Adela Blanche Anderson was born on 1 January 1846 at Clifton, Bristol, England. Her parents were James Anderson and his wife, Eliza Catherine Dick. As a child and young woman Adela lived in England, Scotland, Ireland and the Channel Islands, and was educated partly in Paris. On 28 April 1870, at Frenchay, Gloucestershire, she married Hugh Stewart, a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery and member of an upper-class northern Ireland family. The couple lived in England, the Mediterranean, the West Indies and Bermuda before emigrating to New Zealand in 1878.
With their seven-year-old son, Mervyn James, the Stewarts arrived at Auckland in August 1878 aboard the Lady Jocelyn. They were among about 40 families from northern Ireland who founded the settlement of Katikati in the Bay of Plenty. The leader of this venture was Adela's brother-in-law, George Vesey Stewart.
Adela Stewart and her husband were perhaps better suited to being pioneers than many people from a comfortable background. Hugh Stewart's army training as an engineer proved extremely useful in laying out roads and building a house, while Adela, although unused to housework and cooking, was capable and resourceful. Their extensive travels also helped them to adjust to strange conditions. They settled near Katikati on 300 acres, which they bought from G. V. Stewart, and later increased their holding to 500 acres. The land was of poor quality and they came to regret having ignored the advice of William Rolleston, the minister of lands, to sell quickly and buy elsewhere. The name of their property, Athenree (after the Stewart property in Ireland), was later given to the township which developed there.
Adela Stewart's diary later became the basis of her book, My simple life in New Zealand, which gives a detailed record of her difficulties and triumphs. Often without domestic help, she became in time an expert cook, baker and gardener. For a while the Stewarts took the sons of friends as cadets on their farm and Adela taught them how to make butter, bread and beer. Gardening and poultry-keeping were two of her favourite activities, and her management contributed to the success of the farm. She earned money for herself by selling butter, fruit, tomato sauce, honey and flowers. Her prize-winning chrysanthemums went to buyers all over the country.
Energetic and hospitable, she found an active social life a necessity, and became the centre of activities in the area. Among the visitors to Katikati whom she entertained were William Rolleston, Lord Ranfurly (the governor), Bishop W. G. Cowie, Richard Seddon and Te Kooti. If it were not that she appears to have been a truthful woman, her feats of entertaining might be queried. In 1887, for example, she organised a picnic: 'One day, in addition to the ordinary work, I made bread, rolls, oat-cake, plum-cakes, buns, sausage-rolls, rissoles, Russian salads, fruit salads, etc. Several young friends and relations came to stay, followed next day by many more – sixty-seven in all – for Mervyn's annual Patrick's Day birthday picnic'. She particularly enjoyed giving dances, such as one she organised for 100 guests, with the assistance of a lady help, in 1897. 'The house was brilliantly lit up, and before 8 o'clock arrived our guests in the usual independent colonial style. Ladies riding carried their ball-dresses in a kit in front of them, some of the frocks needing a hot iron to smooth out the creases.' The dancing lasted until 5 a.m.; the visitors left after breakfasting at 10.
Adela Stewart also used her talents to assist with community activities, including those associated with the Anglican church, of which the Stewarts were members. She appears never to have wasted a minute. While she taught her young son, she made clothes for the family; while 'resting' in the afternoons in middle age she worked relentlessly for bazaars.
As the Stewarts grew older, the difficulties of finding help for farm and household work, and for continuing their social life, increased. They sold Athenree in 1906 and returned to England. My simple life in New Zealand was published in London in 1908. It gives a lively and informative account of the process of establishing a new settlement. Its overall tone is one of cheerful stoicism in the face of adversity, and a strong desire to maintain the social lifestyle Adela Stewart had been used to before coming to New Zealand. It shows her to be an enterprising woman, whose devotion to her husband and son was fully repaid. Following the death of Hugh in April 1909 Adela returned to New Zealand on a visit. She died on the night of her arrival at Katikati on 12 February 1910.