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Stewart, John (1810–1896)

by Mark Lyons

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

John Stewart (1810-1896), by unknown photographer

John Stewart (1810-1896), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 08205

John Stewart (1810-1896), veterinary surgeon and politician, was born in October 1810 in Northumberland, England, son of Malcolm Stewart, estate agent, and his wife Elizabeth, née Scott. He graduated in veterinary science from the Royal (Dick) Veterinary College, Edinburgh, in 1827 and practised in Glasgow. In 1834-40 he was professor of veterinary medicine at the Andersonian University, Glasgow. In 1831 he published Advice to Purchasers of Horses … and in 1838 Stable Economy … Both ran to many editions in England and America and the latter was described a century later as 'one of the few veterinary classics'.

Leaving Glasgow in 1840 Stewart arrived in Sydney next year and set up practice. On 1 November 1842 at St James's Church he married Sarah Pringle, a native of Aberdeen, and took a fifteen-month break in 1845-46. He combined a horse bazaar with his work until 1852, when he retreated to Keira Vale near Wollongong to provide a country upbringing for his young children. Active in local public life, he was a magistrate for a time, chairman of the Central Illawarra Municipal Council in 1860, a leader-writer for the Illawarra Mercury and a promoter of the Wollongong School of Arts and the Albert Memorial Hospital. A late convert to free selection before survey, in 1860 he lost the election for the Legislative Assembly seat of Illawarra. He ran again in 1864 as a supporter of (Sir) Charles Cowper against the conservative P. H. Osborne; despite support from influential townsmen he was defeated but he won a by-election in 1866. His three campaigns were marked by accusations from certain Protestant circles that he was irreligious; he had championed National schools, sought the abolition of the Upper House and of state aid to religion, and criticized the University of Sydney as impractical and a waste of money. In parliament he drew attention with attacks on its ceremony and 'wasteful' government expenditure on such things as pensions. He frequently jousted with opponents of (Sir) Henry Parkes's 1866 Public Schools Act. Rarely absent from debates, he possessed a dry sarcastic wit which he exercised frequently but never maliciously, and was a delight to parliamentary reporters.

In the panic after the attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh, Stewart was one of the few to keep his head and he opposed (Sir) James Martin's notorious Treason Felony Act. Nonetheless, his wit sometimes surrendered to his dislike of Roman Catholicism and he occasionally supported the Orangemen. A free-thinker, he stressed the principles of moral enlightenment, backed eight-hour legislation to help self-education for working men, and supported Rev. James Greenwood's New South Wales Public School League. In 1869 his success as parliamentary spokesman for the ideas of the barrister T. J. Fisher helped the setting up of the 1870 Law Reform Commission and led him to believe that he was qualified to speak on law reform, but he displayed at times 'an almost incredible ignorance' of his subject. He failed four times to carry his legal practitioners relief bill to destroy the privileges of the Bar, and also bills to reform the law on the custody of infants, married women's property, divorce and unlawful promises. His electoral popularity was precarious. Defeated in 1869, he was elected unopposed for Kiama in a by-election in 1871, holding his seat in 1872 and losing it in 1874. Despite his liberal principles he supported Martin in 1866-68 and 1870-72, but from 1872-74 he supported Parkes, with whom he was friendly. In 1879 Parkes had him appointed to the Legislative Council, where he remained until his retirement in 1895.

Stewart had removed to Sydney in 1866 and in 1872-82 practised as a veterinary surgeon in Darlinghurst Road. From 1873 he was a trustee of the Free Public Library. He died on 30 July 1896 of cerebral haemorrhage and exhaustion, and was buried in the Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter. His estate was sworn for probate at £16,193.

Select Bibliography

  • J. F. Smithcors, Evolution of the Veterinary Art (Lond, 1958)
  • ‘Report on veterinary science and practice in Australia’, Veterinarian (London), Sept 1881
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Apr 1845, 4 July 1846, 22 July, 17 Sept 1867, 19, 23 Mar, 15 Sept 1868, 22 Feb 1871
  • Illawarra Mercury, 4, 7, 12 Dec 1860, 6, 9 Dec 1864, 18 Sept 1866, 6 Aug 1896
  • Protestant Standard (Sydney), 11 June, 3, 24 July 1869, 17 July, 27 Aug 1870
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 25 Feb, 4 May 1871, 26 Sept 1874
  • R. Parsons, Lawyers in the New South Wales Parliament, 1870-1890 (Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, 1972)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Mark Lyons, 'Stewart, John (1810–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-john-4646/text7669, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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