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Lieutenant-colonel George Hepburn Stewart


George Stewart was the second child of William Downie Stewart and Rachel née Hepburn. Born in Dunedin 1875, he grew up with deep family and unity ties, taught strong religious righteousness and the value of serving others. His mother was the youngest daughter of George Hepburn, an early Dunedin settler, who came to Otago on the Poictiers in 1851. She was only four years old at the time. His father was 19 when he arrived in 1861.

William Dounie (Downie) Stewart was born at Blair Drummond, in Kincardine near Stirling, Scotland, on May 15, 1842. Arriving in New Zealand, he resumed his study of law, which he began in Scotland, entering the office of Messrs Richmond and Gillies. About two years afterwards Downie Stewart was articled to Mr (later Sir James) Prendergast, and on the 12th June, 1867, he was admitted to the bar. He then began practicing law on his own account, and those who became associated with him as business partners were Mr. Joyce, Judge Denniston, Mr Allan Holmes, and Mr C. J. Payne. Sir Robert Stout was an articled clerk in W. Downie Stewart's office. In 1879 W. Downie Stewart was elected a member of the House of Representatives for Dunedin. On the defeat of the Grey Administration, he was returned a second time in the same year. He contested the Dunedin West seat at the election of 1880 against the Hon. Thomas Dick, but was defeated by eight votes. In 1884, however, he was returned by a small majority over the same opponent, and three years later he was successful in securing re-election; Mr Dick again contesting the same seat with him. In 1891 he was called to the Legislative Council, this being the last life appointment made by Lord Onslow. In 1879 he was offered, but declined, the office of Attorney-general in the Grey Administration. As an Elder and office bearer of Knox Church for 29 years, he had strong interests in the welfare of the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland. His parents were Alexander Stewart and Mary nee Downie from Westwood, Blair Drummond (Flander's Moss). Married in Kincardine Parish, February 12, 1837, they had a family of twelve. All of their children, bar two, migrated to Dunedin.

George Hepburn arrived in Dunedin with his wife, Rachel née Paterson, and family, about six months before James Macandrew. Hepburn was always interested in trading and became the manager of Macandrew's store, later purchasing it with his wife's brother James Paterson. Hepburn was a member of the Provincial Council of Otago from 1855 to 1865, serving as Chairman of Committees in the Council, for some time. He represented the electoral district of Roslyn in the fourth New Zealand Parliament from 1866 to 1868; a supporter of the Stafford Ministry, however due to ill-health retired. He had been an Elder in the Free Church, Kirkcaldy before immigrating to New Zealand and once here became deeply involved with the First Church under the ministry of Dr. Burns. On 16th March, 1851, having previously been elected by the members of the Church, he was inducted as an Elder for the Halfway Bush District, and for several years he was also Session Clerk in the First Church congregation.

W. Downie Stewart married Rachel Hepburn on 29 October, 1868 in the Knox Church, Dunedin. Their first child Alexander Westwood Stewart died at five months from meningitis in 1870. Rachelina Hepburn Stewart was born in 1873. George Hepburn Stewart was born in 1875, followed by sister Mary Downie Stewart in 1876, and brother William Downie Stewart in July 1878. Tragically Rachel passed away three months later (Nov), after the birth of her fifth child, with the children reared a great deal by a succession of nannies. Their father remarried in 1881 to Mary née Thomson, daughter of Mr William Thomson, formerly provost of Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland. A daughter was born from this union, 29 December 1881, Ethel Margaret Stewart. As a stepmother she was ambivalent, of deep religious conviction and a stern Calvinistic type. The first four Stewart children became very attached as siblings. (very little is mentioned in any history recollections of their half-sister).

