George Vesey Stewart was born in Brighton, Sussex, England, and baptised there on 20 January 1832. He was the third son of Mervyn Stewart, a retired army lieutenant of Martray, County Tyrone, Ireland, and his wife, Frances Vesey. As a child George travelled extensively with his family in Europe. In 1844 he was sent to school in London before entering the College of Civil Engineers, Putney, to train as an estate agent. In 1852 Stewart entered Trinity College, Dublin, graduating BA with honours in Classics in 1856. In the same year, in the parish of Desertlyn, Londonderry, on 17 April, he married Margaret Torrens Miller, daughter of Emily and John Rowley Miller. They were to have at least six sons and three daughters.
While pursuing a successful career as an estate agent, Stewart farmed several estates in Ireland, and started a linen mill to provide employment for his tenants in County Tyrone. It was the failure of this venture and the intensification of the land troubles in northern Ireland in the 1860s that caused him to consider emigration.
Stewart sailed for New Zealand on the Mongol in 1873, choosing land at Katikati on the shore of the Tauranga Harbour in April 1874 after a countrywide search. In an agreement drawn up between G. M. O'Rorke, secretary for Crown lands, and Stewart on 24 June 1874, 10,000 acres were reserved for a special settlement of not less than 40 families of Irish farmers with adequate capital. The first party for the Katikati Special Settlement left Belfast in the Carisbrooke Castle on 8 June 1875. Stewart soon obtained a further 10,000 acres adjoining the original Katikati lands and a second party of settlers came out in 1878 in the Lady Jocelyn. Among the passengers were Stewart's parents, his brother Hugh, and Hugh's wife, Adela.
After the success of these two settlements, Stewart decided to organise a third, this time at Te Puke, and despite competition he was allocated the land he wanted. This party, drawn from all over the British Isles, was the first to sail directly to Tauranga, where the Lady Jocelyn arrived on 2 January 1881. Between 1877 and 1885 Stewart published eight pamphlets advertising his special settlements and raised six parties of settlers. He is credited with bringing about 4,000 emigrants to New Zealand.
Stewart's next major project was to promote the construction of a rail link between Tauranga and Rotorua. He formed a local company, the Tauranga, East Coast and Hot Lakes Railway Company Limited, and in August 1882 signed an agreement with the government. He went to London in 1883 but was unable to raise the necessary finance. His pamphlet, Guide to the hot lakes of Rotorua, the 'wonderland' of the world, was published in London in connection with this scheme. The project was finally abandoned in 1887 after the Tarawera eruption of the previous year had destroyed the Pink and White Terraces and tourists ceased to travel through Tauranga to Rotorua.
Stewart stayed on in London until 1888 as shipping agent for emigrants to New Zealand. He published New Zealand: emigration made easy ( The settlers' guide to New Zealand ) in 1885. He involved himself in the cause of emigration for the crofters in Scotland, acting as intermediary between the New Zealand government and the chancellor of the exchequer, and in 1887 he published The crofter's emigration question. Unfortunately New Zealand turned against any assisted immigration, and the crofters went instead to British Columbia, on a scheme set up along the lines suggested by Stewart.
Stewart's activities took their toll on his family life. His wife, Margaret, left him and moved to Auckland, where she ran a boarding house for many years. She died in Grey Lynn on 28 July 1914 aged 81 years. When Stewart returned to Katikati in 1888 he went to live, not on his own farm, Mount Stewart, but at Martray with his widowed mother. In 1888 he brought Alice Amelia Ellen Hagerty, also known as Alice Stein, out from England to be his housekeeper at Martray. Some 30 years later on 11 October 1917 they were married at Katikati. They are said to have had a son and a daughter.
Stewart was much involved in local affairs in Tauranga. After a close-run but unsuccessful bid for a parliamentary seat in 1881 he turned to local politics, and was elected first mayor of the new borough of Tauranga in March 1882. He purchased the Bay of Plenty Times in 1879, and was connected with the paper until 1887. He was the first chairman of the Katikati Highway Board and of the Katikati District School Committee, and also served on the Tauranga County Council (of which he was chairman for several years), the Bay of Plenty Hospital and Charitable Aid Board, the Katikati Cemetery Board of Trustees and the Katikati Railway League. At the age of 82 he became chairman of the Tauranga Harbour Board. Stewart was a justice of the peace in County Tyrone and in New Zealand. He was made an OBE in 1918.
Stewart was an exceptionally able man with imagination, drive and determination. He had a flair for organising potentially lucrative business ventures. He had a great understanding of, and love for, the political scene, yet although he strove for national prominence his achievements remained on a local level. His restless ambition left many of his plans unconsolidated, while he took opposition too much to heart and made more enemies than was necessary. He lacked the capacity to win devotion, and so made acquaintances rather than friends. Nevertheless, it was freely admitted that he got more money for the Bay of Plenty from central government than all its parliamentary representatives put together. On a national level, his individual contribution to colonisation was outstanding.
George Vesey Stewart died in Rotorua on 3 March 1920, and is buried in the Katikati cemetery beside his second wife, Alice, who died on 30 April 1930 aged 74 years. A memorial to the founder of the Katikati settlement was unveiled in the Uretara domain, Katikati, on 25 April 1922 by Sir William Herries.