Ben Woods, Assistant Archivist, Australian Mutuals History
Godfrey Stephens was a legend of the Queensland credit union movement. He was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1925. Only a slight Irish lilt is discernible on the oral history interview he gave Richard Raxworthy in November 1991, from which most of the information for this short biography was retrieved.
He spent the first 20 years of his life in Dublin and he told Raxworthy that he didn’t know what he was going to do when he left school but he was “pretty sure he was always going to be a desk jockey”. His first job after leaving school was as a clerk with the Dublin Trustees Savings Bank. He continued in this role until 1945. In 1945 he left the comforts of home to take up a position with the Bank of Iran in Tehran before returning to Ireland and getting married. Godfrey learned Persian in Tehran, telling Raxworthy “If I didn’t learn Persian, I didn’t eat. It was as simple as that. We were dealing purely with the local population”.
He was talked into coming to Australia by his father-in-law who spent a lot of time here. Godfrey and his wife arrived without jobs in Melbourne on Melbourne Cup Day in 1950 and he was astonished to see the place deserted. He was soon put right.
He first heard about credit unions while working in the Brisbane office of the ABC. He and his colleagues heard that the Sydney office had set up a credit union. He told Raxworthy, “It was very very attractive to us that the boys in the Sydney Office were co-operatively funding their own loan program”. He also noted that the ABC realised that the credit union benefited them as well and paid a staff member to go around the nation in order to set up ABC credit unions in every capital city. This person was Stan Arneil (for more on Stan Arneil, read our blog post here). Arneil asked Stephens to take on his first of several important credit union positions, namely the Secretary/Treasurer role of the newly formed ABC Staff (Qld) Credit Union in 1959.
In 1964, Godfrey took up the role of Manger of the Queensland Credit Union League, where he worked for a long while. Like all the Australian credit union pioneers, he worked very hard indeed in this position. After putting in a long day at the office, Mr Stephens would spend many nights on credit union work and many weekends on spreading the word about the credit union movement.
In his position of Manager of the Queensland Credit Union League, Godfrey helped form many credit unions in Queensland including Postal Technicians Credit Union (Qld), the first Aboriginal credit union at Cherbourg, near Brisbane and the Queensland Police Credit Union.
In 1965 he was invited by CUNA International to take a tour of credit unions in America and Canada in order to expand his knowledge. He told Raxworthy that a key finding of this trip was the workings of community credit unions. It became apparent to him that the decentralised population of Queensland meant that community credit unions would do more to spread the movement than industry credit unions which were the norm up until then.
He also learned a lot from attending the Newport Credit Union Schools in Sydney which the NSW Credit Union League (NSWCUL) began in 1965. He told Raxworthy, “I remember that I learned a hell of a lot about philosophy and I learned that when a person is in trouble they need help. That doesn’t always happen today. Computers are rather callous instruments and if one tells you ‘sorry, you’re over extended’, on too many occasions that is the end of that person. I’m afraid I believe that when a person is in trouble, they need help. Perhaps, it may not be money but they need help”.
Mr Stephens received an Order of Australia Medal in 1991 for his pioneering work in the Queensland credit union movement. Also in 1991, he was awarded the Australian Credit Union Historical Co-operative’s Kevin Yates Award for meritorious service to the Australian Credit Union Movement.
Godfrey Stephens passed away aged 83 on Friday, 5th December 2008, in Chermside, Brisbane.