Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stewart, Sir Alexander Anderson (1874–1956)

by John Lack

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

Sir Alexander Anderson Stewart (1874-1956), engineer and company director, was born on 31 May 1874 at Aberdeen, Scotland, eldest of nine children of Robert Phillip Stewart, ship carpenter, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Geddes. Educated locally at Robert Gordon College, he served his apprenticeship at a shipyard in Aberdeen. His father's death in an accident at work left the 19-year-old Alexander responsible for the family. In 1897 he gained his chief engineer's certificate with the Aberdeen White Star Line. On the run from Australia in 1900 he met Grace Mary, daughter of industrialist James Cuming senior. Stewart took his discharge in Melbourne in 1904 and married her with Anglican rites on 4 January 1905 at Yarraville. He was chief engineer to Michaelis Hallenstein at their Footscray tannery before joining fellow Scot William Fyvie in Fyvie & Stewart (1906-32, later Alex. Stewart & Co.), consulting engineers. After acquiring critical German patents, this enduring and productive partnership was a pioneer of the industrial gas industry in Australia. In 1911, in association with English-based British Oxygen, it formed the Commonwealth Oxygen Co. which merged in 1935 with a Grimwade family company to form Commonwealth Industrial Gases Ltd, of which Stewart was first chairman.

The death of Cuming senior in 1911 brought Stewart a seat on the board of Cuming Smith & Co. Ltd. Involvement followed with Commonwealth Fertilisers & Chemicals Ltd, Australian Fertilizers Ltd, Industrial Chemicals and Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia & New Zealand Ltd. Likewise, his association with Broken Hill South Ltd as consulting engineer and director carried him into Western New South Wales Electric Power Co. Pty Ltd, Broken Hill Associated Smelters Co., British Australian Lead Manufacturers Pty Ltd (later BALM Paints Ltd), Metal Manufactures Ltd, Australian Bronze Co. and Electrolytic Zinc of Australasia Ltd. Other financial interests and directing responsibilities included Australian Consolidated Industries Ltd, Dunlop Rubber of Australia Ltd, The Trustees Executors & Agency Co. Ltd, Gold Mines of Australia Ltd, North British & Mercantile Insurance Co. Ltd, and Mutual Life and Citizens' Assurance Co. Ltd. Knighted in 1937, Stewart was prominent among the Melbourne-based entrepreneurs known as the 'Collins House group' which dominated Australian finance and industry from the 1920s.

Few Australians outside business circles fully appreciated Stewart's influence. At his death he was chairman of six major Australian companies, including Broken Hill South Ltd and the Trustees Executors & Agency Co., and a director of some fifteen others. A very private person with few interests other than business and his family, he even used a weekly round of golf at the Metropolitan club with his close friend and Collins House associate Sir Colin Fraser as an opportunity for business discussion. Stewart's membership of the Felton bequest committee resulted from his association with Trustees Executors & Agency Co. rather than from any real interest in the arts. The Stewarts lived a measured and retiring life, holidaying at Mount Macedon and periodically travelling to Scotland. His long association with the Alfred Hospital began in 1911 as honorary consulting engineer; his presidency (1935-39, 1942-46) and vice-presidency of the board were interrupted only by his service on government industrial and munitions panels during World War II.

Survived by his wife and two sons, Sir Alexander died on 6 May 1956 at Cliveden Mansions and was buried in Brighton cemetery. Eric Dunshea of Dunlop Rubber paid tribute to his kindly and generous nature and to the 'ability and wise counsel' which made him 'one of the outstanding leaders of Australian industry'. Stewart's estate was sworn for probate at £282,475. His portrait by Max Meldrum, painted late in Sir Alexander's life when his health was failing, is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Poynter, Russell Grimwade (Melb, 1967)
  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939-1941 (Canb, 1952)
  • A. M. Mitchell, The Hospital South of the Yarra (Melb, 1977)
  • J. Lack (ed), James Cuming (Melb, 1987)
  • Australian Manufacturer, 12 May 1956
  • Advertiser (Footscray), 7, 14 Jan 1905
  • Age (Melbourne), 7, 8 May 1956
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7, 8 May 1956
  • Herald (Melbourne), 7, 8 May 1956
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 7, 8 May 1956
  • Cuming Smith & Co. papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Lack, 'Stewart, Sir Alexander Anderson (1874–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-sir-alexander-anderson-8659/text15141, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 3 September 2014.

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

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