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Last updated: 31 May 2010

Stewart, William Downie

Collection | Ref # ARC-0164 | Held by Hocken Collections - Uare Taoka o Hakena

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Stewart, William Downie


Stewart, William Downie, 1878-1949

Level of description:



24.00 linear metres

Reference number:



William Downie Stewart was born in 1878, the youngest child of William Downie Stewart (1843-1898) and his wife Rachel, nee Hepburn. Rachel died on 11 November 1878 and in 1881 William senior married Mary Thomson. The children from the first marriage, including Rachelina Hepburn, George Hepburn, Mary Downie and William Downie, formed a tight family group which excluded their step-mother and step-sister, Ethel. Rachelina (known as Lena until her marriage and Rachel thereafter) and Mary (known as May) were encouraged to further their academic education. Rachelina became the first New Zealand woman to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oxford University.

William Downie Stewart attended Otago Boys High School from 1888 to 1894, enrolling at Otago University in 1895 and completing a law degree in 1900. He became a practising barrister and solicitor with the firm Stewart and Payne, taking some time to travel through Russia and China.

Following the death of their father in 1898, Rachelina returned to New Zealand and kept house for William in Dunedin, while May went to care for George on his farm 'Westwood' at Crookston. There she met Rev. John Collie with whom a tenuous engagement existed for almost seven years. In 1902 Rachelina and May travelled once again to England, returning in 1903 for Rachelina's marriage to George Whitefield Armitage. The couple removed to Temuka where they had two sons, George and William.

In 1912 George Stewart married Elizabeth Herbert and May returned to Dunedin to keep house for William, who had become active in local politics. From 1906 to 1912 he sat on the Otago University Council and the Dunedin City Council. In 1913 he was elected Mayor of Dunedin, offering May the role of Mayoress. May became involved in women's causes and during World War I was active in the war effort. She received an O.B.E. for her efforts after the War.

About 1914 George enlisted in the Otago Mounted Rifles. He died in Egypt on 20 November 1915. William also enlisted but returned to England two years later, crippled with symptoms of severe rheumatism. He returned to New Zealand still disabled and May became his constant companion. William continued with his political career which had begun in 1914 with his election to the Dunedin West seat. His political allegiances were uncertain. Beginning with the Liberal Party, he later admitted he was no great supporter of their policies or Seddon himself. Labour unrest before World War I drove him to the Reform Party although he appeared more at ease with members of the Labour Party. William held the positions of Minister of Internal Affairs 1921-1923, Minister of Customs 1921-1928, Minister of Industry and Commerce 1923-1928 and Minister of Finance 1926-1928. He was also Attorney-General in 1926 and acting Prime Minister later that same year. William retired from politics in 1936 but May remained his companion and nurse. A stroke in 1947 paralysed his right side and on 29 September 1949 William Downie Stewart died. May then retired to Temuka to live with Rachelina. Rachelina died in April 1955 aged 81 and May died on 27 May 1957 in her 81st year.

Scope and contents:

This collection of papers is catalogued
as the William Downie Stewart papers. However the provenance is by no means straightforward and the collection includes the personal papers of Rachelina Armitage, George Hepburn Stewart and May Downie Stewart. Papers relating to William Downie Stewart include diaries, speech notes, conference papers, research material, photographs, family papers and newspaper clippings. However a large amount of his collection consists of correspondence. Letters relate to parliamentary and personal matters and include letters from Rachelina (1895-1916), May (1890-1916), and Ethel (c.1890s-1933).

Rachelina's personal papers contain inward and outward letters, including letters from George Armitage written during their engagement (1893-1955), letters from William (1899-1948) and May (c.1908-1943).

May's papers contain general correspondence (1894-1936), as well as letters from William (1894-1936) and Rachelina who often referred to her as 'Tadpole' or 'Tads' (c.1885-1953). Her papers also include diaries, a recipe book, address book, certificates, school reports and material relating to the Otago Patriotic and General Welfare Association.

The collection also includes correspondence and papers relating to William Downie Stewart senior, George Hepburn Stewart and his wife Elizabeth.

Dates covered:

1670 - 1957

Access conditions:

Not restricted.

Finding aids:

Listed on the 'Hakena' archives and manuscripts catalogue.

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Associated with:


Dunedin · Wellington · Japan · United States of America · Germany · China · Hawaii · United Kingdom · Russia


Imperial Economic Conference (1932; Ottawa) · Fifth Biennial Conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations (1933; Banff) · British Commonwealth Relations Conference (1933; Toronto) · Queen Carnival (1915; Dunedin)

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