William Alexander Stephens was born in Belfast, Ireland, on 9 April 1809. While still a child, he emigrated with his family to New York and then, in 1816, to Upper Canada (now Ontario), first to Toronto and Markham, then to Esquesing Township (now part of Halton Region) where his parents, Thomas and Eleanor (Newburn) Stephens, established a farm. Stephens was one of twelve children.
In 1839 Stephens was summoned to Hamilton for jury duty. While there, he commented on the view from the top of the mountain (escarpment) and was encouraged to compose a poem about it. Stephens took up the challenge and composed “Hamilton,” a lengthy poem in a style reminiscent of the 18th century, including long passages based on Biblical stories and references to Greek myths; it also contains descriptions of early Hamilton, particularly in the first half of Book IV.
The poem, along with others by Stephens, was published in 1840 in Toronto by Rogers and Thompson as Hamilton and other poems. The book was one of the first volumes of poetry by an Ontarian ever published and helped earn Stephens the title “the pioneer poet of Ontario,” as assigned by T. J. Rexaledan in an 1891 article in Saturday Night. An expanded edition of Hamilton and other poems was published in 1871. (Both editions are available in the Archives’ book collection).
Stephens married Marian (Mary) Crispin in Toronto Township (present day Mississauga) on 13 October 1845. They lived initially in Norval and then later in Ballinafad (both in Esquesing). They moved to Owen Sound in 1850 where Stephens had been appointed customs officer, and would live there for the rest of their lives. In the 1871 census, Stephens is 62 years of age, his wife Mary is 45, and their children are listed as James C. (24), Newburn (22), Eliza A. (20), Henry R. (18), William S. (16), Haldane H. (14), Mary E. (12), and Edward W. (7).
Several of Stephens’ siblings also lived in Owen Sound, including brothers Thomas C. Stephens, Robert E. Stephens, A. M. Stephens, and Henry N. Stephens, and sisters Mary Doyle, Eliza Miller, Ellen Layton, and Rachel Layton.
Over the years, Stephens held a variety of other positions in Owen Sound in addition to customs officer, including notary public, lumber merchant, newspaper editor, insurance agent, and mayor (1869). He was a member of the Disciples church and frequently spoke at church worship services.
Stephens was a prolific writer of essays and poems, with pieces appearing in a broad range of journals and newspapers, including the Gleaner (Niagara), the Canadian Casket and Canadian Gleaner (both of Hamilton), the Advocate, Palladium, Examiner, and Leader (all of Toronto), the Albion (New York), the Saturday Courier (Philadelphia), the Review (Streetsville), the Baptist Magazine (Montreal), and more.
He also authored separately published booklets and essays—A poetical geography and rhyming rules for spelling (Toronto, 1848), Papal infallibility … as seen in the light of revelation (Owen Sound, 1871), and The centennial: an international poem (Toronto, 1878).
Stephens died in Owen Sound in 1891.