Community Contributed

John Tiffin Stewart

Kete Horowhenua2020-03-23T17:03:21+00:00
Appointed as Wellington Provincial Engineer in 1861, he designed most of the original road and rail bridges in the Manawatu and Rangitikei areas .
Date of birth18/11/1827
Date of death19/4/1913

John Tiffin Stewart was born on the 18th November, 1827 in Rothsay, Isle of Bute, Scotland. He was the third son of Captain John Stewart (of the Fisheries Cutter “Princess Royal”) and Agnes Oliphant. He received his early education in Rothesay at Fulton’s Academy. In his teenage years he spent his summer holidays travelling on his father’s cutter around the coasts of Scotland, thus learning the skills of sailing and navigation. He graduated from Glasgow University about 1850 as a Civil Engineer. After apprenticeships, he sailed for Australia in 1852, where he surveyed around the Melbourne area. In 1855, John sailed to New Zealand, arriving in Auckland. He joined his brothers Robert Oliphant and Thomas Smith Stewart in buying a property at Whaingaroa, now Raglan. It was not long before he was surveying in the Waikato. In 1857 he made a two month winter journey from Russell to Kaitaia, mainly on foot, wading at times, waist-deep through swamps. This was to be the pattern of hard work and discomfort during his thirty four years of active surveying throughout the North Island. He was described as tough and wiry, with energy and endurance that seemed inexhaustible.

After his appointment in 1858 to the Central Government as Assistant Surveyor of the Land Purchase Department, John began his survey of the block lying between the Oroua River and the Ruahine and Tararua Ranges. During this survey, Te Hiriwanu, paramount chief of Rangitāne (Ngāti Mutuahi hapū), took him to a clearing in the bush called Papaioea. This so impressed John, that he wrote a report to the Government recommending it as an ideal site for a township. When the sale of land in the Manawatu was completed in 1866, he was sent back to survey what is now Palmerston North. It was his vision that the large square he reserved would one day become a landscaped garden area. On a journey through the Manawatu Gorge by canoe in 1867, he decided a road could be made to connect Manawatu with Wairarapa. This was constructed under his supervision in 1871-72. Although he was listed among the first 361 people to pay rates in Palmerston North, he never lived there.

His appointment as Wellington Provincial Engineer in 1861, meant that John was engaged in a variety of projects which included designing Queen’s Wharf, the Patent Slip at Evans Bay, reclamation of land and building the seawall in Lambton Harbour. His engineering skills were further called upon in the raising of the Steam Ship “Taranaki” for the Wreck Recovery Limited in 1869 (he left detailed sketches of his method), inspecting the Cape Campbell Lighthouse in 1870 and advising on works in the Timaru Harbour in the same year. Most of the original road and rail bridges in the Manawatu and Rangitikei areas were designed by him.

In 1865 John Tiffin married Frances Ann Carkeek (daughter of Captain Stephen Carkeek, first Controller of Customs in New Zealand) in St. Peter’s Church, Willis Street, Wellington, on November 22nd. Apparently John and Frances lived in a tent while their large two storied house was built on their property just south of the Foxton township. Their ten children (five sons and five daughters) were all born in Foxton. During their twenty four years residency in Foxton, John was often away for months at a time, surveying. Although Frances was left to care for the growing family, she found time to instruct many local Maori women in cooking and child care. She was however, concerned about her and the childrens safety while John was away. He left her with a pistol, which she only found out years later, was unloaded! During the great flood in 1880, most of the Stewart property was under water. All the ground floor of the house was flooded and the family dinghy was tied to the bannister. Over the years the family attended both the Presbyterian and Anglican churches. At least eight of the young Stewarts received their early education at the local school.

As many of his surveying journeys relied upon Maori guides, John soon learned to speak Maori fluently. His field notebooks reveal that he was constantly travelling, sometimes surveying – the Waitotara Township in 1868 or in Wellington working on the details of materials required for the Government Printing Offices in 1869 and supervising repairs to the Hutt Road. During the 1870s he was surveying the Foxton-Palmerston North Tramway, Bulls-Wanganui, Feilding-Aramaho railway lines, as well as road and bridge construction. By 1885 he was in charge of Taranaki, Wanganui and Hawkes Bay Districts for the Public Works Department. Most of his surveying during this period was on the main trunk railway.

John and Frances moved with their family to a large property and house “Haumoana” at Aramaho, Wanganui in 1889 when John retired from Government service, but not from active participation in local affairs. In 1891 he became the first Chairman of the Wanganui River Trust Board, supervising the works carried out by the Trust, to improve the navigation of the river. He remained as Honorary Chairman until 1898.

Throughout his life, John kept up a keen interest and practical application to art, music, astronomy and meteorology. He had sketched with great skill since his boyhood. All through his surveying journeys he made hundreds of sketches. Many remain as the only records of some areas, especially his collection of shipwrecks along the southwest coast of the North Island and the Wairarapa Coast. During his retirement he was able to devote more time to these pursuits. He became an executive member of the Wanganui Chamber of Commerce, Museum, Art Gallery, Orchestral Society, Orphanage, Old People’s Home and the Beautifying Society. He planned the gardens around Lake Virginia, wrote monthly astronomical and rainfall notes for the local paper, until a few days before his death. Both Frances and John wrote many letters to the paper on education, religion and matters of public concern.

John died on April 19th, 1913, in his Plymouth Street home in Wanganui, which he designed and had erected about 1906. After Frances’ death in 1916, the home was, in accordance with his Will, given to the Wanganui Borough Council in trust to the Plunket Society for use as a Karitane Training Hospital. John Tiffin Stewart was described by a contemporary, as a man universally beloved and esteemed, in every sense a gentleman. He preferred to live simply and quietly and to do his duty simply and quietly and in that to be satisfied.

Contributed by Barbara Marshall (nee Stewart), granddaughter of J.T. Stewart