Marion (Marie) Watson Stewart was born on 19 October 1898 in Manchester, England, the daughter of Jane Vallance Davidson and her husband, Andrew Stewart, a commercial traveller. She was brought up in Birmingham, and on leaving school in nearby Kings Norton stayed home to look after her ailing mother. After her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage she worked for seven years on farms. During this time she completed diplomas in animal husbandry and nutrition at Studley College, where she developed an interest in poultry. She went on to manage a large poultry farm and became a member of the Scientific Poultry Breeders Association and the Poultry Science Association.
In 1931 Marie Stewart visited her sister Kathrine Bell, who had lived in Tauranga since 1928. She intended staying in New Zealand for six months, but never used her return ticket. From 1931 to 1934 she worked in Palmerston North at Massey Agricultural College in the poultry unit as an assistant to John Kissling. As well as lecturing and carrying out research, she was sent to Hawke’s Bay to visit colleges and attend meetings of the Women’s Division of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union in an effort to encourage women to enrol at Massey.
At Kissling’s suggestion Stewart supplemented her income by writing articles about poultry. She became a regular columnist for a number of papers and would contribute to the New Zealand Farmer for 50 years. The editors of some publications insisted that her work appear over her initials so readers would not know the writer was a woman. Her articles were comprehensive guides to all aspects of poultry farming. She also published three books on poultry-keeping; the first, Profitable poultry keeping in New Zealand , ran to four editions.
Stewart’s writing covered topics such as cross-breeding and how to preserve standards during mass production, egg-laying competitions, egg and chicken recipes, and marketing and accounting advice. Stewart believed that much enjoyment could be had from the ‘friendly and responsive birds’, but that they also needed to pay their own way. Her readers sent in a constant stream of questions and she even received a marriage proposal from a Canadian farmer who thought she would be useful around the farm.
At the end of 1934 Stewart moved to Tauranga to be nearer to her sister. She set up a breeding farm and hatchery there called Cheriton, where eventually 250,000 chicks a year were hatched. She also developed a large flock of laying and table birds and supplied major hotels in Taupo and Rotorua with eggs and dressed birds. During the Second World War she helped establish the Tauranga Egg Marketing Co-operative to supply the American forces in the Pacific with eggs and chicken. This became a large company and she was chairman or vice chairman until retiring in 1975. Always mindful of the need to modernise the industry, she encouraged local poultry farmers to undertake the joint manufacture of poultry feeds, a practice based on her research at Massey.
Stewart was the first woman member of a primary producer board, serving as the government’s representative on both the New Zealand Poultry Board and the Egg Marketing Authority from 1969 to 1973. As a member of the Poultry Science Association she attended conferences in Sydney and Kiev, travelling afterwards throughout Russia, Europe, America and Japan. She also travelled in Africa on her way to help a friend with a poultry farm in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). She dedicated her last book, Keeping chooks, ducks, turkeys, geese? (1979) to ‘My humble hens that have sent me to many more parts of the world than most are privileged to see’.
In 1935 Stewart cared for her sister’s children when Kathrine became seriously ill. Knowing little about the care of children, she sought advice from the Plunket Society and soon joined the local branch committee. At her first Plunket conference in Wellington she suggested that the membership subscription be increased, without knowing this went against strongly held Plunket ideals. She said later that when the suggestion was put to the vote there was such a howl of ‘noes’ she thought the walls of the town hall were coming down on her. However, she was not discouraged: during this visit she met the charismatic Frederic Truby King and became a dedicated ‘Plunketeer’. She served on the Tauranga committee for 45 years, despite never marrying nor having any children. In 1981 the local Plunket family centre building was named Marie Stewart House.
Stewart was involved in a number of other charitable organisations and clubs and was a justice of the peace for many years. She was the county council’s representative on the Tauranga Hospital Board for 33 years; during this time the city grew rapidly and the hospital expanded accordingly. By 1964 her farm had been absorbed into the city and she moved to a property by the Wairoa River.
Marion Stewart retired from poultry farming in 1972, but continued writing for the New Zealand Farmer until she was 84. She was made an MBE in 1972 and in 1983 she received the New Zealand Poultry Award, the highest award the industry could bestow. She died in Tauranga on 1 July that year.