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Stuart, Sir Alexander (1824–1886)

by Bede Nairn and Martha Rutledge

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

Alexander Stuart (1824-1886), by unknown photographer

Alexander Stuart (1824-1886), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Sir Alexander Stuart (1824-1886), merchant and politician, was born on 21 March 1824 in Edinburgh, son of Alexander Stuart, writer to the signet, and his wife Mary, née McKnight. Reared in a religious atmosphere as a member of the Episcopal Church in Scotland, he was educated in 1832-35 at the Edinburgh Academy (of which his father was an original proprietor), and at the University of Edinburgh but did not graduate; he worked in a merchant's office in Leith and Glasgow before going to Belfast as manager of the North of Ireland Linen Mills. In 1845 he joined Carr Tagore & Co., a large mercantile and banking house in Calcutta, and in 1850 moved to New Zealand. On 9 October 1851 he reached Sydney in the Scotia; after a few months on the Ballarat goldfield, Victoria, he went back to Otago where he failed in a sheep-run with his friend Hugh Robison, later Sir Charles Cowper's son-in-law, before returning to New South Wales in August 1852 in the Louisa. On 10 November 1853 at Cobbity in the presence of Cowper he married Christiana Eliza (d.1889), daughter of Lieutenant John Wood, R.N.

Late in 1852 Stuart had joined the Bank of New South Wales as assistant secretary and next year was also assistant inspector. In 1854 he was promoted secretary and inspector at a salary of £1200. In December he was sent to investigate the defalcations of G. D. Lang, manager of the bank's Ballarat branch. Lang and F. L. Drake were convicted in Melbourne and the vials of Rev. John Dunmore Lang's wrath were poured on Stuart, who calmly replied to the attacks in the Empire. When Lang published The Convicts' Bank; or a Plain Statement of the Case of Alleged Embezzlement … (Sydney, 1855) Stuart, backed by the bank, sued him for criminal libel and he was imprisoned for six months.

Stuart's efficiency and organizing ability impressed Robert Towns; by early 1855 he had joined R. Towns & Co. and soon became prominent in commercial circles. He was a director of the Bank of New South Wales in 1855-61, 1867-76 and 1877-79, and its president in 1861. In 1862-63 he visited England on behalf of R. Towns & Co. and saw his ageing parents. In the 1860s and 1870s he was a committee-man of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, sometime chairman of the Australian General Assurance Co., and a trustee of the Savings Bank of New South Wales. He was a director of the Waratah Coal Co., the Trust and Agency Co. of Australia, and in the 1880s the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd and the Bowenfels Coal Mining and Copper Smelting Co., the Sydney Exchange Co. in 1882-86 and a local director of the North-British and Mercantile Insurance Co. In the 1860s he was also a director of the Sydney Sailors' Home and a committee-man of the Sydney Bethel Union.

Despite his native caution and advice to Towns against new enterprises, in the 1860s Stuart invested extensively in land in Queensland with Towns and Cowper who in 1867 joined R. Towns & Co. at his suggestion. By the end of the decade the Queensland properties were losing money and he was unable to persuade Towns that his ships were no longer profitable. After the death of Towns in 1873 Stuart was not only senior partner of the company but a trustee and guardian of Towns's children who proved very troublesome. In the early 1870s he took up extensive mining leases in the Illawarra district, some with R. Harnett.

A devout Anglican, Stuart was a vocal lay member of the Sydney diocesan synods from 1866 and was active on the standing committee; he represented Sydney on the Provincial Synod in 1874-83 and on the General Synod from 1876. He was a member of St Andrew's Cathedral Chapter from 1868, was a trustee of Church lands and of Moore Theological College, a fellow of St Paul's College, within the University of Sydney, a committee-man of the Church Society and a member of the standing committee of the Sydney Diocesan Committee and Educational and Book Society. In the 1870s Stuart battled for the continuation of state aid to denominational education and with Shepherd Smith manager of the Bank of New South Wales, was a founder of the Church of England Defence Association. In 1874 he was asked by Bishop Frederic Barker to stand for parliament.

Opposing Rev. James Greenwood's Public School League, Stuart upheld the 1866 Public Schools Act; a free trader he advocated the 'rapid extension' of railways and aid to municipal institutions. In December he was elected to the Legislative Assembly as third member for East Sydney, and on 8 February 1876 he succeeded William Forster as colonial treasurer in (Sir) John Robertson's cabinet and held office until 21 March 1877: Governor Robinson believed he would lend strength to the government. A capable minister, he carried the Border Duties Convention Act. In the confused politics of 1877, exacerbated by the governor's refusal to dissolve parliament without supply, he refused to join Robertson in August, and failed to form coalition ministries in September and December. He held his seat in the 1877 elections and in 1878-79 visited England. Shepherd Smith told D. Larnach that Stuart 'certainly would have been treasurer' in the Parkes-Robertson coalition 'had he been in the Colony'.

He returned from England to near bankruptcy. According to Sir Daniel Cooper, apart from debts to the Bank of New South Wales, Stuart owed Thomas Walker over £30,000, the Oriental Bank in London £20,000 and R. Towns & Co. 'about the same'. He also lost heavily in the failure of his brother James's firm in London, James Barber Son & Co. In March 1879 he made an agreement with other banks behind Smith's back and was offended when not re-elected a director of the Bank of New South Wales in September. Larnach told Smith that he regarded him 'as an exceedingly sanguine and dangerous man to have anything to do with any bank'.

