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Stewart, Sir Frederick Harold (1884–1961)

by C. J. Lloyd

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

Frederick Harold Stewart (1884-1961), by unknown photographer, 1940

Frederick Harold Stewart (1884-1961), by unknown photographer, 1940

Australian War Memorial, 001440

Sir Frederick Harold Stewart (1884-1961), businessman, politician and philanthropist, was born on 14 August 1884 at Newcastle, New South Wales, son of native-born parents James Henry Stewart, carter, and his wife Ellen, née Murray. Educated at Newcastle South Public School, he joined the New South Wales railways at 14 as a clerk. On 8 April 1908 he married Lottie May Glover (d.1943) at the Central Methodist Mission, Newcastle; they were to have six children.

In 1919 Stewart created the basis of a substantial fortune by buying and subdividing 50 acres (20 ha) at rural Chullora on the outskirts of Sydney. When the government refused to extend tram or railway services there, he began his own transport service with one bus. By the mid-1920s he was Sydney's largest private bus proprietor. At its peak, his Metropolitan Omnibus & Transport Co. Ltd had a total capital of £200,000, employed 4000 people and carried 16 million fares over three million miles (4,828,020 km) each year. As chairman of the Motor Transport Association from 1923, he campaigned to extend private bus services and to discourage government transport monopolies. His proposal to buy the State tramways in order to replace trams with buses was rejected. Stewart was defeated in the early 1930s by a combination of government discouragement, high licence fees, and motor and petrol taxes. In a final flourish he offered his fleet of ninety buses to the government, provided his drivers and conductors kept their jobs; the gesture was declined. In 1937 the State government paid him nominal compensation of £38,600.

In the late 1920s Stewart had diversified his business activities, founding Australian National Airways Ltd with (Sir) Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm and establishing New South Wales Woollen & Felt Industries Ltd at Mascot. A director of Associated Newspapers Ltd, he was governing director of 2CH radio which he established for the New South Wales Council of Churches in 1933.

Active, albeit unobtrusively, in church and civic charities, Stewart supported the Methodist Overseas Mission; locally, he provided free transport for blind children and took mothers of poor families on outings. Distressed by the impact of the Depression, he supplied 50,000 free bus tickets in one month to the unemployed. An able publicist, he tried to lease the unoccupied Prime Minister's Lodge in Canberra for a holiday home for overworked city women. Stewart expressed dissatisfaction with an order which imposed so much deprivation and suffering 'in a world so bountifully endowed by its creator'. His interest in public finance was whetted by several years as president of the Taxpayers' Association.

Convinced of the need for industrial reform, shorter working hours and comprehensive social betterment programmes (such as national insurance and workers' housing schemes), Stewart unsuccessfully sought Nationalist pre-selection for the Federal seat of Martin in 1929 and contested Concord in the 1930 State elections. In the December 1931 landslide victory of Joseph Lyons and the United Australia Party, Stewart won the Federal seat of Parramatta. Vigorous and innovative, he quickly asserted himself in the House of Representatives and served as minister for commerce from October 1932. Given responsibility for Australian trade policy following the Imperial Economic Conference of 1932, Stewart was not overwhelmed by the minutiae of departmental affairs. His political outlook was imbued with the business ethic; his debating style was often fiery: he was to be suspended in 1944 from the parliament for saying that the Speaker J. S. Rosevear had a 'larrikin face'.

Retaining his portfolio in September 1934, within a month Stewart stood aside for (Sir) Earle Page; when Stewart refused a junior ministry, Lyons appointed him parliamentary under-secretary for employment. Knighted in 1935, he renewed his support for a 40-hour week after visiting the International Labour Office in Geneva that year. To set an example, he granted the shorter working week to employees in his own enterprises. He criticized the high dividends paid by companies during the Depression, and resisted pressures within the government to impose more deflationary measures while unemployment remained high. Stewart resigned his post in February 1936 and gave up most of his remaining business associations: he wanted freedom to develop his social betterment programmes.

In 1936-37 he was active within U.A.P. branches, urging the creation of a social betterment wing and threatening to stand against Sir Archdale Parkhill, leader of the conservatives, unless the government introduced social reforms. Re-elected in 1937, the Lyons government announced a modified national insurance scheme, but Stewart refused to rejoin cabinet, preferring the freedom of the back bench. He was not, he reiterated, merely a 'fatuous apologist' for everything the party did. Although Stewart was a perpetual irritant at this time, Lyons was sympathetic to his objectives.

When (Sir) Robert Menzies formed his U.A.P. government in April 1939, Stewart was restored to the ministry with responsibility for health and social services. He continued to push for the implementation of the national insurance scheme and for its extension to a broader range of beneficiaries including the unemployed. Stewart introduced pension payments by cheque, posted in plain envelopes to eliminate any stigma. In November the Navy Department was added to his responsibilities. He became minister for supply and development in March 1940, accepting the onerous responsibility for developing defence industries, and procuring weapons and equipment for the armed services. He was much criticized over defence contracts and shortages, but showed ingenuity in hunting out stocks of essential equipment and adapting them to military needs. He solved one deficiency in army uniforms by locating 15,000 World War I tunics and having them refurbished.

In October 1940 Stewart became minister for social services, health and external affairs. Looking to post-war reconstruction, he urged the ultimate conversion of war industries to domestic needs and coined the slogan 'from guns to mod cons'. As external affairs minister he frequently warned of dangers from growing Japanese militarism, but sought to preserve links for as long as possible. After the defeat of (Sir) Arthur Fadden's coalition government in October 1941, Stewart served as chairman of the Joint Committee on Social Security (1943-44) and maintained a degree of independence: he voted against his party leadership on the 'Uniform Tax Scheme' of 1942. He retired from parliament in 1946 and virtually from public life.

Short and broad-shouldered, with wisps of dark hair above a ruddy complexion, Stewart was bustling but personable, opinionated but without pomposity. At his model farm at Dundas he planted English grasses, bred pigs, merinos, cattle and poultry, and played bowls and a pipe organ for relaxation. For many years he held the car registration plate NSW 1. Stewart had married Hilda Marjorie Evelyn Dixon at Lindfield, Sydney, on 6 October 1945. He established at his own expense a 'preventorium' at Curl Curl for undernourished children, an infants' home at Carlingford and the Methodist Mission's hospital in New Britain. Survived by his wife, and by two sons and three daughters of his first marriage, Stewart died on 30 June 1961 in Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney, and was cremated after a state funeral. His estate was valued for probate at £168,000.

In many ways Stewart was the antithesis of a professional politician, being prepared to sacrifice political advancement to achieve social reform. He relished his role as a gadfly: he was critical of his party leaders to the brink of disloyalty, but always commanded their respect. More active in social and industrial policy than virtually all Labor politicians of his generation, he was frustrated in his supreme objective of implementing a national insurance scheme. His idealism, administrative talents and disregard for political aggrandizement made him one of the more effective and attractive of Australia's politicians in an era of depression and war.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1929-49 (Melb, 1963)
  • Star (Melbourne), 4 Jan 1934
  • Herald (Melbourne), 22 Feb 1936, 1 July 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July 1961
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 18 Aug 1936
  • E. D. Cardner, Sir Frederick Stewart (typescript, 1936, Sydney Morning Herald Library).

Citation details

C. J. Lloyd, 'Stewart, Sir Frederick Harold (1884–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-sir-frederick-harold-8664/text15151, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 31 October 2014.

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

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