A man of great stature

The statue of the Rev Dr Donald Stuart in its present location in lower High St. Photo: Gerard O...
The statue of the Rev Dr Donald Stuart in its present location in lower High St. Photo: Gerard O'Brien.
The statue of Dr Stuart on the original plinth. Photo: supplied.
The statue of Dr Stuart on the original plinth. Photo: supplied.

One hundred and twenty-three years on from the death of the Rev Dr Donald Stuart, debate swirls around where the statue of one of Dunedin’s most significant but  almost  forgotten figures should stand.

Margot Taylor reports on  the man whose death closed all shops in the city, and  his legacy.

When the Rev Dr Donald Stuart stepped off  Bosworth at Port Chalmers in January 1860, there was no way he could have known that upon his death 34 years later, he would come to be called "the most conspicuous figure in Otago".

The former minister of the Free Church of Scotland arrived with his wife, Jessie Stuart, and three sons following a comment to the Colonial Committee of the Free Church of Scotland he was "panting for the exciting labours of planting the gospel in some part of our great Colonial Empire".

Sydney Brown, of  Dunedin, holds a photo of her paternal great-grandparents Anna Wallace and John...
Sydney Brown, of Dunedin, holds a photo of her paternal great-grandparents Anna Wallace and John Hewton, who were married by Dr Stuart in Maclaggan St in 1872. Her maternal great-grandparents Margaret Moloney and John Anderson were married by Dr Stuart in 1882. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON

Having swapped a Northumberland winter for a Dunedin summer, the minister’s desire to spread the gospel was sated when he was inducted first minister of the first Knox Church on May 16, 1860.

At the time of his induction, he was the seventh minister to work in Otago and the second to settle in Dunedin.

Current Knox Church minister the Rev Dr Kerry Enright says Dr Stuart’s "deep commitment to the common good" and liberal interpretation of faith laid fertile ground for the growth of a large congregation.

By the time the current Knox Church, on the corner of Pitt and George Sts, was opened on November 5, 1876, the congregation had grown from about 580 to 1000, documents show.

His open approach to religion extended to a moderate view of temperance, flexibility around Sabbath day observance and offering evening instead of afternoon church services.

In 1882, the Otago Witness reported on Dr Stuart’s somewhat radical but successful approach.

"Though Scottish to the backbone and Presbyterian to the marrow, he has had prevision and breadth enough to see that the earlier ideal cannot be reached, that public institutions must be expanded to meet all sections, and church arrangements varied to suit all varieties."

This approach extended to marriage.

Dunedin woman Sydney Brown says her own family records reflect Dr Stuart’s religious tolerance.

Mrs Brown’s paternal great-grandparents Anna Louisa Wallace, a Presbyterian, and John Overend Hewton, an Anglican, were married by Dr Stuart in 1872.

In 1882, Dr Stuart also married her maternal great-grandparents Margaret Moloney, an Irish Roman Catholic, and John August Anderson, a Swedish Protestant.

"Dr Stuart was the only minister in Dunedin who would marry my great-grandparents because of their mixed religion."

Mrs Anderson was an illiterate housemaid who was forbidden by the family she worked for to marry, Mrs Brown says.

After she escaped from her window to attend the ceremony, Dr Stuart asked Mrs Anderson to mark "+" beside her name, likening it to the Christian cross.

Other marriage certificates authenticated by Dr Stuart also carry this mark.

By the time he married the Andersons, his popularity had reached the point where the Witness reported: "There is no man in New Zealand, probably, that has christened, married, and buried more people."

A shoebox discovered in Knox Church storage housed hundreds of scraps of evidence attesting to this,  Dr Enright says.

"The shoebox was full of pieces of paper, backs of envelopes which had been torn up; on the back side of all of these was the name of a person.‘‘He must have walked the streets of Dunedin and had people constantly yelling out ‘can you baptise so and so’.

"Apparently, when his pocket got full, he pulled the notes out and put them in the box."

One baptism register contains Dr Stuart’s own note: "Appendix — In this appendix I insert names of children whom I certified from memoranda (i.e. scraps of paper!) which were allowed to slip into forgetfulness."

However, it was not his religious work, but rather his breadth of involvement in all facets of the city’s life that won him the adoration of the public, Dr Enright says.

His membership of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland and the Presbytery of Dunedin led to his involvement as a senior minister in the synod’s university, theological college and church extensions committees.

Despite being known to play down his involvement in the establishment of the University of Otago, following his death the university said in a memorial: "It is not too much to say that the existence of this university is attributable to his untiring zeal, and he contributed very largely to the success that subsequently attended it."

