STEWART, George Vesey
A new biography of Stewart, George Vesey appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
George Vesey Stewart was born in Martray, County Tyrone, on 4 October 1832, the son of Captain Mervyn Stewart and grandson of Sir John Stewart, BT. After graduating with distinction at Trinity College, Dublin, Stewart settled down as a farmer, but rash speculation and improvidence brought him to the verge of ruin, and he resolved to emigrate to New Zealand.
Stewart's ardent visionary nature and his ambition led him to plan a settlement of Ulster gentry and tenant farmers, of which he would be patriarchal head, but he wished the farmers to become landowners, and therefore insisted that all should possess some money. In his ideas and rashness he resembled Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Without waiting for New Zealand approval of his plan, he invited members of Orange Lodges in Ulster to join him. Negotiations were long and difficult. After an extensive tour of New Zealand he chose as a site for settlement the Katikati Block, on the shores of Tauranga Harbour. He arranged with the Government for settlers in his first party to receive grants of land on conditions of occupation and improvement. This party, of 28 families, arrived by sailing ship in 1875. The second party, 378 in number, followed in 1878. For them Stewart bought land from the Government and sold it in farm lots. Stewart purposely included a large element of the governing and professional classes in Ireland. This “Ulster plantation,” says A. J. Gray, contributed “an atmosphere of culture and refinement that is seldom found in pioneering settlements”. Fortunately, their private means helped to carry Katikati through the depression of the eighties.
Stewart had painted prospects in glowing terms, but the settlers had to start from scratch in a wilderness, and the inevitable hardships produced deep resentment against the leader. But the settlement's origin gave it a strong community spirit, and an important lift came with the development of the famous Martha gold mine at Waihi, less than 20 miles away. Then dairying developed, and the success of Stewart's venture was assured.
In 1880–81 Stewart founded Te Puke, near Tauranga, which proved a more successful settlement. After a sojourn in England in the 1880s, as an emigration agent, Stewart returned to Katikati and lived there till his death on 3 March 1920, at Rotorua, in his eighty-eighth year. Gray considers that, on a low estimate, Stewart settled some 4,000 persons in New Zealand.
Stewart was an exceptionally able man, but he was weak in ability to consolidate gains; he made unnecesary enemies, and “he lacked the supreme quality of leadership, the capacity to inspire devotion”. He was very active in public affairs in Katikati and Tauranga, and seemed destined for Parliament, but the old grievances told against him. In the long run, much of this was eventually forgotten, and in his last years Stewart was the most revered figure in the Katikati community.
by Alan Mulgan, O.B.E. (1881–1962), Author.
- Reminiscences of Charles Duane (MS), Katikati Public Library
- An Ulster Plantation, the Story of Kati Kati, Gray, A. J. (1938)
- My Simple Life in New Zealand, Stewart, A. B. (1908).