STEWART, William Downie
Barrister, legislator, and author.
A new biography of Stewart, William Downie appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
William Downie Stewart was born on 29 July 1878 at 29 Heriot Row, Dunedin, the son of William Downie Stewart, a barrister from Blair Drummond, Perthshire, Scotland, who had arrived in Dunedin in 1862; and of Rachael, née Hepburn, who came from Kirkcaldy, Fifeshire. William Downie Stewart, senior, spent several terms in the House of Representatives where his son was later to achieve even greater distinction. Downie Stewart was educated at the Otago Boys' High School and Otago University where he graduated in law. His early interests, like his father's, were in public affairs and he became Mayor of Dunedin at the age of 35. In the following year, 1914, he was elected to Parliament as member for Dunedin West, and held that seat until his defeat by a Labour opponent in the socialist upsurge of 1935. He was a member of the Massey Reform Government. His term in the House was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served with credit, being invalided home in 1916 with disabilities which were to handicap him for the rest of his life. But he was soon back in the political arena. His inherent political equipment marked him for early advancement, and in 1921 he assumed the portfolios of Customs and Internal Affairs in the Massey Ministry. On his leader's death, in 1925, he became Minister of Finance under J. G. Coates but three years later he retired into opposition with his Reform colleagues. His informed and trenchant criticisms of the policies of the Forbes United Party directed special attention to his qualities and, when the Depression Coalition was formed with the Reform Party in 1931, he found himself once again Minister of Finance and Customs. In that capacity he represented New Zealand at several overseas conferences and proved himself an international jurist of note and a strong imperialist. He held office in difficult and trying times, but faced his problems with vigour. The end came, however, in 1933 when his colleagues decided that the national economy depended for survival on the raising of the exchange rate with Britain. Downie Stewart reacted violently, and forthwith resigned from Cabinet rather than countenance a plan which he, as Minister, would have been expected to implement. Two years later he lost his seat and retired to his library and a lifelong interest in literature and history. He died at his home in Dunedin on 29 September 1949.
Downie Stewart was a clear and profound thinker, with firmly entrenched philosophies both in economics and in politics. His views on these topics, though often challenged, were respected at home and abroad, and he had a generous international and imperial outlook, both legally and socially. A native literary talent, which he never fully exploited, provided him with such relaxation as his increasing physical infirmities would permit in the last years of his life. He dealt knowledgeably and authoritatively with biography and history, in both of which fields he might possibly have made more of a mark than he did. Unhappily he favoured a form of dilettantism that was expressed in monographs and brief studies which went not much further than under-lining points of view and opinions that cried out for a more thorough expounding. His researches and studies were wide, and he surrounded himself with a library that had few equals in private ownership in the Dominion. For 14 years after his retirement from politics he was regarded as an authority on constitutional and international problems, on which he was frequently consulted by his successors. In these years of retirement he kept up his lifelong connection with Otago University – as pro-chancellor and member of the Council.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.
- Otago Daily Times, 30 Sep 1949 (Obit).