The busy minister, whose six-foot frame draped in plaid was often seen visiting the vulnerable in the triangle (the area surrounding Queens Gardens), was elected vice-chancellor of the university in 1871 and held the position until he became chancellor in 1879.

Stuart Halls Residence Council chairwoman Dr Margot Skinner says Dr Stuart’s vision for Dunedin was "hugely related to education". During his terms, the university added schools of medicine, law and mines to its subject offerings. While juggling his university and ministerial roles, he was also the chairman of the Otago Girls’ High School and Otago Boys’ High School boards from 1878 until his death.

Forty-eight years after his death, the council was formed by Knox Church elders to address the need for student accommodation in Dunedin and to recognise Dr Stuart’s legacy. It opened Arana College  in 1943 and Carrington College, the first mixed-sex student residence in Australasia, in 1945.

While housing both sexes under one roof was "quite something for the 1940s", it was highly likely Dr Stuart would have supported the decision, Dr Skinner said.

In 1888, six years before his death, he worked with other prominent people in Dunedin to form the Dunedin Technical Classes Association, the beginning of what is today known as King Edward Court.

Mystery surrounds the cause of Dr Stuart’s death at age 75 on May 12, 1894; documents suggest he continued to hold numerous roles until this date. What is clear is the response to his death.

On May 17, 1894, the Otago Daily Times reported "the most conspicuous figure in Otago was laid to rest amid the lamentations of an entire community".

Twenty-thousand people were reported to have watched his funeral and 6000 to have joined the procession to his resting place at the Southern Cemetery.

"It was a remarkable demonstration of grief which the afternoon witnessed — a demonstration in which all ranks and classes of the citizens with one accord took part."

Weeks later, a meeting in the Dunedin Town Hall with "representatives of all classes of the community" voted to raise a subscription for a statue to memorialise Dr Stuart.

Thousands filled the triangle on June 22, 1898, to witness the unveiling of the statue, by Wellington artist William Morison. It was placed on a small plinth between High and Rattray Sts and its location in a thoroughfare was considered a desirable one for a man of the people.

In 1922, the extension of the electric tram line through the city required the statue be moved. Dunedin historian Rodney Hamel says while it was  moved only a short distance,  the plinth was heightened and these actions changed the entire feel of the work.

"Unfortunately, the final effect of these changes, especially to the plinth — which was out of keeping with the seated figure — was to make the statue appear slightly pompous, more the sort of thing one would expect for a general or politician rather than a man who spent his life among ordinary people ..."

Today the tram lines and High St traffic have disappeared but the statue of Dr Stuart remains, now with his back to Crawford St traffic and his eyes on two car parks and a brothel.

This month, the Stuart Halls Residence Council reignited debate about the statue’s locality. In an appeal for support to the Dunedin City Council, Dr Skinner said it was hoped the statue would be moved to an as-yet-undecided site on the University of Otago campus.

If it was supported, the council would move the statue in a procession to coincide with the university’s 150th anniversary and the 125th anniversary of Dr Stuart’s death in 2019.

The desire to move him to ‘‘a more salubrious location’’ is not so much about moving him away from the brothel as about making it more accessible, she says.

"He is alive and well to us but it is a very difficult site to access; there is no direct footpath and there is a car park in front of it.

"Anyone who has commented to me recently has said ‘where is his statue?’ They just don’t know where it is."

Dr Enright says the brothel is a red herring.

"You would have thought that would have been irrelevant to him."

He is diplomatic about moving the statue. If he is moved, again, his location would need to reflect "the breadth of his concerns for the city", he says.

Sydney Brown, whose great-grandparents’ lives were changed by Dr Stuart’s tolerance, believes he should stay put.

"In my opinion, Dr Stuart’s statue is now sited in the right place, close to the area where he served the poor, needy and desperate people of Dunedin."

If the words spoken by mayor Hugh Gourley at the unveiling are believed, the point of the statue has been lost.

"The children coming after us will say, ‘whose statue is that?’

"The reply will be that it is the statue of Dr Stuart, a man who had the honour and respect of his fellow citizens during the 30 years he lived with us.

"What could be more effective than that?"

Today, Dr Stuart’s statue is dotted with bird poo, his back to the masses.

The interest in how to inform modern-day Dunedin residents about Dr Stuart is perhaps more reflective of the comments made by University of Otago student association treasurer William Stewart at the unveiling.

"Although the statue about to be unveiled will commemorate him, his real monument in New Zealand, and especially in Otago and Dunedin, is engraved on the hearts of the people."



The man of great stature should remain exactly where he is, and that bird poo should be cleaned off his head - it's disrespectful.

Keep him where he is.