The multi-talented J T Stewart was born in Rothesay, Scotland. He began an apprenticeship with a firm of civil engineers before attending the University of Glasgow where he graduated as a civil engineer. Stewart could turn his hand to anything. He was the quintessential golden man – he had a wide range of talents and abilities, and he used them to the full.
Stewart left Scotland for Australia in 1852 where he worked for three years on the Victorian goldfields. In 1855 he came to New Zealand where he was appointed to the government engineering staff. In 1857 he mapped the Manawatū River. As assistant surveyor for the Land Purchase Department, in 1858 he began to define native land boundaries. Between 1861 and 1863 he was provincial engineer for Wellington, surveying roads in the Wairarapa.
By 1874 Stewart was in charge of the Wellington and Manawatū districts. From headquarters in Foxton he surveyed Māori land purchased by the Government in the Waitōtara and Manawatū areas and supervised the subdivision of Palmerston North and other settlements in Manawatū. He also planned and oversaw the completion of the Manawatū Gorge road.
Stewart was also a skilled watercolour artist. In the course of his work he often took time to observe and record scenes, landscapes, botanical specimens and Māori carvings. A large collection of his art works, maps, plans and family memorabilia is in the Whanganui Regional Museum Collection.
On 22 November 1865 John Stewart married Frances Anne Carkeek and they had five sons and five daughters. Stewart’s association with Whanganui began in 1868 when he began work on the Wanganui Town Bridge. He was known to roll up his plans in an oil sheet and walk to and from Wellington to confer with his superiors.
In November 1870 Stewart returned to Foxton as district engineer in charge of Taranaki, Whanganui and Hawke’s Bay districts. He transferred to Whanganui in 1885 and was elected to the Wanganui Borough Council for a two year term, during which he prepared a report on the clearing of the Whanganui River for navigation.
After his retirement as district engineer Stewart became the government appointee to the newly created Wanganui River Trust. He served as chairman, secretary in charge of works, and as honorary engineer for the Trust. During the period of his association with the Trust the river was made navigable as far as Taumarunui, despite some Māori opposition. The river became part of a scenic route for tourists travelling to the central North Island.
John and Frances Stewart played an active role in the Whanganui community. They were amongst the founders of the Wanganui Orphanage in 1889, later bequeathing their house for use as a Karitāne Home for sick infants. When the Wanganui Borough Council ran a competition for the development of Lake Virginia in 1904, Stewart, in association with his daughter and son-in-law, Henry Sarjeant, submitted the winning plan.
J T Stewart died in Whanganui on 19 April 1913 at the age of 85.