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Flora Shaw Stewart (1886–1979)

by James Sinclair

This article was published:

Flora Shaw Stewart (1886-1979), pioneer and hotelkeeper, was born on 28 August 1886 at Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, eldest of seven children of John Young, journeyman blacksmith, and his wife Catherine, née Christie. In 1888 the Youngs migrated to Australia and moved to the tablelands west of Cooktown, North Queensland, where Flora discovered a lifelong love of blood horses. John took his family to Papua in 1906 to investigate the possible purchase of an hotel. To obtain experience, Flora worked for five months as manageress of the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Samarai. She returned with her family to Queensland in 1909. At Charters Towers on 24 June that year Flora married with United Welsh Church forms Harry Gofton, an English-born horse-dealer.

The couple sailed to Papua and for three years grew rubber on Kanosia plantation; Flora visited nearby Port Moresby only once during that time, for the birth (1911) of her son Moresby. In 1913 Flora and Harry set off to mine gold on a tributary of the Vailala River. There Flora operated a trade store, kept fowls and pigs, shot deer and crocodiles for meat and skins, and made her own bread. She survived a number of illnesses and a miscarriage, without medical attention. After World War I broke out the Goftons came back to Australia. When Harry enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 21 March 1916, Flora returned to Port Moresby with her son and daughter. She worked in the drapery department of the Burns, Philp store before opening a guest-house. While serving with the 47th Battalion, Harry died of wounds in France on 27 March 1918. Flora went to Samarai in 1920 to help her sister to run the Cosmopolitan Hotel; she took it over in 1927.

On 17 March 1929 at St Paul's Church of England, Samarai, Flora married James Stewart, a 32-year-old building foreman; they were to have a daughter. They moved to Wau on the Morobe goldfield. Flora bought Harry Darby's old 'Kunai Pub' and transformed it into the Hotel Bulolo, the first regular hotel on the diggings. Her exploits became legendary. Known to all as 'Ma', she was the friend and confidante of countless miners and prospectors. She cut their hair, dressed their wounds and, in the absence of a bank, hid their gold under her bed—'the safest place in town'. 'Ma' had a robust sense of humour and was always ready to help those down on their luck, but she was a canny Scot and in no sense a 'soft touch'. Retaining her love of horses, she raced them with considerable success for years.

In March 1936 Mrs Stewart opened at Lae the famous Hotel Cecil. Her husband died in a motorcar accident in November 1937 and her son, a bomber pilot in the Royal Air Force, was killed in action in May 1940. In December 1941 Flora was evacuated to Australia with her two daughters. When she returned to Lae at the end of World War II, she took over the Australian Women's Army Service barracks and turned them into a temporary Hotel Cecil for the war-ravaged town. Following protracted battles with officials, she finally rebuilt the hotel on its pre-war site in 1951 and operated it until 1957. She and her daughters established Morobe Theatres Ltd in 1962; the firm constructed a modern picture theatre which opened in October 1963. A founding member of the Morobe Agricultural Society, she led the grand parades at annual shows until the end of her life. Survived by her daughters, she died on 13 May 1979 at Lae and was buried in the local cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Sinclair, Golden Gateway (Bathurst, 1998)
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, July 1979
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 July 1951
  • Lae Nius, 16, 18 May 1979
  • private information.

Citation details

James Sinclair, 'Stewart, Flora Shaw (1886–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Young, Flora Shaw
  • Gofton, Flora Shaw

28 August, 1886
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


13 May, 1979 (aged 92)
Lae, Papua New Guinea

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.