In November 1879 Stuart was appointed agent-general for New South Wales in London and resigned from the assembly. Smith commented, 'We dont know how he proposes to arrange his debts here before he starts … It is rumoured that Parkes will ask Parliament to give him £2500 a year and to Parkes he is worth that purchase at present, for he is the only solid oppositionist [to] the Govt.' Cooper criticized the appointment to Parkes, 'I note what you say about Mr. Stuart who has been so clever in concealing his insolvent position … He cannot be in a position to play the part of Agent General … as he must pawn his salary to get away from Sydney & keep his creditors quiet … neither he nor Mrs Stuart know anything about “entertaining”'. Unable to unravel his own and R. Towns & Co.'s difficulties, in April Stuart resigned the position, never having left Sydney. He somehow recovered his financial position: he had real estate on the North Shore, from the late 1870s was chairman and proprietor of the Coal Cliff Coal Co. and owned two steamships built in 1879.

Stuart represented Illawarra in the assembly from 7 July 1880 to 7 October 1885. In August 1882 he was elected leader of the Opposition. On 8 November he condemned the underlying principle of Robertson's land bill and put forward his own proposals, including limited security of tenure for squatters and the abolition of indiscriminate free selection. The Parkes-Robertson coalition was defeated. Stuart won the elections and took office as premier and colonial secretary on 5 January 1883. Despite having W. B. Dalley as attorney-general, the ministry was regarded by the governor and the press as weak and 'a stopgap'; however, Stuart had a strong following and his 'new “Reform” cabinet [had] an outward stability and an inner coherence'.

On 8 January Stuart appointed Augustus Morris and George Ranken to inquire into the land laws; their report was presented in May and J. S. Farnell, his secretary for lands, introduced the new crown lands bill in October. Dissected in a session of thirteen months, it was enacted in October 1884 after the government had made concessions to the squatters. Stuart had established the Aborigines Protection Board in February 1883 and in September he carried the Civil Service Act; other important measures carried by the ministry were the Fire Brigades and Sydney Corporation Acts. In March he had taken over as acting secretary for public works after Henry Copeland's indiscretion at the St Patrick's Day picnic, and he dealt firmly with the sectarian problems raised by the visit of John and William Redmond. He supported Queensland's annexation of eastern New Guinea and in November-December presided over the Intercolonial Convention held in Sydney, which planned the Federal Council of Australasia. However by 1884 the government was in financial difficulties with the virtual stopping of land auctions and unprecedented spending on railways.

Conscientious, 'imprudently industrious' and unable to delegate, Stuart did not spare himself either in his office or in tumultuous late sittings in the House. Throughout 1884 he was harassed by questions from J. McElhone, A. G. Taylor and others on his extensive mineral lands in the Illawarra. Early in October he suffered a severe stroke which paralysed his left side. Dalley was acting colonial secretary while he convalesced in Tasmania and with his brother Edward, bishop of Waiapu, at Napier, New Zealand. He resumed his duties in May 1885 and was created K.C.M.G. next month; he clung to office against the advice of friends and doctors until ill health forced him to resign on 6 October. He was appointed to the Legislative Council next day.

Stuart had been a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales since 1874, a New South Wales commissioner for the 1876 Philadelphia International Exhibition, an elective trustee of the Australian Museum in 1881-82 and a vice-president of the Highland Society of New South Wales. In 1886 he went to London as New South Wales executive commissioner for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition. Soon after its opening he died of typhoid fever on 16 June at 52 Stanhope Gardens, London, and was buried at Roxeth Church near Harrow-on-the-Hill. He was survived by his wife, son and probably one of his three daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £83,600.

David Buchanan said that Stuart had 'total ineptitude for public speaking' and 'an utter disregard to everything in the shape of emphasis or elocution'. But the Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 1886, maintained that 'He was slow in making up his mind, and there was a want of resolute firmness … but … he had a good deal of the dogged determination that belongs to the Scotch character, and a large capacity for patient endurance … He was very friendly … but he lacked that magnetic power which great leaders have of fascinating their comrades, and of binding them as it were by hooks of steel'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. F. Holder, Bank of New South Wales: A History, vol 1 (Syd, 1970)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1875-76, 1, 374, 1879-80, 1, 167, 2, 675, 4, 31, 1883, 3, 47, 1883-84, 1, 52, 58, 109, 125, 167, 331, 646, 653, 685, 1885, 1, 50
  • Church of England Diocese of Sydney, Votes and Proceedings of Synod (1866-84)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4, 5 June, 17 July 1855, 18 June 1886
  • Town and Country Journal, 19 Feb 1876, 19, 26 June 1886
  • Cowper letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • letters to Lord Augustus Loftus (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Robert Towns & Co. papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Shepherd Smith-Donald Larnach letters (Bank of New South Wales Archives, Sydney)
  • Stuart family letters, MS 1279/13-15 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/581, 583-84, 591, 597-603.

Citation details

Bede Nairn and Martha Rutledge, 'Stuart, Sir Alexander (1824–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stuart-sir-alexander-4661/text7703, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 16 September 2014.

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

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