Philip Stephens was Secretary to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty from 1763 until 1795. As such, much of the correspondence concerning Cook’s voyages emanates from Stephens, or is addressed to him. Cook also worked and corresponded with Stephens during his time in Newfoundland. Many business letters between the two men survive. A close working friendship developed between the two men and Stephens most probably was one of the people who proposed Cook for the Endeavour Voyage. In return, Cook named several geographic features after his friend.
Stephens was baptised on 11 October, 1723, in Alphamstone, Essex, the son of the rector Nathaniel Stephens (1679–1730) and Ellis (née Deane, 16xx-1762). He was educated at the Free School in Harwich before becoming a clerk at the Victualling Board. Two older brothers had already joined the navy. Tyringham (1713–1768) was also in the Victualling Board. Nathaniel (1721–1748) rose to be a captain.
Philip transferred to the Navy Office as a clerk of storekeepers' accounts on 3 July, 1739, before moving to the ticket office in January, 1741. At some time in the 1740s he came to the attention of George Anson, just returned from his voyage to the Pacific. It is believed that Stephens sorted out much of the bureaucracy left over from the voyage and, in return, Anson made him his personal secretary. His career from then on owed much to Anson.
On 6 April, 1751, Stephens was appointed first clerk of the Admiralty. He was also acting as a prize agent, through which he made considerable sums of money. Stephens was made assistant secretary to the Admiralty on 16 October, 1759, working under John Clevland. Clevland died in 1763, and Stephens succeeded him as secretary on 18 June, 1763. This timing nearly coincides with Cook’s first appointment as Surveyor in Newfoundland. As well as helping get Cook appointed to the EndeavourVoyage, it is believed that Stephens, together with Hugh Palliser and the Earl of Sandwich, was one of those who persuaded Cook to agree to command the Third Voyage.
While the title “Secretary” implies a junior role, the position actually carried much power. Stephens made many decisions without referring to the Lords Commissioners. No significant decision was taken without his involvement, and he decided which business went before the board. He occupied the position for thirty-two years, serving ten First Lords of the Admiralty.
The Earl of Bristol—when he was attacking the Earl of Sandwich (First Lord of the Admiralty at the time) in parliament in 1779—called Stephens “the most diligent, most intelligent, and indefatigable man in business I ever knew; and from whose absence on sickness, I am not at all surprised at anything that may happen to go wrong”.1
Stephens was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 6 June, 1771. He entered parliament for Liskeard, Cornwall, from December 1759. From 1768 to 1806 he represented Sandwich, Kent, but, apparently, never spoke in the chamber during those 46 years.
On his retirement as First Secretary on 3 March 1795 he was knighted. However, he was not finished with naval affairs as he became a Lords Commissioner himself. Stephens finally resigned on 23 October, 1806, after 67 years’ service. He was granted a pension of £1500 per annum.
Stephens died on 20 November, 1809, and was buried in Fulham, where had lived in style and owned property. He also had property in St. Faiths, Norfolk. He left a will.2
Stephens’s personal life was less happy or successful. He never married but had four children, all of whom predeceased him. His daughter, Caroline, married Viscount Ranelagh in 1804, but died in childbirth on 17 June 1805. One son died in India, another after breaking a leg, and a third in a duel in 1790. In his will he stipulated that Captain Andrew Wilkinson R.N., his beneficiary and a great nephew, assume the surname Stephens.
Cook named several features after Stephens. Stephens Island and Point Stephens near the northern tip of South Island, New Zealand,3 and Port Stephens on the New South Wales Coast honour him. George Vancouver also named features on the Alaskan coast after him.
- Cobbett, William. The Parliamentary History of England from the earliest Period to the year 1803. Vol. XX. 1814. Page 439.
- The National Archives (TNA). PROB 11/1507.
- Cook’s Log, page 1158, vol. 18, no. 2 (1995).
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 24, volume 38, number 1 (2015).