Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stewart, David (1883–1954)

by John Clanchy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

David Stewart (1883-1954), carpenter and educationist, was born on 11 April 1883 at Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, eldest son and third of ten children of David Stewart, porter, and his wife Jane (Jean), née Crawford. His early life was shaped by two powerful influences: the frequent unemployment of his father and the proud, working-class puritanism of his mother who, by dint of careful management, kept her burgeoning family together and out of debt. On leaving school at 12, young David worked as a messenger-boy in a draper's shop; at his mother's insistence, he was then apprenticed to a cabinetmaker.

By the age of 19 Stewart was the family's chief breadwinner. His activities as a unionist and later as an office-holder in the Independent Labour Party made steady work difficult to obtain. For three years he studied economics and sociology at workers' education classes; he discovered in socialism both an explanation and a cure for the ills of his age. In 1908 he worked his passage to New Zealand. Although there were jobs aplenty, he found the cold and isolation of Palmerston North distressing.

Two years later Stewart moved to Sydney where he worked as a carpenter and upholsterer; he was a delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales from 1911. His passion for reading and for studying society was unabated, and he used his position in the labour movement to press for a programme of workers' education. At the invitation of Albert Mansbridge, founder of the Workers' Educational Association in Britain, Stewart established a branch in Sydney in November 1913 and was elected unopposed as general secretary of the Workers' Educational Association of New South Wales. For the next forty-one years, his life and the progress and vicissitudes of the association were indissolubly linked. He pursued adult education and the workers' cause with missionary zeal; his indefatigable energy, doggedness and considerable powers of advocacy were expended in its service. On 11 November 1916 at Summer Hill he married Lillian May Garth Tevelein, a schoolteacher.

The growth of the W.E.A. was swift. By 1914 there were fifty-five affiliated organizations and Meredith Atkinson offered the first classes under the joint sponsorship of the W.E.A. and the Department of Tutorial Classes of the University of Sydney. By 1915, largely at the instigation of Mansbridge and Stewart, branches had been established in every State and in New Zealand. A federal council (with Stewart as treasurer) was inaugurated in November 1919 following the launching of the association's journal, Australian Highway, to which he was to contribute numerous articles and reviews. From 1927 Stewart was the council's secretary. A residential summer school, built largely by his own hands and posthumously named after him, was established at Newport.

Yet, set-backs to his work were frequent. The association was continually short of money and, although he never complained of it, Stewart was paid a pittance. Relations with the university were sometimes troubled, most particularly in 1918 and in 1932-33 when divisions arose over the control of tutorial classes. Even more damaging were conflicts within the labour movement itself in 1916 over the conscription issue and in 1942-43 over perceived anti-Russian bias in one of the classes. Against all these pressures, Stewart steadfastly upheld the right of free speech and, through the Highway and at union meetings, re-asserted the association's original purpose as a non-partisan, non-sectarian, voluntary workers' educational movement. For his devotion to these ideals he was appointed O.B.E. in 1953.

On 30 April 1948 Stewart, then a widower, married Flora Mary Carmichael Smith at Burwood. She supported him in his many activities. Afflicted with diabetes for twenty years, Stewart died of heart disease on 4 August 1954, at the end of a full day's work for the association, and was cremated after an Anglican service at St James's Church, King Street. He was survived by his wife, and by two daughters and a son of his first marriage. A portrait of Stewart by Mary Abbott is held by W.E.A. House, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • E. M. Higgins, David Stewart and the W.E.A. (Syd, 1957)
  • Australian Highway, 36, no 4, Nov 1954, 38, no 1, Feb 1956
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Jan 1935, 23 Nov 1946, 24 Oct 1947, 1 Jan 1953, 6 Aug, 7 Sept 1954, 18 Aug 1955
  • Workers' Educational Association of New South Wales, Annual Reports, 1914-55 (held by WEA of New South Wales, Sydney).

Citation details

John Clanchy, 'Stewart, David (1883–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-david-8661/text15145, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 30 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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