Page 1: Biography
Wool and fur skin exporter, businessman
This biography, written by Gary Blackman, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Born in Dunedin on 23 December 1885, George Stewart was the son of William Stewart, a Scottish-born confectioner, and his Irish wife, Ellen O'Sullivan. He left High Street School shortly before his 13th birthday and his first job, as a rabbiter, set the direction of his career. In 1901, aged 15, George joined White and Company, local exporters of wool, sheep skins, rabbit skins and carcasses; four years later he became foreman.
In 1912 Stewart joined with James Kennedy Mooney, the young manager of the firm, to form J. K. Mooney and Company. Stewart brought practical knowledge, Mooney business experience and capital. Their competitors saw them as interlopers, but they survived and ventured into export: their first consignment of rabbit skins fetched a record price in London. When Mooney pulled out in 1913 because of ill health, Stewart borrowed money, arranged a modest overdraft, and bought the company. On 2 September 1913, at North East Valley, Dunedin, he married Gwendoline Wedmore Coombs. They were to have five sons and three daughters.
George Stewart had already learned the art of auction buying and realised the value of consistent and reliable grading of skins. This was to become the key to the success of his export trade, because customers could buy with confidence. Equally important was Stewart's talent for making friends. His first task was to build capital and exports, but during the First World War shipping was scarce. Undaunted, Stewart and his staff made up skins in nine-pound parcels and posted 8,000 of them to London. They fetched high prices in the starved market.
In 1918 Lee Schoen, representing Isaac Schoen and Sons of New York, visited New Zealand and found in George Stewart a reliable supplier of rabbit skins for American furriers and hatters. Through the Schoen family Stewart established links with European importers and, on his first overseas trip in 1924, he made contact with A. Hollander and Sons of Newark, New Jersey, reputedly America's largest fur-processing company. This introduction enabled Stewart to fulfil his dream of creating an integrated fur-processing industry in New Zealand.
As early as 1918 Stewart had asked his father-in-law, John Coombs, a former tanner, to dress some rabbit skins. A local manufacturer and wholesaler ordered cuffs, collars and trimmings, and soon Coombs was dressing and dyeing rabbit skins in his North East Valley workshop, while his daughters and other local women cut and sewed the pieces. As demand grew, Stewart engaged a furrier to make stoles, coats and other garments. He wrote that it 'was extraordinary business and I was jubilant'. But the technology was outdated, and in 1926 he sent his nephew, L. J. Blackman, to Hollander's plant to observe modern processing methods, which were then adopted.
In addition to J. K. Mooney and Company, George Stewart founded Mooneys (1923) to make and sell fur garments locally, and Fur Dressers and Dyers (1927) to process local and imported furs. He also ran the family confectionery business after his father's death in 1915. In 1928, intending to establish a rabbit wool and fur industry, Stewart set up two farms to breed angora and chinchilla rabbits.
The Wall Street stockmarket crash of 1929 caught J. K. Mooney and Company with large consignments of devalued stock overseas, and by the end of 1930 Stewart was insolvent. He lost his financial interests in Mooneys and Fur Dressers and Dyers, and the rabbit farms and Stewart Confectionery were liquidated. With the good will of his creditors, he floated a limited company on a £1,000 mortgage and for the next three years worked on a nominal salary. The company survived and Stewart set about restoring its fortunes. He had a flair for exploring new ideas: in 1936 he commissioned Jack Welsh of Dunedin to make a promotional film about the rabbit-skin trade for screening overseas. While in England later that year Stewart bought some rabbits at a butcher's shop and had the skins processed. Satisfied with their quality, he sent his eldest son, Norman, to Thetford, Norfolk, to set up a factory to process rabbits trapped on local estates; the venture was short-lived, however.
At the outbreak of the Second World War George Stewart offered the government free use of J. K. Mooney and Company's stores to establish the New Zealand Sheep-skin Control. With R. C. Burgess as controller and Stewart as his deputy, sheepskin production was successfully directed to the war effort. After the war Stewart continued rebuilding the company: three of his sons, Norman, Denys and Robert, became directors and agencies were set up in Antwerp, Bradford, Hamburg, Mazamet (France), Milan, Boston, New York and Toronto.
With the formation of the Rabbit Destruction Council in 1947 the rabbit was progressively devalued, and in September 1952 the last New Zealand rabbit-skin sale took place in Dunedin. George Stewart attended, and saw the end of an industry that he had done so much to develop. He died in Dunedin on 1 January 1955, survived by his wife and children.