had been funded through his demand on the paid lecturing circuit.
He returned to Australia with the conviction that life held more challenges. Stephenson – who had been widowed for several years – remarried and returned to England in 1926.
He remained in England for 13 years working as a minister in two parishes. Retiring to Australia, he died in the Melbourne suburb of Black Rock in 1961.
As the founder of Kingswood College in Box Hill, Melbourne, Arthur Stephenson is remembered as a pragmatic and prudent headmaster. His persistence, business acumen and scholastic integrity lay the foundations for a school that now boasts a proud and resilient history.