The family home, "Ashentree" at 11 Heriot Row, received visits from prominent politicians and citizens; national politics and church affairs were often debated in the home. George Hepburn Stewart was a very early Lincoln College student; his brother William Downie Stewart eventually entered politics and law. Mary Downie Stewart became a homemaker, escort and hostess for George on his farm at Westwood, Crookston and left there to become one of the first Karitane Nurses in 1909. She was lady mayoress for brother William when he entered public life in 1913 and achieved so much for the community in her own right. With her caring and support in writing letters to soldiers, and visiting their families, she was appointed an O.B.E in 1918 and awarded a French honour, the Reconnaissance Française.

Rachelina "Rachel" Hepburn Stewart, became the first New Zealand woman to complete a BA course at the University of Oxford. In 1893, while at Somerville College, Oxford, she studied modern history. She convinced her father to allow her to stay in Britain and join the Women's University Settlements Scheme, which "improved the education, welfare, physical environment and self-reliance of working-class women and children in South London". She was influenced and became friends with social reformers such as Octavia Hill, learning estate management, office administration and budget management. She gained many skills from counselling, which assisted her in the life she returned to in New Zealand. At the beginning of 1897 Mary and George went to visit her and family in Scotland as well as spend time in Germany. Upon the death of their father, the Stewart's returned to Otago. While at Westwood, visiting George on his farm, Rachel met George Whitefield Armitage, who worked as an accountant for the Bank of New Zealand in Tapanui. Rachel and Mary were making a trip back to England in 1902, when George Armitage proposed by cable. They married on 4 March 1903 at Crookston Presbyterian Church; one of the social events of the district. A small farm called Garmancare, in Temuka, became their home.

Westwood, at Crookston, was previously owned by Charles McDonald. It consisted of two 200-acre farms that McDonald named "Model Farm". When George purchased it in June 1898 he bought a third section, part of the Brooksdale Estate, making a total of about 830 acres freehold. He also obtained a Crown 99 year lease of 1,450 acres on the Blue Mountains adjoining the property. His brother William Downie Stewart opposed the Liberal government's lease-in-perpetuity scheme, and he was never an admirer of Richard Seddon, whose autocratic style of government appalled him. However, George was an excellent farmer and set about improving the property on a large scale. He grew large plantations of larch and pine trees, complementing the native bush on the south-east boundary. At the turn of the century George built a large homestead that included a chapel, with entrance from the front, south-west verandah, as well as within the house. He continued mixed farming along the lines of Charles McDonald and Charles Thurston, the initial invividual owners. Breeding sheep and at one stage trying cattle and pigs, although pigs were never popular amongst Crookston farmers, the land was worked under the rotation system of root crops, grain and then sown in grass.

George instigated the meetings of the Crookston Farmers' Union, becoming President of the Otago Branch. He supported the establishment, in 1900, of the Kelso Mounted Rifles, appointed Captain with three troops; Kelso, Heriot and Waikoikoi. He was a born leader and well respected in the district, representing the James Riding on the Tuapeka County Council; a member from 1905 to 1915. He offered to resign when leaving for Gallipoli, however under a unanimous vote he was granted leave of absence. Alfred Squires Herbert who was Lieutenant of the Kelso troops, became a close friend and brother-in-law when George married Elizabeth Woodhead Herbert in 1913. The 12th Otago Mounted Rifle unit was formed prior to the war and George was promoted to Lieutenant-colonial. When the First World War broke out George and Alfred signed up to go to Gallipoli. As part of the 5th Reinforcements in the Otago Mounted Rifles unit, George with rank of Major, left Wellington on 13 June 1915 bound for the Suez, Egypt. On arrival in Egypt he was made Commandant of the camp at Alexandria, later sent to the front on the Southland. When she was torpedoed he was lucky to occupy the second last boat leaving the vessel. Placed in command of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles, as Lieutenant-colonial, he saw time in the trenches until ordered back to the allied base at Limnos (Lemnos) with his regiment. While there he contracted dysentery and passed away November 20th, 1915, aged 40. His grave is in the Portianos Military Cemetery, Lemnos Plot: V. D. 172. He received the NZ Territorial Service Medal.