George Gatonby Stead was born in London, England, on 17 August 1841, the son of George Stead, a tin plate worker, and his wife, Mary Gatonby. In 1849 he accompanied his parents to South Africa where he attended St Andrew's College, Grahamstown. He became a competent marksman and rider. After returning to England in 1865 Stead decided to emigrate to Canterbury, New Zealand. He arrived at Lyttelton aboard the Talbot on 1 August 1866 with letters of introduction from Lord Lyttelton, former chairman of the Canterbury Association, and Henry Selfe Selfe, the association's London agent.
Shortly after his arrival Stead joined the staff of the Union Bank of Australia in Christchurch. In 1870, as Canterbury was entering its boom years as New Zealand's major wheat-producing province, he joined William Royse in a grain-exporting business called Royse, Stead and Company. In 1875 they bought a malt works at Heathcote. They also established three large grain stores at Addington, in one of which was installed the best seed-cleaning plant in Australasia. When Royse retired Stead carried on the business himself.
On 4 October 1876 Stead married Lucie Maria Wilkinson at Dunedin; they were to have three sons and one daughter. The Steads bought Thomas Duncan's house, Strowan, on Papanui Road in 1890. With the help of Frederick Strouts's magnificent additions to the original homestead and some judicious landscaping, they developed Strowan Park (as they called it) into one of the finest properties in Christchurch.
Poor harvests in 1882 and 1883 caused widespread failure in the grain industry. The New Zealand Grain Agency and Mercantile Company which Stead and Peter Cunningham had founded in 1881 became bankrupt three years later. The partners repaid the £72,000 owed to farmers and shareholders, although they had no legal obligation to do so. Stead, now running his grain business under the name George G. Stead and Company, fought his way back into the market and took on a new partner, Joseph Palmer, in 1897. For two decades Stead was the leading figure in Canterbury's business world. No one followed market trends with greater insight. In his good years he was reputed to be making £20,000 annually, and at his death his estate was valued at £188,000.
Although Stead was a shrewd, knowledgeable and hard-bargaining grain merchant, his principal ambition seems to have been to use his profits to establish himself in his main hobby, horse-racing. He joined the Canterbury Jockey Club in 1872, became the club's honorary secretary in 1873 (holding the office for over 30 years), and was chairman from the turn of the century. He was active in the formation of the New Zealand Racing Conference and was among those responsible for introducing a totalisator at Riccarton in 1880, the first time this system of betting was used in New Zealand.
Stead made an extremely important contribution to New Zealand bloodlines through his importation of sires and brood mares from England and Australia. He bought half of Henry Redwood's racing stud in 1875, and his debut as an owner took place two years later when Trump Card won the Canterbury Derby. For his first decade in racing Stead operated under the assumed name of G. Fraser. He became the most successful owner of his time; with 181 wins, including a number of successes in Australia, he created a record not since matched by any individual owner.
Stead also took an interest in rowing, golf, chess, rifle shooting and the hunt. He was one of Christchurch's first motor car enthusiasts. An ardent imperialist and patriot, he was responsible for equipping and providing 110 mounted men for the South African war (1899–1902), Canterbury being the first province to provide a troop for this purpose.
Stead's reputation as the most able businessman in Christchurch made him a decided acquisition on boards of directors, and he was appointed director of a number of prominent companies. He was a member of the board of governors of Canterbury College and the committee of Lincoln School of Agriculture, a member of the first Christchurch Tramway Board, a founder of the Union Fire and Marine Insurance Company and the Canterbury Club, a proprietor of Christchurch's Theatre Royal, and he contributed to the establishment of dairy companies in Canterbury. Stead was three times president of the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce. In addition he owned, sometimes in partnership, farms in mid Canterbury, Hawke's Bay and Southland, as well as Coringa and Macdonald Downs in North Canterbury, and became well known as a sheep trader.
In 1890 Stead was persuaded to buy the Press, then in a seriously run-down state. The following year he became chairman of its committee of directors. After two more years of unremitting drive he put the newspaper back on its feet with a combination of new plant and a progressive management and journalistic policy. When Stead retired from his grain business in 1903 he devoted almost as much time to the Press as to his racing stud. He not only saved the paper from bankruptcy but more than tripled its earning capacity.
Such was Stead's prestige and high profile in public affairs that it was no surprise when he was invited to enter politics as the candidate for Avon in the 1890 election. However, the leading role he had played in organising volunteer labour during the maritime strike earlier that year counted against him in a working-class constituency and he was defeated. He never stood for Parliament again.
George Stead was a short-legged, stockily built man, bearded, with a large head and fine, high forehead. Plain spoken, even brusque and dogmatic in manner, he rarely showed his feelings. Few saw him laugh or even smile. This poker-faced manner may well have been acquired during his many years beating down farmers' wheat prices. He had a certain sympathy with workers as long as they did not strike, but he would not be coerced by them. Once, when his Heathcote workforce walked off the job, Stead made sure he broke the strike before taking the men back and granting them all they had asked for.
But Stead's virtues far outnumbered his shortcomings. He was an excellent judge of character, had an extraordinary capacity for work and a gift for organisation; he was determined, enterprising, decisive and thorough – pre-eminently a pragmatic realist. Although he could be a hard man at the bargaining table, those close to him knew Stead to be kind, loyal, fair-minded and generous. His home was frequently the venue for garden parties and fêtes to raise money for such causes as the Press Relief Fund, the Winter Work Fund and the Brunner Relief Fund.
George Stead collapsed from an acute attack of Bright's disease while at the Riccarton races, and died at his home two days later on 29 April 1908. Lucie Stead lived on at Strowan Park until 1918, when the property was sold to the Presbytery of Canterbury for the resiting of St Andrew's College. She died at Christchurch on 9 April 1920.