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John Tiffin Stewart (1827-1913)

Third son of a Scots sea-captain, John Tiffin Stewart was born in Rothsey, Isle of Bute, Scotland on 18 November, 1827. He went to school in Rothsey before attending the University of Glasgow, from which he graduated as a civil engineer in 1850. He was trained under Professor Rankine and others in the period to 1852. He had learnt sailing and navigation aboard his father’s vessel earlier, in his summer holidays.

After immigrating to Australia and living in Victoria for three years, Stewart moved to New Zealand. Initially he joined two of his brothers who were farming at Raglan, before commencing a long career of land surveying, initially in the Waikato region. In 1857 he traversed and mapped the Manawatu, Pohangina and Oroua Rivers from their mountain sources to the sea. Appointed as an Assistant Surveyor by the colonial government in late 1858, he then began surveying Maori lands.

Stewart’s first such survey was within the area bounded by the Oroua River and the Ruahine and Tararua ranges. During this survey, he saw and recommended the site of central Palmerston North for a township. Later, after purchase of this block from Ngati Raukawa, he was sent back to lay out the township. Palmerston North’s central square is a tribute to his foresight. Stewart was also involved in the surveying of Feilding, Halcombe, and Rongotea townships and others. Similar foresight is apparent in their planning, including the provision of large central squares.

In 1861 he became Wellington Provincial Engineer. Queen’s wharf, the patent slip at Evans Bay, and reclamation of parts of the harbour in what is now central Wellington, were all projects he designed. He subsequently advised on other marine works elsewhere in NZ.

From 1864 he was responsible for roading in the Manawatu area, including construction of the Palmerston North – Woodville road through the Manawatu Gorge (1871-72). When the colonial government established its Public Works & Immigration Department in 1870, Stewart was appointed District Engineer, Foxton. From 1885 until his retirement in 1889 he was District Engineer, Wanganui. This period included Stewart being responsible for the construction of the government railway from Foxton to Wanganui (officially opened 1876-78).

In 1885 he prepared a report on snagging and making the Whanganui River navigable. Between 1891 and 1909, Stewart was the Wanganui River Trust’s honorary chairman (1891-98), and honorary engineer. This work enabled river steamers to travel as far inland as Taumarunui.

Stewart’s interests extended to church welfare institutions, arts and commerce; he took an active part in encouraging these when in Wanganui, at least. He was also noted for his interest in astronomy. The gardens at Virginia Water, Wanganui, were another public asset planned by him.

John died 19 April, 1913, three years before his wife. Upon her death, the family home in Wanganui was bequeathed to the Plunket Society as a Karitane training hospital.


D. Brown (ed.), The Pioneer Land Surveyors of New Zealand. Part IV: Biographical notes, 2005, pp.476-77. URL: (accessed May 2011)

A. Kirk, 'Stewart, John Tiffin - Biography', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. URL: (updated 1 September 2010)

F W Furkert, Early New Zealand Engineers, Reed, 1953, pp.272-74

Geographical Mileage Tables, New Zealand Railways, 1957 (unpublished).

“John Tiffin Stewart”, Barbara Marshall (nee Stewart), Kete Horowhenua, URL: (accessed May 2011)